50.Statutory assessment and school accountability are currently closely connected within the education system in England. We heard during our inquiry that this link can distort the education delivered to pupils in primary schools. A particular issue that arose was narrowing of the curriculum due to a focus on English and maths. One description was given by Angela Griffiths, a primary school senior leader and specialist leader in education for assessment, who wrote:
In classrooms across the country, the arts, sciences, humanities and PE have been squeezed out of the timetable in order to ‘achieve coverage’ of the curriculum in preparation for end of Key Stage assessments. The biggest impact has been in Y2 and Y6, but in some schools this has extended beyond the assessed year groups. In addition, some teachers were reduced to just ‘covering content’ in the core subjects, rather than spending time considering the most creative, appropriate teaching strategies which would enable their children to learn most effectively.
51.The narrowing of the curriculum at primary school was commented on last year by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the previous Chief Inspector, who said that during a focused set of inspections, inspectors found that there was a “lack of time allocated to the study of science and foreign languages”. Most schools were spending four hours or more a week teaching English and maths, yet around two thirds of schools spent one to two hours per week teaching science, and around a fifth spent less than one hour. This data is supported by a survey carried out by the Wellcome Trust and NFER.
52.The Department of Learning and Leadership at UCL Institute of Education also suggested the accountability system can lead to a focus on curriculum areas that are covered in statutory tests. This includes narrowing of content and ‘teaching to the test’, which can distort results to “become severely inflated in being far larger than true gains in students’ learning”. However, scientific organisations do not support a return to science SATs at Key Stage 1 or 2, and instead want to ensure school leaders and the inspectorate focus on science provision, as well as other areas of the curriculum.
53.The new HMCI, Amanda Spielman, has announced that the first thematic Ofsted review will be on the curriculum offered within schools. However, many inspection reports currently focus on English and maths and can neglect other national curriculum subjects, like science. The Wellcome Trust has published statistics showing that in the first half of 2016, half of primary school inspection reports did not mention science at all.
54.Ofsted has significant power to influence school behaviour, and neglecting to comment on core parts of the curriculum contributes to the overemphasis on English and maths teaching at primary school. The Ofsted framework already includes the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum, but this does not appear to translate into every inspection report.
55.We heard that the pressure that schools are under to achieve results at Key Stage 2, particularly with the new higher expected standard, can also affect pupil and staff wellbeing. Pupils in 2016 had only been taught the new curriculum for one full year since it was introduced, and yet were still judged on it using the new more difficult standard. This resulted in 47% of pupils not reaching the expected standard in English and maths in 2016. Achieving for Children, a social enterprise that provides children’s services in Kingston and Richmond, said that pupil wellbeing suffers as pressure is put on them to achieve, and that being labelled ‘failures’ at a young age can be very damaging. However, this view wasn’t echoed in all schools that submitted evidence, nor with the teachers and school pupils we met over the course of the inquiry.
56.During our joint inquiry on children and young people’s mental health with the Health Committee, this issue was raised with Edward Timpson MP, Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, who said:
We want to make sure that children leave school with the absolute basic and necessary skills and academic attainment that they are going to need to be successful in later life, but we also have to recognise that in order to make sure that that happens there needs to be that underlying ability for them to be in a mental and emotional state to be able to maximise that opportunity.
57.In the Department’s current consultation on primary assessment, it outlines plans to remove statutory assessment at Key Stage 1, which it hopes will help ease teacher workload and reduce “the overall burden of statutory assessment”. However, the accountability system relies mainly on data from Key Stage 2 tests so this will not have the desired effect across the whole of primary school teaching. The Government also proposes to introduce a baseline measure in reception year in order to measure pupil progress. There is a risk that introducing accountability into the early years will lead to narrowing of teaching and added pressure in the early years, shifting the issue from Key Stage 1 to a lower age group.
58.Many teachers reported ‘teaching to the test’, narrowing of the curriculum and increased pressure and workload as a result of statutory assessment and accountability. Although Ofsted is required to monitor whether schools are teaching a broad and balanced curriculum, reports suggest there is often too strong a focus on English and maths teaching.
59.Ofsted should ensure that it reports on a broad and balanced curriculum in every primary school report. Every report should specifically include science as a core subject alongside English and maths, as well as a range of other areas of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities.
60.School leaders and governors should support a culture of wellbeing amongst staff and pupils and ensure that external assessment does not result in unnecessary stress for pupils.
55 Angela Griffiths () para 5
58 Department of Learning and Leadership, UCL Institute of Education () paras 4 and 6
59 The Association for Science Education () para 2.3
60 Wellcome Trust () appendix 1
62 Department for Education, National curriculum assessments at Key Stage 2 in England (revised), SFR 62/2016, 15 December 2016
63 Achieving for Children () para 1.3
64 Annex 1; On 1 November the Committee visited Eastbrook Academy
65 Oral evidence taken on 29 March 2017, HC (2016–17) 849, Q116
66 Department for Education and Standards & Testing Agency, Primary assessment in England Government consultation, launch date 30 March 2017, closing date 22 June 2017, p 20
67 Ibid. p 16
28 April 2017