2nd July 2021

Reflections on education and assessment

Jonathan Cooper, headteacher, St Luke’s Primary School,
Brighton, National Leader in Education

How do you measure the quality of an education system? Ask educationalists, parents and carers, children and young people, and they will tell you that it’s in our ability to nurture a love of life and learning; to transform lives through creating opportunity; to create individuals who care about the world and want to make a difference; to build a community of compassion and hope; and to inspire innovation and creative thinking. They definitely would not say it’s in a school’s ability to enable children to pass individual tests in reading, maths or grammar during one week in May. So why is this the most significant measure of a school?

Do we want to talk about our children in terms of their thinking skills, their imagination, their ability to collaborate, to solve problems, to take risks, to ask questions, to show resilience and, above all, to care? Or do we want to sum up the wonderfully complex and creative mind of an 11-year-old as having reached ‘age-related expectations’?

Is it an industrial model of schooling, with children sitting in rows facing the expert teacher? Or is school a home for the mind, whose organisation is flexible and its curriculum sufficiently rich to meet the needs of the learner and the learning?

Do we want children to learn in silos? Or should education be seen, like all the best organisations, as primarily a social experience where children explore and collaborate in deep, reflective, enquiry-based ways?

In order to survive in a high-stakes-testing regime, schools have been forced to work backwards from the tests, reducing curriculum and learning opportunities in order to meet crude and narrow test requirements. Children’s curiosity and creativity is stifled as they struggle to find a space in the curriculum for themselves, and they become more passive as they are fed information. By the age of 11, children are asking 80% fewer questions than they did at age four. What isn’t in the test and therefore isn’t measured naturally loses value, attention and time – sport, the arts, the sciences. The children who miss out the most are those from more disadvantaged backgrounds where inequalities are even more starkly highlighted and exacerbated.
After 20 years of focusing primarily on maths and literacy, Ofsted now talk of inspecting the wider curriculum. However, Ofsted has been front and centre of policing the focus on the three Rs, and the damage caused to education has already been felt by thousands and thousands of children over the years.

These tests are not useful to a child, their school, or even the secondary school. Good schools carry out their own ongoing and much broader assessment of the whole child. The results from the tests very rarely come as a surprise. Sadly, it’s the wellbeing and educational opportunity of the children that suffers, as the results are used as tools for holding schools to account – the children receive no benefit. In fact, from a very early age many begin to see themselves as failures if they don’t reach the expected grade. The cancellation of SATs results due to the Covid pandemic has not caused a crisis of confidence in primary school assessment. Unlike many politicians, parents and carers trust and greatly value the knowledge and expertise of their child’s teacher.

In the last 20-odd years as a headteacher and advisor of primary schools, I have watched schools struggle to remain true to their values and principles within a heavily politicised system where the measure of a school’s success revolves around the results of these end-of-key-stage tests. As schools, we yearn for imaginative and visionary leadership from the centre – and primarily from educationalists – that recognises the challenges and opportunities facing our children in the future. However, we continually get outdated proposals for teaching and learning, with the curriculum and assessment often substantially based on the childhood education of the present Secretary of State for Education. Why do we accept this? Why do we let it hold us back?

There has never been a more important time for heads, teachers and wider educationalists to take control of the teaching and learning debate, to acknowledge and respond confidently to the challenges we face in educating children for the 21st century, and to recognise our capacity to lead on innovation and improvement. This is not only essential, it’s a moral imperative. We are dealing with a system that is becoming ossified through political interference. So, what could some of the solutions be? We need parents and carers and young people to tell politicians what they want from education. We need to show that we cherish the minds of our children through a curriculum that is rich and varied, where children can express themselves as fluently and powerfully in drama or music as they do in maths or writing; a curriculum that also recognises the key challenges facing our world – for instance, where is national climate change on the curriculum? We need an assessment system that takes into account the whole child as a learner, a thinker and an engaged future citizen. We need to value our knowledge and expertise as a profession and, like successful education systems elsewhere, we need teachers to enter the profession with at least a Masters in Education. Leaders from schools and universities need to work in harmony, developing and implementing research that allows education to respond creatively to our rapidly changing world. We need to commit to funding early childhood education to a much higher degree to address inequalities sooner. We need to abolish inspections and, instead, use the substantial funding available to support schools with expert advice to equip them on their journey of continuous self-improvement.

Most of all, we simply need to sit down regularly and spend time watching children at play together, observing their vast potential for learning once they’re given an environment rich in opportunities and the freedom to think and communicate with each other in a variety of ways. We need to see how creative, compassionate and caring they can be when collaborating rather than competing. We need to feel awe and wonder at what they can potentially achieve and ask ourselves: Is our education system cherishing and nurturing their potential? Or, through its narrow priorities, is it stifling education on a daily basis?

This blog is a contribution to the Big Education Conversation. It’s time to rethink education: what big changes would you like to see? Join the conversation on their website #BigEducationConversation


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