Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the National Union of Teachers (NUT)


  1.  The National Union of Teachers welcomes the Education and Skills Committee's decision to undertake an Inquiry into testing and assessment. The nature and purpose of assessment has been the subject of intense debate for nearly 20 years; a fact acknowledged by the DfES in its recent consultation document, Making Good Progress. Yet, despite the DfES's acknowledgement that, "over the nearly two decades of the National Curriculum and its assessment regime, the end-of-key tests have often stimulated controversy", the Government remains in denial about the continuing impact of high stakes National Curriculum tests.

  2.  Research evidence continues to conclude overwhelmingly that the current high stakes system of testing and assessment undermines children's learning. Other countries in the United Kingdom have acted on this evidence and only England remains with an end-of-key assessment system which is fundamentally flawed.

  3.  It is clear also, from the consultation conducted by the NUT on Making Good Progress, that teachers remain firmly opposed to the current National Curriculum testing arrangements and their use as accountability measures. The fact that successive governments have chosen to ignore the teaching profession's concerns about the impact on teaching and learning of the current National Curriculum testing arrangements is an indictment of Government attitudes to teachers' professional judgement.

  4.  This fissure between the teaching profession and the Government led, in 1993, to what the weekly magazine, Education, called, at that time, "the greatest act of civil disobedience in the history of education". The boycott of the arrangements ended but the massive gap between teacher attitudes to the National Curriculum assessment arrangements and Government policy has continued to this day, triggering resentment amongst the profession about the refusal of successive governments to recognise the continuing damage of high stakes tests to the curriculum and children's learning.

  5.  Indeed, if the gap between teacher professional opinion and Government policies were not stark enough, the fact that successive governments have chosen to ignore overwhelming research evidence is a fundamental failure of evidence informed policy-making.

  6.  The National Union of Teachers has been at the centre of seeking a coherent, reliable and valid alternative to the current arrangements. It has taken the position consistently that teachers must be at the centre of defining the nature and purpose of assessment.

  7.  The NUT has supported and contributed to the development of assessment for learning; including through its professional development programme. With other teacher organisations, it has sought an independent review of summative assessment. It has formulated rounded proposals which it believes can be adopted by Government, are supported by schools and which would secure the support of the wider public. These proposals are set out within this submission. For this reason, the National Union of Teachers requests the opportunity to give oral evidence to the Select Committee on this Inquiry.


  8.  The Government in England has failed consistently to adopt a coherent approach to assessment. Current systems for evaluation, from individual pupils to the education service at a national level, are extraordinarily muddled. There is no clear rationale of why various systems of summative evaluation and accountability exist. Consequently, schools experience over-lapping forms of high stakes evaluation systems, including institutional profiles based on test results and Ofsted judgements, which are often in contradiction with each other. These over-lapping systems of accountability are made worse by Government national targets for test results and examination results and by the publication on an annual basis of school performance tables.

  9.  Recently, the Government asserted within its Making Good Progress consultation that the, "framework of tests, targets and performance tables have helped drive up standards in the past decade". There is no evidence that such a framework has achieved this objective. Indeed, the same document contains the DfES's view that, "The rate of progress . . . has slowed in the past few years". Indeed, the reality is that national targets based on test results have damaged the record of Government on education, giving the impression of failure, not success.

  10.  It is vital that the Government, under a new Prime Minister, initiates an independent review of its school accountability arrangements. Accountability for the effective functioning of the education service is a legitimate requirement of both local communities and Government. Parents have the right to expect fair and accurate systems of accountability. The accountability system in England is permeated, however, by a lack of trust. The Government's assertion, in its recent document, Making Good Progress, that, "most schools now regard an externally validated testing regime as an important accountability measure", is completely without basis in fact. Teacher initiative and creativity is undermined by uncertainties created by multiple and often conflicting lines of accountability.

  11.  Through an independent review, the Government must act to clarify the distinction between assessment for learning and evaluation for accountability purposes. Recently, the National Union of Teachers agreed with other teacher organisations a proposal to Government to conduct an independent review of summative assessment.

  12.  This proposal remains valid, but, even more importantly, the Government should clarify the nature of its legitimate need to evaluate how well the education service it funds is operating, separately from the use of assessment by teachers as part of their teaching.


