Fattening a Pig

My father-in-law, Donald, was a Master Joiner who spent a lot of his working life on farms in the vale of York. He was (although this is by-the-way) witty, well read, but not a “success” at school; whatever that means, we are not talking about a father-in-law who was an educationalist. He was, however, a man much given to pithy comments, and when SATs first came in, he once said “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.” According to Don, testing, whatever other soundbites might suggest, does not automatically improve standards.

So here I am, on an unreasonably sunny morning, procrastinating about my Easter email backlog and pondering what might be said about tests. I see the opposition to baseline testing is back, from Early Education and others, and from the Unions – and I gather that Tristram Hunt has said he is always ready to “listen to professionals but…”

And today the proposal to re-test children who fail SATs at KS2 is interesting: the language alone is worth a re-read. Look first at the Telegraph‘s report:

Children who fail their primary school leaving exams in English and maths will be made to retake the tests in their first year of secondary school under Conservative plans to ensure there is “zero-tolerance of failure and mediocrity”

Is “failure” at the heart of SATs, then? And are KS2 SATs to be seen as “leaving exams”?

I think I am in favour of giving children a chance to have another go at an assessment task. It may even be (although I am less convinced about this) that a child might do better in a different environment. What is really quite disturbing in the language used by the Telegraph is the shorthand which makes SATs the ultimate arbiter of a child’s success – so much so that they will take them again if necessary.

Of course, this isn’t really what the proposal would be like: children would be allowed to have further teaching that would improve their skills in basic maths and English, and their NuSATs (my neologism) would test how well they were managing to catch up. The BBC have a different take on this:

The test resit plan from the Conservatives, which would be implemented next year, is aimed at making sure that pupils have not already fallen too far behind at the beginning of secondary school.

Pupils who did not get good grades in the Sats tests taken by 11-year-olds in primary school would have to retake a test during their first year after moving up to secondary school.

So let’s hear from the SoS herself:

“If they don’t achieve the required level when they leave Primary School, then in year 7, their first year at Secondary School, they would take slimmed-down tests in English and Maths. They could take these either in the spring term or the summer term.”

and I hope this link to her BBC interview remains stable, since her ipsissima verba are mostly reasonable, not strident, well worth listening to and pondering. It seems to me a wholesome ambition that young people should move from Primary schooling with a strategy in place for all the support they need to make a success of Secondary (I have been marking undergraduate year 1 assignments recently and might comment on English at entry to University at some point – but not today). I am not sure she has really explained here what will happen to make sure the children reach what she calls the “required levels,” and I worry that this may mean that Secondary schools are asked to use what she calls “catch-up money” to brumm children who are “behind” up to a standard that may not really be sustainable but which has got them through their NuSATs. There is a slight unease as I hear her move into what view OfSTED and the DfE might take as they look at “whether the school is letting those children down by not getting them to the required standard…there could be an intervention (NB the word is first used by the Beeb’s interviewer), it could be that other head teachers could come in or offer advice…”

And we are back at what has always seemed to me the main reason for SATs: to assess, not children, but the effectiveness of the school.

So if the pig being weighed is not the child, can we apply my father-in-law’s dictum to systems? Can we over evaluate schools? Is the over-testing of system likely to cause irreparable damage to the system? While I acknowledge they say little about school systems, to finish, here are some YouTube clips in which stretching and stress are used to test materials  from a webbing manufacturer, and from a Lab Test on Stainless Steel.

They are testing products to destruction.  Absit omen.


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