The Education Insider: Are we closing the gap or creating bigger ones?

In her sixth post for us, education expert Jodie Lopez considers how one approach to improving SATs results may be creating new gaps in knowledge and skills.

It is undeniable that the Department for Education made such major changes to curriculum and assessment in 2014 in a bid to raise standards. That’s most of what we heard about in the media and we are still hearing it now. We most recently heard it banded about when the Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs results were announced in summer 2016. The first results were in from the new tests and the Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks (ITAF). Nationally the picture for this year did not look good, but this apparently showed the bar had indeed been raised. No doubt the expectation is now that these results get better year on year.

On the one hand we now know what to expect and the children going through the system over the coming years will have started with the new curriculum from day 1, rather than having to change systems midway through the primary school careers. However, I was a little perturbed recently by something I heard at a presentation by some head teachers. They were speaking about their successes from the summer. Some impressive figures showing a huge improvement in SATs results at their schools. Yet they were passing on the secrets to their success – one of which was to ask all of their Year 2 and Year 6 teachers to teach only to the ITAF from the moment they were released until the tests were completed. This set alarm bells ringing in my head. Yes their results were good…but they have sent a whole cohort of children up to secondary school with potentially massive gaps in their knowledge and skills due to missing out huge chunks of the curriculum.

The DfE have been very clear that they do not want schools to teach to the ITAF or the tests, and want the new curriculum taught in great depth and breadth. Now we all know this was an uphill struggle for last year’s Year 6, who had gaps from the previous curriculum to fill and now had a load of gaps based on the new additions to the curriculum so lots of work had to be done and much of it by rote to cover SPaG elements particularly! How many teachers would happily not hear the phrase “fronted adverbial” again in their lives?

Yet here we have schools openly admitting to teaching just to the ITAF and boldly recommending that other schools do the same. There is no doubt as to why in my mind – this is the fault which comes to the fore when you make the stakes so high. I have known excellent head teachers who have been “moved on” within a term of having a sub-par batch of SATs results. Not to mention the Year 6 teachers who have suddenly become the focus of some pretty strenuous performance management.

The reasons, unfortunately, just point to the biggest “losers” in this scenario though –the cohorts of children who will subjected to this kind of approach. It was, sadly, very clear in the presentation that the school leaders were convinced that they were doing the right thing by their students. They mentioned on a number of occasions that it was the best thing for the children because their results do matter for their future. Call me cynical, though, but I don’t think that’s the kind of result that does impact on their future. Yes children with higher SATs results generally go on to have better GCSEs, but I like to think that is down to having a good secure knowledge across the curriculum, which helps them to get the required SATs results…NOT that they have done well against a few specific criteria at the expense of the rest of the curriculum. This in my mind would not make them (as our good old friend Gove would say) “secondary ready” – they will have a whole wealth of gaps that a Year 7 teacher will have to find out about and pick up.

This may be an indication of the start of a whole new set of problems for assessment in education – and primary assessment is not exactly riding on a wave of glory at the moment. Will future results going up show a raising of the bar? Or a decline of a broad curriculum?

Jodie is an award winning ex-primary teacher who now works as a Freelance Edtech Consultant. Her interest in using technology in education has led to her working with a number of educational technology businesses since leaving the classroom. Most recently she has been Head of Education for an assessment system provider and has specialised in helping schools to transition to the new curriculum and leaving levels behind. Follow her on Twitter here.

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