  13.  The weight of research evidence against the use of summative assessment for the purposes of school accountability is overwhelming. Over the last decade, the NUT has conducted a range of studies focusing on the impact of high stakes testing for the purposes of accountability. The agreement that the NUT reached with the Conservative Government, in 1994, included a commitment to review the impact of National Curriculum testing. This was a recommendation which Ron Dearing developed, but work on this area was halted after the election of the Labour Government, in 1997. The Government chose not to develop the work carried out by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and subsequently the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) on alternatives to the assessment and testing arrangements, although, rightly, the QCA has continued occasionally to offer a radical critique of the current assessment arrangements.

  14.  The Committee should reflect on the battery of uses for which test results are now used for the purposes of institutional accountability; uses which encourage crude and inaccurate summative judgements or create obsessional bureaucratic recording procedures. Some examples are set out below.

  15.  Ofsted now relies on contextual value-added test result data as the baseline measure for school evaluation despite the fact that the usefulness of CVA data is limited by each school's unique demography and level of pupil mobility. Level 5 plus test results are being used as the gatekeeper for entry to the Gifted and Talented scheme. Despite the National Assessment Agency's guidance, local authorities are placing pressure on early years settings to use National Curriculum numeric levels in preparation for National Curriculum test result benchmarks at Level 1. Local authorities are encouraging the use of commercial schemes for special educational needs assessment which sub-divide each one of the National Curriculum P levels at Level 1 into a further five sub-levels.

  16.  This focus on the use of test results for the purposes of high stakes accountability has damaging effects on young people and teachers alike. The NUT's study, National Curriculum Tests (2003), conducted by Dr S Neill, of the University of Warwick's Institute of Education, found that teachers felt strongly that testing narrowed the curriculum and distorted the education experience of children. They said that the excessive time, workload and stress for children was not justified by the accuracy of the test results on individuals. Teachers did not feel that the tests accurately affected school achievements.

  17.  The study found that experienced teachers and teachers of younger children stressed two negative factors; the effect of the tests in distorting the curriculum and educational experience available to children, and the tests' effects on their workload, which were largely due to their own efforts in supporting children through the tests.

  18.  While the NUT's study found that high stakes end-of-key testing continued to cause much greater concern in primary than in secondary schools and that the longstanding experience of testing and examinations at secondary level tended to lead to greater acceptance amongst teachers and parents, teachers of older children reported also that the testing period was more stressful for students than for children in primary schools.

  19.  The critical piece of evidence that the NUT believes that the Government has almost completely ignored is the research review conducted by the Government funded body, EPPI (Evidence for Policy and Practice Information) (2004), on the impact of repeated testing on pupils' motivation and learning. The review concluded that repeated testing and examination demotivated pupils and reduced their learning potential, as well as having a detrimental effect on educational outcomes. Other key findings included evidence which showed that teachers adapt their teaching style to train pupils to pass tests, even when pupils do not have an understanding of higher order thinking skills that tests are intended to measure and that National Curriculum tests lower the self-esteem of unconfident and low achieving pupils.

  20.  The Government appears to have ignored other key research. The Assessment Reform Group's (ARG) (2005) study of the role of teachers in assessment of learning came to key conclusions based on the exhaustive research reviews it has carried out in conjunction with EPPI. Crucially, the Assessment for Reform Group concluded that:

    "It is likely that opportunities to use assessment to help learning and reduce the gap between higher and lower achieving children are being missed . . . Many schools give the impression of having implemented assessment for learning when, in reality, the changes in pedagogy that it requires has not taken place . . . This may happen, for example, when teachers feel constrained by external tests over which they have no control. As a result, they are unlikely to give pupils a greater role in directing their own learning, as is required in assessment for learning, in order to develop the capacity to continue learning throughout life. The nature of classroom assessment is (being) dictated by the tests".

  21.  The NUT believes that this finding is crucial to the future of the development of personalised learning. Personalised learning is fundamentally dependent on teachers integrating assessment for learning in their teaching practice. If the evidence is that National Curriculum tests are a barrier to the development of personalised learning, then the Government has to choose between the two approaches; one cannot complement the other.

  22.  The Select Committee will be fully aware of the work conducted by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. It believes that Inside the Black Box (1998) and Working Inside the Black Box (2002) contain a fundamental critique of "an ill-judged confidence in the reliability of short, external tests, which are the dominant instrument of public policy" (1998).

