Examining one’s conscience

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The news that teachers are considering boycotting next year’s Sats exams raises a number of issues for me. A protracted discussion of the merits of the exams is beyond the scope of this post, however, some points deserve making.

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If, as I passionately believe, choice has a role to play in education, it is necessary for parents to have some guide as to which primary school is most appropriate for their child. League tables provide only a tiny fraction of the required information. Clearly primary schools have much smaller access areas than secondary schools and are consequently much more bound by the demographics of their locale. I do not deny that schools in the poorest areas will be unfairly prejudiced by league tables. However, Sats-type assessments are necessary in order to produce the excellent new ‘value-added’ tables. These are a much better guide to the performance of a school and much harder for critics to attack. I therefore cannot help but feel that the abolition of Sats would leave parents with inadequate means to assess the suitability of various schools.

So what is the problem with Sats? I am sympathetic to the idea that young people have too many exams and I am concerned that the curriculum is being swayed towards preparing for these exams rather than educating children. This problem can be rectified by strong confident leadership by headteachers. Heads should have the courage to give children a well-rounded education and maintain a relaxed atmosphere to the exams in the classroom. In my opinion, good schools will achieve good results in this environment and would have nothing to fear. National external assessments remain the only viable way to identify failure in schools, and failure cannot be tolerated, however much offence its identification may cause to those on the ground. 

There is another aspect to this dispute. I imagine many teachers will vehemently oppose my theories here. The more interesting question for me is when is it right for a public official to rebel against government policy. There is something of a paradox here. An employee is more likely to be praised for standing up for his own rights (ie striking for increased pay), than for standing up for the rights of those he works for. Clearly in the case of striking for pay the issue is one of human rights, whereas in the present case it looks more like employees disputing a valid, if controversial, political decision by their superiors. It is nonetheless curious that a person acting out of pure self-interest might be considered more virtuous than one who acts out of an honest, if misguided, desire to protect the interest of others.  

 So now we wait to see the result of the ballot. My instinct is that opposition to Sats is strong amongst the teaching profession, however, it is also a loyal profession which cares deeply about the welfare of their pupils. Consequently I cannot see teachers boycotting the exams. I think there is presently public support for reform (but not abolition) of the Sats tests. I feel teachers would be better using this support to achieve the desired reforms than risk losing it through this rash proposal.

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