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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Charles Clarke on changes to school tests
Education Secretary Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke insists tests have worked
Education Secretary Charles Clarke was questioned on plans for reforming primary school tests on BBC Radio 4's Today programme by James Naughtie. Here is the edited transcript.

Q: Isn't this an acknowledgement that testing and targets are not all they were cracked up to be?

A:I don't think it is at all. We have just had the international survey of numeracy and literacy in schools throughout the world, which puts us third behind only two other countries and ahead of most other countries in terms of what has been achieved.

I think the fact is that at Key Stage 2 - at the age of 11 - having a basic level of quality of SATS Level 4 of literacy and numeracy is exceptionally important.

Children who do achieve that go on to do well in their educational work afterwards. Children who do not have a real struggle. I think we would be crazy to abandon it.

Q: Nobody is suggesting that higher levels of literacy and numeracy at 11 are a bad idea. The issue is whether the seven-year-old tests, as they were conceived, helped to produce that.

You are now acknowledging, by what you are saying, that you can downgrade their importance and still have those standards at 11.

In other words, what we were told over the last six years about the necessity of these seven-year-old tests is now found not to be the case.

A: That is not right. If you look at the seven-year-old tests as we have at the moment - let's just describe what happens.

Children are set a reading task, which involves reading to the teacher, and two writing tasks, which can be done at any time between January and four weeks before the end of the summer term.

We need to have ambition, we need to have targets and want to make progress
That is the situation now and they also do a reading test, a spelling and a maths test some time during May in fitting with normal classroom activities.

Parallel to this process, teachers make their own assessment to the child's progress which means parents have two different levels to judge their child.

What we are suggesting here is trialling a system which brings them together into one level and makes the teacher assessment the key overarching judgement - I think that is perfectly rational.

Q: As far as the targets are concerned, what you are doing is putting off the 85% target for the literacy and numeracy levels until 2006. Most people will say this is a simple acknowledgement that it cannot be achieved on time and presumably you don't think it is the be all and end all.

A: Well, we do think it is the be all and the end all. We think achieving a situation where children get to SATS Level 4 at Key Stage 2 is very important.

We have got seven to eight million adults in the country at the moment who cannot read or write to that level and I think that is a massive condemnation of what has gone in the past.

What we are doing is saying the best way of targeting to achieve that ambition is let individual schools, and the teaching profession, set the targets for their own schools, without having some figure that drops out of the sky which they have to relate to.

That is what many teachers have told us and we have listened to what they have to say.

Q: So it is an acknowledgement the figures have dropped out of the sky regularly from the Department for Education and other government departments, that you weren't too far down the road of targeting and it simply doesn't make sense to be obsessed by them.

That is what you are acknowledging today and maybe it would be a good idea just to acknowledge it straightforwardly, wouldn't it?

A: Well, I think there is a little dilemma here which we need to face up to and it's this. We need to have ambition, we need to have targets and want to make progress.

We have made tremendous progress over the last five or six years in terms of children's achievement at age 11 by setting targets, by encouraging schools to do better.

I think we have got to have the profession setting its targets, but constantly with that push forward to be more ambitious, more stretching and more demanding
The question is, what is the best way of doing it? Is it to ask the school themselves to set their own targets for the future - which is what we are saying today. Or is it, as we have said earlier, to take a figure which is not identified with by a school and leave it there.

Now we are saying let the schools set their own target, but constantly stretching, constantly demanding because we have to drive it all forward.

Q: In other words, you think ambition can be fulfilled by giving more power to the schools, which is what the critics have been saying you should have understood from the start.

A: Well they can say that, but the fact is it is only in the last four or five years we have had the major improvements in literacy and numeracy, which you have seen and these international results which I referred to earlier.

That is a result certainly of the commitment of the profession, which has been very important, but also to the fact the government has set targets and has put resources into trying to achieve them in order to ensure we can do better.

Now what I'm worried about is the suggestion in your question, which I know will not be your own view, that somehow we can just let it all go and assume everything will come out alright on the night - I don't think it will.

I think we have got to have the profession setting its targets in the way we suggest, but constantly with that push forward to be more ambitious, more stretching and more demanding.

Q: What I am interested in is really what is going on in your mind, and the mind of the department, about how you move forward to fulfil the ambitions you have and presumably every parent has for the children in our schools.

It seems to anybody, I think, looking in at this, that you have decided the whole testing thing went too far. Is that fair?

A: I do not think it is right at all actually. I think the issue is not the testing thing. I don't, for example, think that what I described earlier at Key Stage 1 - age seven - and what is now at Key Stage 2 - age 11 - is over-burdensome.

Q: But why are you changing them?

A: What I think is necessary is to set a targeting regime which respects the professionalism of teachers in every school in the country. That is what we are trying to achieve.

Q: We are going round and round here. The targets are shifting. You are saying let us give the teachers more freedom and the schools more freedom to devise their own testing regimes, subject to a sort of wider regime set by the department.

That seems to most people, I would have thought, an acknowledgement that perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far and it is time to let it swing back.

A: Well you can say that. I do not mind on your programme, or anywhere else, saying U-turn. But what I'm trying to describe is the thinking process.

Q: I'm just asking you to describe for us the kind of process you have gone through in your own mind since you took on this job.

A: Let me try and answer that as clearly as I can. We have had a series of conferences with primary head teachers to ask what they think about our primary school system.

We need more emphasis on the creative side - music, art, sports, modern foreign languages
There are two or three messages which came out. Firstly, we need more emphasis on the creative side - music, art, sports, modern foreign languages and so on - which is what we're responding to today.

Secondly, they are saying that though they don't think the testing regime as such is wrong at Key Stage 2, they think the targeting regime - who sets the targets - is not motivating them as much as they need and I have tried to listen to that by saying they should be locally set.

Thirdly, they are saying at Key Stage 1, where this discussion began, it is very confusing to have a teacher assessment and a national test side by side, so can you find ways of bringing those together.

That is what we are trying to do.

School tests overhaul to ease stress
20 May 03  |  Education


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