Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Friday, 18 July 2008 14:37 UK

League tables 'might be scrapped'

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

As the sorry saga of England's school tests continues, it is hard to see how the government can go ahead and publish league tables this year.

The confidence of teachers and parents in the reliability of the marking has sunk to such a low ebb that there could be no public trust in school-by-school comparisons based on the Sats results.

What's more, ministers may also have to accept that there will not be any definitive and accurate national-level data for the 2008 tests.

Of course, that is one cloud that may have a silver lining for ministers as it is already looking extremely doubtful whether the 2008 results would match those from 2007, never mind improve on them.

Scrapping the 2008 national results would also help avoid further embarrassment if, as seems almost certain, the 2008 results continue to fall short of the 85% target for 11 year-olds in maths and English that was originally due to be achieved way back in 2004.

It will also avoid the likely failure to meet another tricky target set for 2008, namely reducing the proportion of schools where fewer than 65% of pupils achieve Level 4 in maths and English.

Yet, important though this is, targets and league tables should really be the least of anyone's concerns right now.

The media often overuse the word "fiasco" but this year that description is surely entirely apt. It is going to be many weeks, maybe months, before it can be sorted out.

Most schools have broken up for the summer now and it will be some time before there can be any resolution of the many cases where marking appears to be incomplete or unreliable.

Indeed there must already be concerns about next year's tests. After their bad experiences this time, how many markers are going to come forward next year?

Timing

Recruitment of markers will only be the start of the problems for the 2009 marking season.

A marking process of this magnitude requires a very long lead-time. I expect by the time the 2008 problems are sorted out, the contractor ETS will already be behind schedule for next year's timetable.

And if, after the inquiry has reported, there are calls for ETS to be stripped of its five-year contract, then will there really be time for a new contractor to come in for the 2009 tests? I doubt it.

There were competitors for the last tendering process but how many of them would now want to risk tackling the 2009 round with so little time left to restore confidence in the marking system?

While of course the greatest concern is for pupils, parents and teachers, it is hard not to feel sorry also for Ken Boston, the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The day after he had given an assurance, in good faith, that 100% of Key Stage 2 tests had been marked it was clear that this was not the case.

His reassurances about the quality of the marking, again given in good faith, also quickly proved to have been wide of the mark once schools received their scripts back.

Questions

Dr Boston has been left defending the indefensible while the contractor, ETS Europe, has hidden away from the glare of questions from MPs and the media.

Nevertheless, while the blame appears at this stage to be heading towards ETS, the QCA will still have some tough questions to answer.

When exactly did it, or its internal department the National Assessment Agency, first know that things were not going smoothly?

Dr Boston has said it was only on 26 June that the NAA got formal notice from ETS that the results deadline would be missed.

Yet he has also told MPs that the NAA "had had doubts" in the weeks before that date, in particular about the marking of Key Stage 3 English.

Indeed, in his evidence to MPs on the Schools Committee, Dr Boston acknowledged that they were aware of some difficulties as early as May.

Previous problems

To be fair to the NAA and QCA, they did then send in their own teams to help out ETS, even though they were paying them millions of pounds to do the job. But we now know that this help was either too little, or too late, or both.

The marking of England's school tests has a sorry history. According to Dr Boston the last "fully successful round" was five years ago.

In 2004 there were serious delays and in the past three years they did not even attempt to get the Key Stage 3 English results out before mid-August.

Many people will argue that this shows the school system is simply overloaded with tests.

They would argue that we should abandon the externally marked tests and rely instead on teacher assessments and - for national monitoring purposes - on testing just a representative sample of pupils.

That is a bigger discussion for another day.

For now, the clock is already ticking on the 2009 tests - and we may have to accept that not only will the league tables probably have to be cancelled this year but quite possibly in 2009 too.


