In this past week we have heard of a raft of new policies emerge from the Department for Education (DfE). Clearly, some storms of disapproval circled the EBACC proposals and the prospect of more testing for young children. The proposal that stood out to me, as a secondary school English teacher, is the plan for students who have not achieved the requisite standard in literacy and numeracy in primary school to resit their SATs examinations in their first year of secondary school.
The details of the exact policy still remain unclear, with the policy not going out to consultation until the new year. Provisionally, it states that students who do not achieve a Level 4 on the current SAT examinations (of course, we do not even know how the new, tougher SATs will be graded yet) will be the select few who will undertake the resits. The estimated total of students in this position is circa 100,000, but by exempting SEND students, it will likely reduce the national total; however, the logistics and the prospective costs remain worrisome.
You can all too easily picture the scene: it is the middle of year 7 and little Neil is being taken out of his Art lessons and his Geography lessons to do some resit SATs prep. He would be swiftly removed from his normal English lessons – no Beowulf and no Shakespeare for Neil – to better remember the nuances of a clumsy examination in his hastily created ‘special resit’ class.
Neil will no doubt receive stacks of extra literacy and numeracy from strained secondary teachers, but it will be targeted at an examination that is disconnected from much of their new key stage learning. The selfsame teachers will be making a rushed attempt to better prepare their students for an examination that is largely alien to them.
I understand that an explicit focus on helping struggling students like Neil to catch up, but I part company with the government when it comes to how we should support such children to improve. I simply don’t think an alien exam will do the trick – it is the wrong lever to pull if the DfE want to change behaviours in secondary school.
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit is now a well-known tool for school leaders to guide their pupil premium spending and their whole school interventions. The evidence from the EEF toolkit fires a warning shot about resitting like this. ‘Repeating a year’ (although it is a slightly different proposition to resitting examinations in this way) is proven to be one of the few ways that we can actually damage the development of our students – see here. As we know, more testing often does not equate to more, or better, learning.
In stark contrast, the EEF Toolkit lights the way to what interventions truly help our struggling students. There is now a raft of literacy and numeracy interventions, like ‘Switch-on Reading’ or the ‘Catch Up Numeracy’ project and many more, that schools could focus their time and resources upon to better support their students. These interventions can be constructed in a way that doesn’t intrude on the curriculum like a SAT resit inevitably would, such as undertaking them in registration time etc.
The latest EEF project to launch regional support in the North East to access the best literacy interventions – see here – is a clear signpost for how we could influence schools to have a more effective approach for the students who need it most at the point of transition. Maths Hubs would surely prove an ideal vehicle for numeracy? If the government wants oversight, then schools should report their transition interventions for any such students when the inspector comes calling.
More frequent, high quality teaching of literacy and numeracy is desirable for some students. Many schools, like mine, withdraw a small number of struggling students from studying a Modern Foreign Language at the point of transition, to undertake more literacy learning first. The crucial difference here is that the learning is tailored to the needs of individual students that is best decided upon by the teachers who know them best. Importantly, it can be better synchronised with the curriculum of the rest of year 7 to ensure a smooth reintegration later on.
As the government knows all too well, given their removal of GCSE resits because of alleged ‘gaming’, examination resits and high stakes testing can sometimes prove a blunt tool, with negative unintended consequences. Do we want to experiment with at least half a school year devoted to revising and recapping a test when better approaches are proven and available?
With this policy, we face potentially more bureaucracy, more testing and more limitations on what schools can do best for their own children. I am not against testing per se – I am against bad testing. My instinct is that this policy will go badly and not get to the root of the issues for our students. By sourcing the best evidence and sharing it, I am sure we can provide a better solution.