It is the teaching union silly season, and time for their AGMs. There is normally a flurry of embarrassing quotes from representatives that are quickly ignored, but this week a substantial motion has been passed by the largest union, the NUT. They have decided to ballot members for industrial action to disrupt the national assessment of seven- and eleven-year-olds (Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs), taking advantage of the recent collapse of the Key Stage 3 assessments and the dithering of the government minister Ed Balls.
Teachers generally dislike these assessments as they are unreliable and used for annual teacher appraisals, and now seems like the best chance in years to force a weak government to abandon them.
The massive expansion of national exams over the last decade or so, fed by the movement to modular exams that can be retaken an unlimited number of times at GCSE and A Level, along with the SATs (the National Curriculum Tests at ages 7, 11 and 14), has overloaded the exam boards' marking systems. There are simply not enough markers in the country to process all the papers. This caused the collapse of the Key Stage 3 exams last year, and has caused this year's results to be posted later than ever before, and appeals are expected to flood in shortly afterwards due to quality control problems, especially for the English assessments.
I have posted before that these tests have become too ‘high stakes’ to be useful and national standards should be assessed in other ways, but the NUT is not keen on developing a decent assessment system. They just want to be rid of the SATs.
PressuresTheir real problem, so they say, is that the pressure placed on pupils in the run-up to the tests is too great. Primary school children spend much of Year 6 preparing, practising the tests and taking test questions away to do for homework. Every child is given targets couched in the assessment language ('I'm now at level 3B for Writing, and I am aiming for a level 4C' the pupils will repeat) and the school inspectors check that pupils are aware of them.
True, the pressures are ridiculously high, and teaching to the test is so endemic that to suggest anything different to any teacher younger than 40 will get you a confused look. It is also true that the government has set up the system to be like this, despite their protestations of innocence, but the Union is picking on the wrong target deliberately, hoping that no-one will question their members' complicity in the whole affair.
Act ProfessionallyThe teachers have a great deal of freedom in how they manage their classrooms day-to-day. If they do not want to pressure their charges then they should stop talking up the exams all the time. They should stop teaching to the tests and setting questions from previous years' papers, and they should certainly stop running the government funded 'Booster Sessions' - additional revision work for those poor souls deemed to be close enough to the pass level that they can be artificially pushed over the line with some special attention and pressure.
Instead of declaring the tests 'harmful' to pupils, the NUT ought to just tell their members to stop squeezing the last drop of exam performance from their classes simply to gain better pass figures for their annual appraisals and a higher league table position for their school. If the teaching unions want teaching to be treated as a profession, then professional behaviour must be encouraged. All the while teachers put ratings ahead of education their motives will be suspect.
Teaching Renaissance,If teaching to the test stopped, whether by scrapping the tests or by teachers taking control of their classrooms, then, the unions say, the curriculum will become broader and children will have a better experience. But they are mistaken. Even if the test went, the skills of teachers to plan their own programmes of study have so withered that most teachers would not know what to do with the extra term of teaching. What would they do with no exam to prepare for? How would they know what skills to develop and knowledge to learn if it is not written down in great detail by the government?
'It's not in the test!'When the SATs were first introduced, teachers had some idea of what schooling was for, some philosophy of education. But over the years those teachers have retired and the younger ones have only known teaching for national assessments. Those few who dare to go beyond the minimum entitlement laid down in the National Curriculum, following their pupil interest or their own enthusiasms, have been slapped down by managers with the immortal lines:
'What are you teaching that for - it's not in the test!'The English teaching 'profession' has become so de-skilled that if the tests disappeared nothing would really change. If the prison doors were flung open tomorrow, most teachers would be too frightened of the freedom to go out into the daylight, doomed to pace around the same familiar cell.