The focus of this article is on national statutory assessment in England and is based on my experiences as a principal and teacher in both countries. From it, conclusions are drawn for how principals in New Zealand may keep focused on what matters within an educational landscape which now includes National Standards.
The class system is alive and well in England. Despite this, a sense of fair play is deeply embedded in the British psyche; by the late 1980s there was a deep sense of unease developing at the growing disparity not just of income but of educational achievement across the nation. Evidence was mounting that there was a direct correlation between poor educational achievement and deprivation.
The impetus for the introduction of national testing in England was political rather than educational to provide nationwide data to address the disquiet about the patchy quality of education and of teaching across the country. SATs , as they are known, were introduced between 1991 and 1998 and administered at the end of each ‘key stage’ in English (reading and writing) and mathematics . A year later (1992), Ofsted (then the Office of Standards in Education) was formed to perform a similar function to ERO albeit with far greater powers. Tests at the end of Year 2 were abolished in 2004 and replaced by teacher assessment similar to overall teacher judgements in New Zealand against the National Standards.

The growth of league tables

SATs tests were originally introduced as a way of recording each student’s relative level of achievement but as time has passed it has become progressively more about comparing the performances of students, schools and LEAs. League tables are a ‘big thing’ in England and rankings of schools on SATs results, GCSEs and A Levels are published on-line and in national newspapers there. While it is theoretically possible to develop league tables in New Zealand, and some news outlets do, teacher unions here are right to oppose them strenuously because they fail to take into account value added.
Summative judgements against the levels of the English curriculum were made very much like they are here and heavily influenced by Assessment for Learning (AfL) a formative system of assessment introduced by the Assessment Reform Group and influenced by the research of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) was developed as a formal way of assessing and tracking progress by comparing samples of learning for children in a whole class with a reference group of 3-6 children at high, medium and low levels of achievement.
It was not until I completed my NPQH training to become a head teacher in Hackney, east London, that I felt the heat of SATs.
The then Department for Education and Skills (DFeS) was led by a Labour Minister with the unfortunate name of Ed Balls. Mr Balls determined arbitrarily that the ‘floor target ’ or ‘threshold’ that all schools in England were required to pass at Year 6 in SATs in reading, writing and mathematics combined was then 55%. This is not an average; all three have to be above the floor standard for the school to pass even if two are in the 80s. However, because achievement is not just about attainment relative to a standard but also about the rate of progress, a school could still fail to reach its floor standards if the average proportion of pupils at the end of KS2 did not make expected progress in reading, writing and mathematics (compared with national medians).
A calculation by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) estimates that by 2016 one school in five in England is likely to be failing its SATs floor standards. This might sound familiar…
Here is what happens to a school if it does not meet its floor standards:
The school performance measures are compared against the threshold levels in pupils’ attainment and/or progress (i.e. floor/minimum standards). Schools and colleges that do not meet the standards may face a number of potential challenges and interventions from central or local government, depending on the perceived level of under-performance. In some cases, a school might receive a written warning [known as a ‘Notice to Improve’] from the government. In others, it might be subject to an inspection by Ofsted. In the most extreme cases, the head teacher might be removed or the school faced with closure and replacement by an academy.

