Page last updated at 23:23 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 00:23 UK

Have school standards 'stalled'?

Analysis
By Mike Baker

Mike Baker
The week's big story was comment from the Chief Inspector of Schools in England that standards have "stalled".

It is her job to say such things, however embarrassing they may be for a government that is in all sorts of difficulties, including at the ballot box.

And it is certainly true that the results of the national tests in Maths and English at 11 and 14 have reached a plateau.

But is it really "unacceptable", as the Chief Inspector said, that one in five students is not reaching the target levels?

This was the statistic that caught the attention of newsrooms around the country. It was translated by several newspapers into claims that one in five children had "failed" in the 3Rs or in "basic English".

But is it really true to say that a child has "failed" because they have not reached Level 4 in English at age 11?

We have, of course, been here before. Yet it seems essential to ask, once again, what do the so-called "expected levels" in the national tests mean?

Measure for measure

Are these the levels that the average child should reach? Or do we expect the majority to reach this level? Or should every child reach this educational Holy Grail?

Those with long memories will recall that the idea of nationally prescribed "levels" of achievement was invented when the national tests were created as part of the national curriculum in 1988.

I looked up the 1988 Education Reform Act. It does not talk about "expected levels". But it does define "attainment targets" as "the knowledge, skills and understanding which pupils of different abilities and maturities are expected to have by the end of each key stage".

In other words, there was never one single "expected level" for children in a particular year group. There were, instead, different levels for different children.

This seemed sensible, as children taking the national tests would vary in ability and age. Some children would be almost 12 months older than others in the same year groups. Some would have special educational needs. All would, inevitably, develop at a slightly different pace.

So there was never any original intention that one particular level - such as the now all-important Level 4 - should be the target for every child.

Target practice

However, problems have arisen since then because politicians began to use the national curriculum levels as a way of continually pushing for higher standards.

Thus the notion of "attainment targets" at different levels was replaced by a specific "level" to be "expected" of children by the end of each Key Stage.

A few years ago, I tried to establish exactly what was mean by "expected". Was it the level expected of the average pupil or of all pupils?

Back then, Ofsted could not tell me which definition should apply. The Department for Education was only a little more exact, saying "most" children were expected to reach Level 4 by the age of 11. But is "most" 51%, 80% or 95%? No-one could say.

The reality is that governments have taken to setting their own targets for the proportion of pupils they wanted to reach the "expected levels".

The motive may have been a good one, namely to provide an incentive and a benchmark to raise standards. But, in the end, this was a political decision, not an educational decision.

Failure rate

When in 1997 the new Labour government said 80% of 11-year-olds should reach Level 4 in English that was, quite simply, a political aspiration, not an educational analysis.

Failure to reach that level does not mean that every child has failed. How can it? No minister could argue that 100% could reach the expected levels.

After all, something like 20% of children have some form of special educational needs. Not all of these will be unable to reach Level 4 by age 11, but for a good number it will be beyond reasonable expectation.

So should we really get into a panic when some 20% fall below the "expected" levels?

The honest answer is that we don't know.

So, it seems to me there is an urgent need for greater clarity about what is meant by "expected levels".

It is urgent because, as the Commons Select Committee reported recently, teachers and schools now feel under enormous pressure to get all students to the "expected" levels. This pressure is leading to "teaching to the test" and that is distorting teaching.

The decision about "expected levels" should be taken by an independent, non-political expert body.

As it happens, just such a body has been appointed - Ofqual.

It would be a real measure of Ofqual's independence and usefulness if it were to announce an inquiry into exactly what is meant by "expected levels" in the national tests.

Let us hope it will.


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