Children are tested on entry, at 6 and 7, then at 11, before transfer to Secondary school, where, if they do not reach the expected standard, they will retake that exam at the end of year 7.
Where the curriculum changed and removed the system of levels, the exams are a terminal judgement at the end of a period of study with an interesting terminology that graduates the fact that children are “at, or not at an expected standard”, set by the Government.
This simple set of statements will inevitably be interpreted in some quarters as “pass and fail”, in the same way as levels were used to make statements that 20% of children were illiterate at 11, despite many achieving a level 3, a reading age of 9. There is an argument that the changes will improve the system. That is still to be proven, over the next few years. In the meantime, the system has to learn to cope with standardise scores that imply accuracy, but which will provide no more information that before, so Secondary schools will continue to retest on entry.
No-one benefits from these changes, as few of the tests provides the basis upon which an individual can seek, or be helped, to make progress. The curriculum is general, despite considerable grammatical precision within the English aspects. Unless some kind of diagnosis occurs after the testing, it may not be clear in which areas a child did not reach the standard. So a child could transfer to Secondary school with a generic number that will support a graduated list, but no detail to help the teacher decide on teaching needs.
When levels existed, there was, at one stage, an argument being made to treat them like music or driving exams, with a period of preparation against a known syllabus, with the test acknowledging success, qualities and sometimes areas for continued focus and development. The child would have been entered when the teacher felt that they were ready for a particular level. Such an approach would have supported Teacher Assessment, and in so doing improve teacher expectation and judgement.
We have moved more to an “all or nothing” terminal status, with schools, teacher, parents and children all edgy about the judgements that would be made on each and every one of the participants. There is just too much at stake on one point of learning.
While this may be a necessary “evil” at 16 or 18, earlier assessment could have been structured in a way that helped to identify strengths and areas for development, encouraging all participants to focus on specifics, rather than rely of global judgements like “pass” or “fail”. I passed the 11 plus. My sister, within the same year group, didn’t. The stigma lasted for a very long time.
If we really believe in character or resilience and “Growth Mindset”, we need to address the needs of learners, rather than systematise everything and everyone. Some learn easier and faster than others. That is just a truism. Tracking the detail of individual need has always been a matter of concern, without levels, with levels and now with yearness replacing levelness. Children will still, even in the supposedly “mastery model” curriculum, transition from year to year with gaps in learning.
If the money spent on layer upon layer of testing was rationalised, with a return to personalised, developmental judgements, so that, at significant points, perhaps mid-year 1 and mid-year 4, diagnostic testing of a proportion of the school population supported teacher judgement and decisions, then Primary schools would have time to address specific needs, before transfer. In that way, learning difficulty might also be acknowledged more fully, with future decisions supported.
It is like this because the current Government decided to change the system. Any voices raised against it are likely to be worried for their children in a more uncertain education world. It is down to political will, putting schools under the pressure of achievement or academisation. The stakes are high.
There is always another management way. Let’s call it the “Leicester or Ranieri Way”; create the conditions where schools and individuals thrive, make effort, accept coaching and learn from each other, in order to succeed as a team.
That’ll do for education.