Higher and higher stakes

SATs are high-stakes in England. In 2011 alone, 272 principals were forced out of their jobs in England for failing to raise students’ results in SATs . This does not necessarily mean that they were sacked. In Hackney, a common ploy was to appoint an ‘executive principal who led a federation of several schools. Supposedly the executive principal was to work ‘alongside’ the principal of the underperforming school but in reality it was a device to force out the incumbent head rather than resort to competency proceedings. Successive governments have played ‘divide and rule’ with the teacher unions in the UK such that their collective power has successively been whittled away. The balance of power in employment relations is very much with the employer in England. Make no mistake, in some boroughs in England where deprivation is serious, education authorities can be coercive and the work environment for principals and teachers highly toxic.
How do principals behave in such a high stakes game? In a nutshell, they get lucky by having a more highly achieving cohort come through just when Ofsted is visiting, or get genuinely good at leading learning and accelerating progress. Some have confided in me (and I know of other cases) that they cheat with the administration of SATs to inflate their results. Other principals are placed under so much pressure that they crack up, take sick leave, and/or resign. Most of these people are not useless at their jobs. They are victims of a dictum that places all the responsibility for student achievement ultimately on the shoulders of one person irrespective of the existence of factors beyond their control. In reality, many of these people have simply been scapegoated.
The English have taken a coercive and punitive approach to raising achievement. And yet we know that this approach does not work. The constant focus on performance and the punishing of principals and teachers for failing to perform is proving to be counter-productive because of its effect on morale. This is making it increasingly difficult to attract teachers to the role of principal. Despite strenuous attempts to keep a values based curriculum within the school of which I was principal, the pressure of teaching to the SATs tests, with the resultant narrowing of the curriculum, was always present.

Didn’t work

Despite the high stakes gamble being taken, the UK did not improve its standing from 2009 in the 2012 PISA study. It was ranked 23rd for reading, 26th for mathematics and 20th for science. In 2009 it was placed 25th, 28th and 16th respectively. The costs of such an approach appear to be outweighing the benefits.
Chris Watkins offers a robust critique of the prevailing performance culture in the UK. He points out that the conception of learning used to construct SATs is at variance with the conception of learning most widely accepted by educators. There is thus a fundamental problem of the validity of SATs and a somewhat lesser concern too, with their reliability. In New Zealand the use of OTJs as a way of collecting summative data seems to have higher validity than with SATs; our greater problem is with reliability.
Nevertheless, my experience teaching in the UK was far from negative. I have fond memories of resilient and happy children, the vibrancy of teaching in a highly multicultural environment, the appreciation and high expectations of parents, hard-working staff committed to the children’s learning and wellbeing, and the challenge of learning new things. I found it really was possible to lead and accelerate learning in spite of extreme social deprivation and in a relatively short period of time.

Advice for Kiwi principals

In view of my experiences in the UK with National Testing, I would like to offer some suggestions for how principals can respond to National Standards:

  1. Make National Standards work for us. Adapting what is essentially a summative form of assessment to be used formatively makes National Standards a far more valuable tool for teachers and principals ;
  2. Believe that we can accelerate learning and avoid being deficit theorists. There is now abundant evidence that low decile schools don’t have to be under-achieving schools;
  3. Keep our eyes on the ball by leading learning effectively and keeping an unrelenting focus on student achievement in reading, writing and mathematics across the curriculum;
  4. Focus on the Key Competencies. They will future-proof the learning of New Zealand children. A lesson from Finland is that by focusing on the values and competencies we want, we achieve educational excellence. If we focus on test results as in England, we miss the mark ;
  5. Curriculum balance – strive to make time for the whole of the New Zealand Curriculum. Let’s not use National Standards as an excuse for avoiding this responsibility. They don’t run the school – we do;
  6. Keep a strong moral compass;
  7. Let’s pick our fights and save our energy for educating children. Let’s act professionally towards the MoE and keep the moral high-ground even if it seems as though the rug is being pulled out from under our feet;
  8. Keep a sense of perspective. At a time when our energy is being drawn in so many different directions, let’s make a determined effort to safeguard our schools as principals and leaders by investing in coaching and mentoring for ourselves.

Most of us share the concern about the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots in New Zealand that is mirrored in poor educational achievement and the social statistics associated with deprivation. It compels us to work together at all levels of the education sector and with the social welfare and health sectors to generate workable solutions for our tamariki and mokopuna.

David Bridson
MA (Hons), Dip Teaching, Grad Dip Not-for-Profit Management, NPQH, QTS (UK)
Director, Arcos Ltd

For a version of this article with footnotes contact ea@nzei.org.nzei