  23.  There are many other studies too numerous to refer to. It is, however, highlighting three which the NUT believes the Select Committee must address.

    —  Research by the Institute of Public Policy Research (2001) found that pupils' mental health problems were directly linked to pressures connected with testing and recommended that the Government should take a less prescriptive approach if it was to halve the increase in mental health problems in schools.

    —  The Demos publication, Beyond Measure (2003), concluded that the assessment system measured recall of knowledge, rather than depth of understanding and tested only a narrow section of the curriculum and that it demotivated and lowered the self-esteem of learners.

    —  The studies by Cambridge University, on the lives of primary (2002) and secondary school teachers (2004), by John Macbeath and Maurice Galton, concluded that high stakes National Curriculum tests had almost wiped out the teaching of some Foundation subjects at Year 6. At secondary level, they found that the use of high stakes testing for the purposes of institutional evaluation, alongside high class sizes, inappropriate curriculum, pressure to meet targets and keeping up with initiatives, exacerbated unacceptable pupil behaviour.

  24.  Internationally, the Government in England is isolated in its approach to assessment. The Select Committee should draw on the evidence available through a study of 21 countries which have participated in the OECD's PISA programme (Programme for International Student Assessment) and the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) study. Most developed countries within the OECD use forms of assessment for which are integrated within teaching and learning. Use of tests for evaluating the performance of teachers and institutions is rare but can have a powerful impact. The Select Committee would be well advised to look at the developments in the United States in relation to the use of standard assessment tests and compare those with the effectiveness of a high performing country education system, such as Finland, Sweden, Korea and Canada.

  25.  It is the steadfast refusal of the Government to engage with the evidence internationally about the impact of the use of summative test results for institutional evaluation which is so infuriating to the teaching profession. Despite the cautious and timid moves made by the Government on new types of testing within its Making Good Progress proposals, nothing rarely has changed in the psychological make-up of the Government on this issue.

  26.  Even more irritating for teachers is that, within the United Kingdom, developments have taken place to which the only Westminster Government response is that since both countries have responsibility for education, decisions on education remain with them. The Select Committee should certainly ask why the Government has shown no apparent interest in why the Welsh Assembly Government abolished testing for seven year olds, in 2002, and national tests for 11-14 year olds, in 2004, and why, in Scotland, teachers draw national assessment tasks from an electronic bank to support their judgements about pupils' attainment and why test scores are no longer collected by the Scottish Government.

  27.  In short, up until now, the Government has approached the whole issue of National Curriculum assessment with a curious mixture of blinkered stubbornness and timidity.


  28.  Making Good Progress contains potentially radical proposals for the future of assessment and personalised learning. Despite the DfES' assertion in Making Good Progress, that "the issues . . . should be the subject of a larger and wider agenda which should involve debate across the school system", any potential for such a debate is diminished by its insistence on maintaining a high stakes approach to assessment and accountability. Indeed, any potential for positive reform in its statement that, "ultimately, existing end-of-key arrangements could be replaced by tests for progress", is severely limited by a refusal to abolish school performance tables and imposed national targets.

  29.  The NUT believes that only if the proposals in Making Good Progress are amended on the following lines will they provide the basis for a valid and reliable pilot.

    —  The Making Good Progress pilot should be developed on the basis that it is a genuine experiment. Schools could either be granted permission to innovate through the Education and Inspections Act or be disapplied from the current assessment arrangements through existing legislation.

    —  Requiring schools to continue with end-of-key tests as well as expecting them to conduct progress tests, not only imposes an excessive burden on schools, it contaminates the ability to evaluate the relative merits of the progress tests in the pilot against the use of end-of-key stage tests in other schools. Teachers in the pilot will continue to have in their minds the fact that they have to conduct end-of-key stage tests as well. For national target and performance table purposes, teachers will remain constrained to focus on the borderline pupils in Year 6 and Year 9. The requirement in the pilot to conduct end-of-key stage tests as well should be dropped, therefore.

    —  Any expectation for schools in the pilot to conduct existing "optional" tests for Years 4, 5, 7 and 8 should also be dropped for the reasons given above.

