Constant Chopping and Changing of the Primary Assessment System Is Coming Back to Haunt Education Ministers

03/05/2016 08:57

This government is creating chaos and confusion in primary assessment in schools, with a huge number of changes to SATs specifications.

Whilst I don't condone the decision some parents have taken to keep their child at home today - only in exceptional circumstances should children ever miss a day of school - from speaking to parents and teachers at the school gate, it's evident that this government has created a great deal of concern in the primary assessment system from their constant chopping and changing.

Let's just look at the changes to primary assessment since children started school last September. All in all, Education Ministers have published, updated or clarified on average at least one primary assessment document or resource every other working day. These include publications or changes made to resources regarding Key Stage 1 and 2 and baseline assessments, with over half of these happening in the last two months.

Earlier this year Ministers were forced to push back the deadline for primary school assessments in the middle of the academic year, due to the delays in providing teachers with the information that they need in an appropriate timeframe.

Then we've had the calamity of the SATs Spelling and Grammar test, accidentally published online months ago without anyone at the Department for Education realising, meaning the test has now been cancelled. All the work that children, teachers and their parents did to prepare for the test is now null and void. And just this weekend, the Secretary of State for Education changed the SATs floor target performance measures, just days before primary SATs tests are due to start.

Ongoing assessment is really important to help teachers and parents support their children's education and to close any gaps in knowledge so all children can do well at school.

A robust assessment regime needs consistency and to be understood by all. Up to September we had such a system of "levels" (1a to 4a, 5a etc). The government scrapped this system, which parents understood and which was responsible for tracking progress, with no regard as to what would replace them. To date, Ministers have not replaced levels with anything else at all, leaving it to schools to make up their own system. So it's not just chaos in SATs but the entire system has been thrown in the air. It's no wonder parents and headteachers have lost confidence.

As a parent of school children myself, I would agree with some of the concerns expressed about the primary curriculum. Not only have Ministers chopped and changed a lot recently, they claim they are making it "harder" but many would say they are making it more obscure and much, much narrower. We all want a stretching, broad and balanced curriculum for our children. But the micro-managing by ministers often misses the point entirely.

The way this government has handled changes to the assessment regime means that the system is being undermined. That parents are taking children out of school speaks volumes about the approach this government has taken. At every turn they are cutting parents out of their children's education.

This issue is also having a very genuine impact on teacher workload, recruitment and retention. The constant chop-and change and diktats from Whitehall means assessment chaos is adding bureaucracy in schools, heaping pressure on teachers, and sapping teacher morale. Despite pledging that there would be a minimum lead-in time of one year for significant changes to qualifications, Ministers have repeatedly broken this promise. Without a doubt, this issue is a significant factor in the unprecedented exodus of teachers from the profession that the schools system is currently struggling with.

This government's piecemeal approach to assessment lacks any joined-up or coherent strategy, and is creating confusion for parents and pupils year on year. Ministerial micro-management is causing confusion and delays in lesson and exam preparation, and is undermining the ability of teachers to teach effectively.

Effective assessment is vital to supporting children to succeed and to help parents' involvement in their children's education. It is a sad state of affairs when parents are taking their children out of school because Ministers have lost the confidence of parents. Ministers are reaping what they have sown when it comes to exam and assessment chaos, but ultimately it will be children and our education system which pays the price.

Lucy Powell MP is Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Education