ASCL calls for overhaul of system for judging primary schools

02 March 2018

The Association of School and College Leaders has today (Friday 2 March) called for reforms to the system for judging England’s primary schools to make it fairer on schools and better for children.

The proposals include:

  • The government should work with others to develop clear aims for primary education and consider how the performance of schools can be judged against those aims

  • Ofsted should ensure that inspectors do not place too much focus on SATs results and take into account the wider curriculum beyond English and maths

  • The government should look into how to improve the Key Stage 2 writing assessment, or scrap it completely

  • Primary school performance tables should be based on results over three years rather than on a single year’s assessment

  • Schools should no longer be required to label children as having ‘met’ or ‘not met’ the expected standard in SATs reports sent home to parents

  • The government should rethink its policy on compulsory academisation in the absence of evidence that it helps to improve schools

The report follows consultation with a panel of primary and assessment experts, drawn together by ASCL because of concerns about the negative impact on schools and children of the intense focus placed on Key Stage 2 SATs results.

School performance tables are based largely on this single set of tests in English and maths which are taken by 11-year-olds during one week in May at the end of seven years of schooling. There are also concerns that Ofsted inspections are overly driven by these results.

The consequences for schools deemed to be underperforming can be severe, including local authority schools being forced to become an academy or existing academies being transferred to another trust.

The House of Commons Education Committee, in a report published in April 2017, said that this “high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing. The stakes should be lowered at primary school in order to combat some of these negative impacts.”

ASCL Interim Director of Policy Julie McCulloch, author of the ASCL report published today, said: “Primary schools play such a vital role in developing children, in helping them to understand the world in which they live and in giving them a great start in life, but these schools can be judged very harshly on a single set of narrowly focused tests.

“Many people in primary education and beyond are concerned about the impact of this high-stakes system. It drives schools into putting a great deal of time and resource into preparing children for these tests rather than their broader learning, and presents a very one-dimensional view of primary schools.

“Our recommendations would take some of the sting out of these tests, making them part of the way in which schools are judged rather than the be-all and end-all. That is fairer to schools and better for children and we urge the government to commit to these recommendations.

The full report: ‘Sense and Accountability: Holding our primary schools to account for what matters most. Final report of the ASCL Primary Accountability Review’.

It includes the following proposals:

The government should work with others to develop clear aims for primary education and consider how the performance of schools can be judged against those aims

The report says that there is no clear, shared vision for what we want our schools to achieve and therefore an inherent difficulty in saying how they should be measured. Singapore and Ontario, both recognised as high-performing systems, set out clearly defined goals, for example. ASCL’s report recommends that the government should develop clear aims for primary education in England, working with a range of people who have an interest in the sector, and a shared view of how the performance of schools can be measured against those aims.

Ofsted should ensure that inspectors do not place too much focus on SATs results and take into account the wider curriculum beyond English and maths

Ofsted inspections are intended to provide a broader and more balanced view of the effectiveness of a school than just SATs results, but there are concerns that Ofsted judgements are overly driven by these results and that inspectors place too much focus on English and maths, seldom mentioning other subjects. The report says that Ofsted should ensure that the importance of SATs results is kept in proportion and that Ofsted should commit to commenting more frequently in inspection reports on subjects other than English and maths.

The government should look into how to improve the Key Stage 2 writing assessment, or scrap it completely

There are concerns over the reliability of the way in which children’s writing is assessed. The other Key Stage 2 assessments are externally set and marked tests, but writing is teacher-assessed. The report says there is evidence that teachers interpret the writing assessment differently, and that the moderation of the assessments, which is undertaken by local authorities, varies. The report calls on the government to consider how writing might be assessed more reliably, and if this is not possible to exclude it from the performance tables.

Primary school performance tables should be based on results over three years rather than on a single year’s assessment

The report points out that the performance of a small primary school may be based on the SATs results of as few as 12 pupils and that there is likely to be variation from one year to the next in factors like the number with special needs. “It is patently ridiculous to suggest that a single year’s SATs results can be a reliable indicator of a school’s performance,” the report says. It recommends that performance tables should instead be based on a three-year rolling period rather than from a single year’s assessment – echoing a similar recommendation made by the House of Commons Education Committee in its report in April 2017.

Schools should no longer be required to label children as having ‘met’ or ‘not met’ the expected standard in SATs reports sent home to parents

The report raises concerns about the fact that the Department for Education requires schools to include in their reports to parents whether or not their child has met the expected standard in their SATs – and the negative impact on children of being told they have not ‘lived up to expectations’. “How does that make you feel, as you prepare to leave behind the familiarity of your primary school for the uncharted waters of secondary education?” asks the report. It recommends children should not be divided in this way, and that parents should simply be told their child’s scores, alongside their teachers’ assessment of their attainment and achievements.

The government should rethink its policy on compulsory academisation in the absence of evidence that it helps to improve schools

The report notes that there is no clear evidence for the benefits of the government’s policy of turning underperforming local authority schools into academies as a way of improving them. “There are also many examples of concerning, unintended consequences, such as the disincentive for school leaders to work in challenging schools,” says the report. It recommends that the government should commission research into the effectiveness of compulsory academisation, and in the current absence of evidence, it should allow action other than forced academisation when local authority schools are judged as inadequate.

ASCL is grateful for the help of our expert panel. The views and recommendations in the report are not unanimously shared across the panel, but reflect discussions which took place.

The panel are:

Katharine Bailey, Director of Applied Research, Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Durham University
Professor Robert Coe, Director, Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Durham University
Dame Reena Keeble, former primary headteacher, author of the recent Teaching Schools Council report on effective primary teaching practice
Catherine Kirkup, Research Director for Assessment, National Foundation for Educational Research
Will Millard, Senior Associate, education ‘think and action tank’ LKMco
Lee Owston, HMI, Ofsted’s Specialist Adviser for Early Education
Dame Alison Peacock, CEO, Chartered College of Teaching
James Pembroke, Data Analyst and TES columnist
David Reedy, former director, Cambridge Primary Review Trust
Richard Selfridge, Primary Teacher and blogger
Michael Tidd, Primary Headteacher and TES columnist
Greg Watson, Chief Executive, GL Assessment
Julie McCulloch, Interim Director of Policy, ASCL and report author