    —  Decisions about when the progress tests should be conducted should rest entirely with teachers. The fact that Making Good Progress offers schools, "regular—perhaps twice yearly—opportunities" should not create any expectation that the tests should be conducted on this basis.

    —  Teachers should be involved in developing the progress tests. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should be asked to establish a forum for teachers involved in the pilot authorities to discuss the nature of progress tests.

    —  Schools in the pilot should be exempted from the national target setting and performance table regime.

    —  Independent research on the impact of the pilots on teaching and learning and teachers' workload should be commissioned by the DfES. The results of the pilot should provide the basis for a national debate initiated by the Government on the future of the assessment arrangements. The NUT agrees with the proposal within the 2020 Vision report that there should be, "a shift of focus towards the progress of every child and away from thresholds and average attainment levels". It agrees also with the report's proposal for an investigation into the impact of national tests and examination preparation on the quality of learning.

    —  The Government asserts within Making Good Progress that national targets have driven up "absolute levels of attainment". There is no evidence that national targets in themselves have achieved any such thing. Instead, the Government's national targets have led to an excessive skewing of resources towards children on the borderline of national target levels. This same skewing effect will take place if the proposed progression targets are introduced. Again, resources will be skewed towards borderline pupils. Pupils for whom achievement of an additional level outside the national target levels at Year 6 and Year 9 is possible with additional support may well suffer as a result.

    —  Adding progression targets to measures which have only just incorporated contextual value added targets will only increase the unstable mix of pressures on schools and increase the possibility of groups of pupils missing out on the support they need.

    —  The NUT welcomes the proposal within the pilot that pupils should receive funded, individual tuition and that qualified teachers should deliver it. If individual tuition is to be offered fairly to those pupils whom teachers judge will benefit, then it cannot be confined to pupils who may achieve two levels. The criterion which should apply in the pilot is that resourcing for tuition should go to the pupils who would benefit the most, particularly those from socially deprived families and/or who have English as an additional language. Judgements on which pupils they would be can only be made by schools themselves.

    —  Resources for individual tuition should be ringfenced. In addition, responsibility for providing individual tuition should not be simply added to the responsibilities of existing teachers. Additional qualified teachers should be employed within the pilot to deliver the additional personal tuitions.

    —  The NUT opposes the introduction of the progression premium for schools in the pilot. It is not clear what such a premium is for. There are obvious questions about its purpose. Is it a bribe for schools in the pilot to deliver success? Is the progression premium a reward? Would such a premium be available to all schools if the pilot was rolled out nationally?

  30.  In summary, the NUT has emphasised to the DfES that it should:

    —  remove the current optional and end-of-key stage test from the pilot; and

    —  drop the progression premium and re-allocate the funding set aside for the premium to increasing the number of days available for individual tuition.


  31.  Committee members will be aware of the NUT's Education Statement, Bringing Down the Barriers. Part 2 of Bringing Down the Barriers contained the NUT's strategic proposals on the National Curriculum and its assessments. Those proposals can be accessed in full by Committee members. For the purposes of this submission, the NUT believes it is worthwhile reminding the Committee of the direction the NUT believes the Government should take.

    "Personalised learning has a long history based in part on child centred learning and the need to differentiate teaching according to need. Meeting the individual needs of each child and young person is an aspiration which all those involved in education can sign up to. The NUT believes that two conditions need to be established for personalised learning to succeed. A fundamental review of the National Curriculum and its assessment arrangements are essential to meeting the aspirations of personalised learning. Young people need to be able to experience, and teachers need to be able to provide, much more one to one teaching.

    The Government in England should recognise the major developments which have taken place in reforming assessment in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The review of assessment in Wales, conducted by Professor Richard Daugherty and his team, is a model from which the DfES should learn. An independent review of testing and assessment of children should be commissioned by the Government. Such a review should encourage and support assessment for learning and should examine the role of summative assessment. It should cover the current Foundation Stage profile and testing and assessment in the 5-14 age range.

    There are no performance tables or national targets linked to test results in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. School performance tables and national targets have the capacity to damage the record of Government on education as well as schools. The next Government should abolish both tables and targets."