Some of your comments:

What a mess - and this has been a long time coming. Basically I see it all due to the fact that no-one in Government has had any experience of actually running a complex organisation such as a school and they simply don't understand how you actually acheive anything. Just making announcements does nothing and with any successful organisation (my school is an Outstanding School) there is whole raft of measures that are built up over time, creating a culture of excellence and involvement; where priorities are carefully throught through and people are not overburdened - too many priorities means no priorities! This Government will have no idea what I'm talking about and the whole SATS fiasco is all due to the straw braking the camels back; just one priority and change too many and it was only a matter of time before something, somewhere gave. Luckily it was the SATS and not GCSEs or A-Levels which actually matter. The only reason the whole school system goes on and most students do so well is due to the determination of Heads to ignore most things and to get on with the job. Thank goodness for them. There is an issue though - we use the KS3 and KS2 SATS as the whole basis for measuring progress and OFSTED use the progress from KS2 SATS to GCSE as their key measure - that looks messed up now.... Interesting!
Terry Fish Headteacher, Christchurch, Dorset

I accept that colleagues up and down the country have had problems, we have needed to send a handful of papers back. However, to negate all children's efforts would be just as bad. We have embedded creativity into our curriculum and our Yr6 have gone from an average 25% 2b+ in Y2 to an average 80% 4+ in Y6. For children's efforts like ours not to be recognised would also be a bad thing.
m klekot, walsall uk

League tables are pernicious, and if this fiasco leads to their abolition it will be an excellent result. Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland manage perfectly well without them, and it would be a boon for English schools to lose them too. Teacher assessments are all that is needed. Ofsted can use these and part of the Ofsted process could be to check whether the teacher assessments are relibable. Local Authority advisers would be doing this too, as a matter of routine, judging by practice when I was a Chair of Governors some years ago. Let's give trust back to the teachers and give our 11 and 14-year olds a full year of teaching in all subjects, not a year of practicising to pass tests on a narrow part of the curriculum.
LondonMother, London

If Mike is correct does this mean that OFSTED will have to actually look at what goes on in schools rather than look at data which, on occasions, does not reflect the effort that is made to get the children where they are?
Derek Boulter, Portsmouth, Great Britain

I was really shocked this week when I heard on the radio an advice to headteachers (from an 'official') asking them to check the results themselves and then appeal if these were incorrect. Why are we spending millions of pounds if, in the end, the schools have to mark the tests (no extra pay!). As many schools have already broken up, is it suggested that teachers should come back to school during the summer to re-mark the SATs? Other European countries manage a much better level of education without SATs. At a time when money is short, why not scrap this useless exercise and re-empower teachers to teach?
M. Thompson, Kent

The general lack of confidence in the value of the SAT marking this year must surely be a call to switch to teacher asessment, with perhaps a 10% moderation on top. This could be handled within Education Authorities if the money allocated to ETS was directed there instead.
Steve McTegart, Woodcote,Oxfordshire

There is one simple solution to this year's disaster: ask the year 6 teachers to mark their own SATs papers in future and get them moderated using the same system as the Year 2 SATs. The government has on hand an experienced workforce which it should trust.
Mrs A Wrigglesworth, Leeds

ETS should be congratulated, if indeed this fiasco does lead to the abolition of KS2 & KS3 SATs. Hopefully 2008 will be a watershed year, after which teachers can get back to teaching and pupils back to real learning.
Headteacher, hertfordshire

In all my years as a Headteacher, of 4 primary schools, the Y6 SAT's results have never been more than a few points out from the assessments made by my teaching staff. The odd child here and there has done better and some done a little bit worse than expected, but our rigorous assessment processes have always been very accurate. What point then the tests? How about saving the money and investing it directly into schools as an increase in the Standards Grant? Teacher assessments can be locally moderated by Local Authority Advisers and SIPs, with local schools perhaps even doing a joint moderation exercise to ensure assessment standards are accurate. A case of I'll show you mine if you show me yours? A case of best value, less stress and money better spent! Too sensible a suggestion? Possibly!
Chris Brislen, Stoke-on-Trent

I am a primary headteacher. It is almost impossible to find a colleague who believes the present system has any function other nthan political. This fiasco may at long last bring it to and end. I was speaking to a marker recently. She said markers were not formally in place until after SATs had been completed. Throughout the marking process revisions to what were considered acceptable answers were made even in maths and science. Some questions could have been answered correctly in ways that did not attract marks. Can parental choice be allowed to be influenced by dangerously flawed information, let alone OfSTED and Local Authority judgements.
Jeremy Dunford, Glasshouses, UK



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