5th October 2020

Can you hear us Mr Williamson?

Last week More Than a Score hosted a Webinar in which school leaders clearly expressed why they felt that Standardised testing should be scrapped this academic year. I had a few words to say but my mic failed. So I have written down what I wanted to express.

At 5pm on Friday the 18th September I left my Academy feeling tired but full of the energy that a tough and productive week brings. I was ready for some R and R over the weekend and had been constantly telling colleagues – “I am going to do absolutely nothing this weekend.”

As I was leaving school my business manager called out. ‘Wait! You’ll not going to like what I am about to tell you…’ Now, this is a business manager talking so it could have been a whole list of things – but I knew…

We had two confirmed cases of Coronavirus. One in Y6 and one in Y2.

As I write this that weekend is a distant blur. From trying to ensure 120 staff got the message on the Friday evening, ensuring critical information is accurate, getting letters out to your community by Saturday. As many of you can imagine – it was crisis management and my team along with Public Health were immense. Doing what had to be done without pause. Staff gave up time to come in to the Academy. No questions – just, ‘What time do you need me?’. We fielded hundreds of enquiries, we sought additional advice and we returned calls to our worried community. When you are in a crisis sometimes it can be easy. You just know what you have to do and why you need to do it. You go in to a crisis mode. Do this and go there. A to the B to the Zee. That doesn’t make it easy but in a crisis there is usually a clarity about what you are trying to sort out. Clarity is vital so that everyone understands what they need to do. It is only when you look back do you go, ‘How did I get through that without exploding?’.

But, that is not why I am writing this blog. Covid-19 has crept in to our lives in all shapes and forms and we are having to deal with it. Communities are adjusting the tic-tok of their lives and adapting to constantly changing measures on a scale that was unimaginable a year ago. The interesting thing is – This is about change within our systems. As leaders we have to accept that this is about how we adapt our systems and processes to operate effectively without causing further harm to our communities. Change management is at the core of all effective leadership.

I wish our government understood this. I wish they could understand what it is like being a school leader or teacher on the front lines of education right now.

Therefore, as I wrote the letters to our community and realised my Y6 – who had already had months of lost formal education as Y5 last year – would not be returning until the 5th of October – that they were already missing a massive chunk of education before September had finished – my heart sank and I felt sick.

Sick that they would be expected to sit Y6 SATs in 2021.

I have thought long and hard as to why? What will them sitting a test tell us? We have already tested children and know how large the gaps have become. We know that no end of rhetorical – catch up – is going to make a difference because the majority of schools were already operating flat out pre-COVID. Our overbearing education accountability system was more than capable of making sure schools are fully aware of the pressures of not performing well. We have to accept that Lockdown for many children is LOST formal education and if we want to test it… it will just not be there- why would it? We don’t have a time machine; we are operating in the here and now. There has to be flex in the system if we are to meet the demand in needs. I may just be screaming this to the wind though. You see, the Department for Education (DfE) and our government are missing in action over what the future holds regarding standardised testing. Decisions need to be made right now not in the spring term.

The DfE have already told schools that we need to implement a curriculum that meets the needs of our community and reintroduce the formal curriculum by Summer 2021. And yet, once again, there is a lack of clarity and understanding about standardised testing from central government. Year 2 are to take Phonics very soon. For what purpose? No one seems to know- just do it. It has nothing to do with teaching and learning. We already know what sounds the Y2 know and don’t know. What will a whole host of numbers do apart from make some intricate graphs and give a civil servant something to do on a rainy Thursday? It does not take a genius to work out that mathematically the results across this country will have little to no meaning at all. What we need right now is personalised testing and time for teachers to meet the direct needs of their classrooms. Anything else is a dangerous distraction. What we need is a trust in the education system. The same system that did everything to get schools up and running in September.

We surveyed our school community and we got 104 returns from parents whose children will be impacted by formalised testing this year.  98% said that they wanted personalised assessments by the teacher, including informal tests; the other 2% wanted formal tests taken under exam conditions in the Summer of 2021. That is a very strong message and one every leader needs to pay attention to.

SATs, as we know them, don’t fit in to this new curriculum. In truth they didn’t fit in to any broad and balanced curriculum. The idea that formal tests across a narrow band of learning in core areas in which the results are nothing more than numbers comparing to national sets of data is any use to a child’s learning is naïve at best. SATs never help an individual child through targeted next steps. They just branded the child a success or failure within the system – a number at best. The tests are there to push schools to get better and better outcomes. Formal tests which are published are just another accountability measure- nothing more – so why pretend otherwise? The tests are there because school leaders are not trusted to deliver a curriculum that can be measured. Therefore, how can they be held to account? The way in which standardised testing is used as a national measure create a false economy within the school system. They have been doctored and twisted to become almost meaningless to anyone who actually leads a school. A good year or bad year of results has little to do with long term education and everything to do with how well a school prepares the children for those tests. That needs a very important ingredient to be successful. Coverage of the curriculum tested. If you haven’t taught it and the knowledge is not there then don’t be surprised when the tests are failed.

We change, but the DfE can’t… I am not sure it knows how to. In a pandemic you would think that alongside everything else our government that dishes out handclaps and words of platitude would go one step further and endeavour look and listen to school leaders and teachers – you know – the professionals, who work relentlessly within their communities, who know what they are going through and can respond to the immediate needs. The people who right now are on the front line with their communities trying to do what is best. They should look to us for answers as to what we need to do to ensure that education in our country is the best it can be.

I believe that assessment is vital. It is a key part of any education system especially when it informs the next stages of learning. I want us to have the best education system possible and I want to be a central part of this for the sake of the community I serve.

What is absolutely clear to me as a school leader is that this is not the year to re-implement standardised testing. The results will be a confusion that will tell us nothing.

The stress on schools to ensure that children have a curriculum that meets their needs and the expectations of the tests will create an absolute mess. No school leader can just stand by and let this happen. We can see the problems right now. And yet, there is nothing of substance from the education department.

Surely, the most loyal of observers can see that our government is failing to do what is needed in education, right now? What we need is strong and informed central leadership focused on helping schools to meet the needs of their communities in the middle of a pandemic- all we get is the sound of heads squelching down in to the sand.

Brian Walton, Headteacher – Brookside Academy


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