Page last updated at 19:54 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 20:54 UK

What does scrapping tests mean?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Pen and paper
There will be no more Sats tests taken by 14 year olds
It's been a bad year for educational acronyms. Sats, ETS, EMAs: they have all piled up in the in-tray at the DCSF. And they have all spelt trouble.

What must be particularly galling to education ministers is that this has turned success stories into trip wires - no more so than the disastrous delivery of this year's national tests for 11 and 14 year olds in England.

Hundreds of thousands of families - not pundits, education boffins or political anoraks, but real-life families - experienced the spectacle of postponed results, disputed marking and children leaving primary school without getting their results.

Letters went out in book bags and on school websites all across the country saying the government's testing had all gone horribly wrong.

It was like one of those stranded oil tankers leaking bad news all summer.

The failings of the test system for 14 year olds saw the marking delays dragging out for months, spilling from one school year into the next.

And the decision to scrap at least half of the national tests will be seen as part of an attempt by ministers to take back the initiative and draw a line under their troubles.

There will be no more externally-marked tests taken by 14 year olds. That means 600,000 fewer tests than last year in English, maths and science. The ship that sank in the summer will not be re-floated and sent to sea again.

Instead a panel of experts will produce a different type of accountability, based on tests within schools and the assessment of teachers.

There might also be a system of using local samples to ensure the maintenance of national standards.

Drawing the sting

These were always the most low-key tests - not tied to such high-profile league tables as the tests for 11 year olds and without the significance of GCSE exams.

And getting rid of them has won the immediate approval of teachers and head teachers' organisations - who have long been scornful of their value.

Teachers could barely suppress saying told-you-so during the chaos over testing - after so many early warnings seemed to have been ignored.

They saw Schools Secretary Ed Balls as the bossy prefect who suddenly seemed to have forgotten his own homework.

Summing up the mood of teachers' satisfaction at the change of heart on testing was Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, who said: "The sound of a deep collective sigh of relief will emanate from secondary schools across the country."

As a secondary maths teacher, I can understand the reasons for scrapping SATS, but think this decision has been rushed in.
Tom, Nottingham

Stopping the Sats tests in secondary school will have won support within teaching, without losing credibility with parents - and ministers will hope that they can start to sound more positive.

And instead of having to explain the problems of US-owned companies responsible for marking Sats tests, ministers will want to start talking about improving schools again and all the big picture stuff about improving the chances of children.

They will want to remind the public that they stand for more than problems with computer systems.

A for achievement

But this was a curiously double-barrelled announcement.

Alongside the popular move of getting rid of the tests was the proposal that there should a new way of showing achievement and helping parents to compare schools.

This would be a report card, inspired by a similar approach in New York, with a simple, at-a-glance guide to a school's record, summed up in a single grade - on a range from A to F.

It will have both the advantage and disadvantage of being simple.

Parents might welcome a user-friendly grading system rather than incomprehensible CVA scores - but it remains to be seen how schools will feel about being summed up by a single letter, particularly if it's an unflattering F.

On such proposals a teachers' union warned: "Get it wrong and the response from schools will be fierce."

And head teachers' leader John Dunford has already cautioned against ranking systems that downgrade schools working hard in the toughest areas. Why punish a school for its postcode?

"A good school serving a challenging area must have as much chance of a high score as a good school serving a more affluent area," he said.

But how do you combine an A for effort with a D for low results and produce anything meaningful?

At least in opening up such a debate, education ministers will feel that they are easing back into more reassuring waters, making decisions about change rather than fire-fighting problems.

They are still not entirely out of the woods. Lord Sutherland still has to report on the Sats problems, although much of the sting will now have been drawn by this pre-emptive action.

But it means that the tide has turned away from more and more testing - with children no longer facing any public tests between primary school and their GCSEs.

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