    "The data available from summative assessment and examination results should feed into school evaluation reports as they do in current inspection reports. To meet the country's need for a summative picture of the effectiveness of the education service, it should re-establish the Assessment of Performance Unit. The Unit would be able to summarise data and ask questions through studies based on sampling. Such a Unit would operate independently with an advisory board involving teacher and support staff unions, the TUC, the CBI, Government and relevant agencies. It would respond to requests for national evidence on standards within schools and colleges."

  32.  In Which Way Forward?, Professor Peter Mortimore's comparative review of the Government's White Paper, Higher Standards: Better Schools for All, the Education and Inspections Act, and the NUT's Education Statement, Bringing Down the Barriers, he commented on the NUT's proposals with respect to assessment and the APU.

    "The proposal by the NUT for an independent review (of National Curriculum testing and assessment) seems imminently sensible. . . . it would be important for a review of assessment to be undertaken by a panel drawn from those involved with the system, advised by experts in the technical details. The panel might wish to study the arrangements adopted in Scotland and Wales as well as other international practice."

  33.  Peter Mortimore welcomed the NUT's proposal for, "an APU-type body which would monitor national standards", which he believed would provide, "a reliable national picture of standards of achievements".

  34.  In the context of the position outlined above, a position which has been subjected to reliable independent evaluation, the NUT believes that the Select Committee should adopt the following proposals.

    —  The NUT has taken the position consistently that teachers must be at the centre of defining the nature and purpose of assessment. Through its professional development programme, the NUT has supported and contributed to the development of assessment for learning. The Committee should consider proposing a national bank of teacher developed assessment tasks, which can be drawn down by teachers when they need to assess pupils' learning.

    —  There should be a major funding boost for professional development in assessment for learning. Teacher organisations could play a major part as providers of such professional development. Funding should be restored for inter-school moderation of assessment judgements. That funding could be transferred from the current major printing and distribution costs of National Curriculum end of key stage and optional tests.

    —  As part of an independent review of the National Curriculum assessment arrangements, the review of summative assessment should focus on how to achieve the most efficient and economic way of summarising and reporting pupil achievement within the context of the framework of the National Curriculum. One requirement of the review should be to focus on separating summative assessment from arrangements for institutional accountability.

    —  A review of National Curriculum assessment must be conducted by an independent group. Part of its remit should be to evaluate the arrangements in Wales and Scotland and explore developments in Northern Ireland. The Making Good Progress pilot would have value if it adopted the NUT's proposed modifications set out in this submission. The pilot could then provide substantive evidence to an independent review.

    —  The Government should re-establish the Assessment of Performance Unit so that a summative picture of trends in pupil achievement can be achieved nationally without subjecting schools to the vagaries of school performance tables. The Unit would sample pupil achievement from 0-19.

    —  In parallel with an independent review of National Curriculum assessment, the Government should review the measures in place it has for school accountability. Such a review would cover the current inspection arrangements, national targets and school performance tables. Its focus would be on achieving public accountability of schools whilst removing the warping and distorting effects of current high stakes accountability measures.


  35.  The NUT submission to the Select Committee has focused necessarily on National Curriculum testing and assessments. The NUT has submitted evidence to the investigations conducted by the Select Committee on 14-19 education. The NUT backed fully the Tomlinson Report on 14-19 education. An opportunity is available to the Government to explore the development of the current diplomas and whether accompanying arrangements such as the changes to GCSE coursework are relevant and reasonable. That opportunity presents itself as a result of previous Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly's commitment to review the progress of the post-Tomlinson proposals in 2008. The Select Committee should continue to press for such an approach despite the Secretary of State's view that the 2008 review will only focus on A levels.

  36.  There is one further proposal which the NUT believes the Select Committee should recommend to Government. It was contained in Bringing Down the Barriers.

    "As a result of the 10-year lead time, no single Government can have responsibility for implementing the post-Tomlinson arrangements. It is essential, therefore, that 14-19 reforms should have continuity over time. The NUT would propose, therefore, the establishment of an implementation body which covers the full term of the post-Tomlinson arrangement. A broad range of representation from teacher organisations, the TUC, Learning and Skills Councils, universities and industry to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Government would be included on its membership. Its job would be to provide a forum and sounding board for any potential problems arising from the practical implementation of change. Its existence would assist in establishing a social consensus for progressive change".

  37.  This approach to 14-19 education is long overdue.

May 2007

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