Page last updated at 15:49 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 16:49 UK

Why ministers scrapped the tests

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

There is no doubt what was the biggest education story of the week.

The sudden decision to scrap the national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds in England is still reverberating in homes, schools and the corridors of power.

The phrase "political U-turn" is over-used, but it is surely appropriate this time.

As recently as July, ministers robustly defended the tests and insisted they were here to stay.

On the day after the shock announcement, I was chairing a Question Time-style event, run by the National Education Trust, with an audience made up largely of secondary school students.

Why did the government make the decision now?

Not surprisingly, they were overwhelmingly in favour of the ending of the tests.

So too was one of the panellists, Patrick Valente, a Year 9 pupil from The Phoenix School in west London, who spoke eloquently about the way the tests made students like himself feel like league table fodder.

But others I spoke to also felt somewhat at a loss. A fixed and important point in their school life had suddenly gone.

It was as if they had arrived at school one morning to find half the buildings had been demolished overnight; they may not have liked them, but they were part of the landscape.

I think the same may be true for many teachers: they are pleased, but still in shock.

Year 9 teachers had planned their timetables and prepared their teaching materials around the tests happening next May. Now they have to think again.

I suspect there is also bafflement amongst parents. In recent years they have come to see the tests at age 14 as an important progress check.

Pulling the rug at such short notice, and more than a month into the school year, could prove difficult to deal with.

'Marking fiasco'

To be set a target, and to have started working towards it, only to see the goalposts not merely moved but demolished must be demotivating.

So two big questions arise: why did the government make the decision now?

And why did they decide to scrap only the tests at 14, not those at age 11 too?

The answer to the first question appears to have little to do with educational considerations.

After the fiasco of last summer's test marking, and the departure of the marking company ETS, a new contractor had to be found to mark next year's tests.

Time was already very short. There were real doubts whether a new contractor, coming in so late in the day, could avoid repeating this year's problems?

After all, the marking of the national curriculum tests has always been problematic.

There had been delays in previous years.

So the reality was that no one was very keen on bidding for a contract that, as happened with ETS, could severely damage their reputation.

'Very technical'

The tender for the marking of 2009 tests had to go out this week. Time was of the essence.

Yet there was real danger that no contractor would regard the marking of the tests at both 11 and 14 as feasible on such a short time scale.

Having no bidders or, worse still, another marking disaster next year was just too great a risk to run.

So ministers took a quick decision to chuck the tests at 14 overboard in order to save the tests at 11.

They were helped to that decision by an internal report from the National Assessment Agency.

This suggested that longer term plans to replace the current tests with the new Single Level Tests was not workable at age 14.

The exact reasons behind this conclusion have not been given beyond a broad explanation that they are "very technical".

'Leap in the dark'

Although government sources say there are not the same problems with the Single Level Tests at age 11, these findings inevitably leave doubts whether the current tests at the end of primary school can be replaced in due course, as ministers had hoped.

The government did its best to present the decision as a positive move towards a more comprehensive accountability measure of schools: the proposed new School Report Card.

This will embrace not only the school's test results but also its record on contributing to pupil's wider well-being, including measures such as healthy eating and physical activity.

But the fact is that the School Report Card is, as yet, no more than a vague idea.

An expert group is being set up to advise on this and on the way forward with teacher assessments and the testing of a national sample of pupils, which between them will replace the current tests.

But it is a sign of the government's desperation that they have scrapped the tests now long before they know exactly what will replace them.

It is only because of the general delight at the scrapping of the tests that the government has not being given a much harder time over the extraordinary hastiness of this decision.

They have made a leap in the dark and no-one seems to mind.

Of course, the one group not celebrating is primary school teachers, who still have to deliver the tests at age 11.

For now, the government is adamant they are here to stay, as there are no other external tests to create primary school league tables.

But if the School Report Card works at secondary level, might it not work for primary schools too?

Perhaps the best way to get rid of the tests at age 11 would be for a group of primary teachers to win the contract for next year's test marking, to then make a mess of it, and so force ministers into another precipitate decision next year.

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