8.In 2016, a new assessment system was introduced across primary schools in England. The new tests, covering reading, writing and maths, were designed to reflect the revised national curriculum, introduced in 2014. The delivery of the new assessment system was criticised throughout 2016, due to test papers being published online ahead of the test date and guidance being delayed.
9.The Standards and Testing Agency (STA) is responsible for developing national curriculum assessments and supporting schools to deliver them. The STA is an executive agency of the DfE and works with operational autonomy. However, we heard of a perception that STA works closely with ministers. Ofqual, the independent regulator of qualifications and examinations, also has a role in ensuring the assessments are valid and the standards are consistent and appropriate.
10.The Department has previously agreed to a protocol for introducing reforms to the education system, which includes “a lead in time of at least a year for any accountability, curriculum or qualifications initiative coming from the department which requires schools to make significant changes”. However, through written and oral evidence we heard that schools had too little time to prepare for the new assessment system and publications were continually delayed. For example, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) told us:
The tests were poorly designed and poorly administered, with SATs papers mistakenly published online ahead of the test; delayed and obscure guidance for teachers; mistakes in test papers [ … ]
11.Test frameworks for reading and maths were published in the summer of 2015, but the interim framework for Key Stage 2 writing, which was due at the beginning of the school year, was delayed until November 2015. Sample test materials and exemplification documents were published late, with some not available until April 2016 when the tests were due to be sat in May 2016. This put extra pressure on teachers and did not give them a fair amount of time to prepare pupils for the upcoming assessments, adding to already high workloads. Binks Neate-Evans from the Headteachers’ Roundtable described it as “unacceptable” and said it created an incredible workload for headteachers. Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT, said:
The implementation of the reforms this time was the worst I have ever seen [ … ] to be receiving clarifications on the clarifications in February in the year that you are sitting those tests is an appalling distraction from what we need, which is just to focus on teaching the children rather than to try to second-guess what is coming our way.
12.Change is an inevitable aspect of any education system, but it must be communicated and implemented effectively, with enough time for teachers and school leaders to embed changes. The limited time for implementation of the new tests meant that crucial steps in the development process were missed. Claire Burton, Chief Executive of the STA, told us about the development process for the writing assessment:
[STA’s] intention had been that we would consult on the [writing] performance descriptors and that we would come out with them in a near-final version, trial them in schools in the summer term, and then we would publish them in September. It was the trialling in schools that was missed out. The intention was always to publish the frameworks in September, but we did miss a step, and it was because of that change in approach that we took.
13.Ms Burton went on to say that there was no option to delay the process by a year and carry out the original development plan because “the alternative was to have nothing”. As well as delayed publication, there were two notable security breaches within the STA leading to test papers being published online ahead of the test date. This led to one test, the Key Stage 1 spelling punctuation and grammar test, being cancelled, and highlighted issues in the STA’s security procedures, triggering a ‘root and branch’ internal review of the STA from the Department. This found major failings in its structures, including “a lack of end-to-end strategy, data and oversight; a defensive and silo culture; a shortage of commercial skills and an ineffective assurance process and culture”.
14.The Government must introduce longer lead in times for future changes to assessment or standards to mitigate the negative impacts of constant change, and the process of communication must be improved. The time allocated for design and delivery should enable schools to be given thorough information about changes at least a year before they will be implemented, without incremental changes throughout the year.
15.We remain to be convinced that the STA will be able to meet all the recommendations set out in the ‘root and branch’ review. We recommend that the Government should commission a further short review following the 2017 SATs to assess progress made against the recommendations of the internal report, particularly in light of further changes proposed by the Department in its ongoing consultation.
16.As an executive agency, the STA is operationally distinct from the Department but is clearly influenced by policy changes. The Minister for School Standards has assured us that test design is not an area he is involved in. This is not the perception of much of the education sector. Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT, said:
In many ways the STA is too close to ministerial interference in what goes on and not established enough to be able to fight back against that, nor do they have the capacity to work at the pace of change required. It would be a sensible recommendation to look at whether, for example, Ofqual should be given more powers to oversee, audit and regulate what is going on or whether the design and oversight should be split up in some way at the moment, because certainly it has not worked this time round.
17.Ofqual and the STA agreed that there was a lack of external clarity over their roles and how they work together, but Ofqual did not suggest it should have greater powers over the implementation of the test. However, as Ofqual is the independent regulator of qualifications in England, with extensive experience in this area, it is surprising to have heard that it does not feel that it could have improved the process.
18.There is a lack of clarity over the responsibilities of the Minister, STA and Ofqual through the development process of national curriculum assessments. Additionally, there is a lack of confidence in the STA’s independence from Ministers.
19.An independent panel of experts and teachers should review the development process to improve confidence amongst school leaders and teachers. We recommend an independent review of Ofqual’s role in national curriculum assessments to ascertain whether the regulator should have greater oversight.
6 Department for Education, The national curriculum in England Key Stages 1 and 2 framework document, September 2013
8 Department for Education, Protocol for changes to accountability, curriculum or qualifications, first published March 2015 (reissued February 2017), p 1
9 National Association of Headteachers () executive summary
10 For example, St Helens Primary School () paras 5 and 6; Q74
28 April 2017