On entering government in 1997, Tony Blair and David Blunkett set about transforming primary education. It was a sorry state of affairs that we inherited. In Maths and English, only 59% and 65% of pupils respectively, were reaching the expected level of learning outcomes in these core subjects. When we left government in 2010, the figures were 79% and 80%. This was great progress and indeed more needs to be done to raise achievement and aspiration for all young people. There is cross party agreement on this. We can all agree that raising standards during primary education increases the life chances for young people in later life. The disagreement comes in what we mean by ‘standards’ and how we achieve system wide improvements.
Yesterday the government announced its plan for primary school assessment and accountability. These plans fall short of the mark if they are, as Ministers say, going to raise standards in primary schools.
First, on the issue of schools standards. No one would claim to be against high standards. Where the government falls down is in its definition of standards. Theirs is a backward looking vision, premised on rote-learning and a failure to value the importance of the skills and aptitudes that young people need to succeed. They portray these skills- such as speaking and listening skills, leadership, citizenship and resilience- as ‘soft’. Try telling that to Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College where the curriculum is tailored to equip young people with a rounded, rigorous education. On standards, Labour’s approach is guided by what I call the ‘rigour of the future’. Rigour in core knowledge and subjects yes. But rigour and emphasis too on what Anthony Seldon calls ‘character education’ and a broad and balanced subject range and content. For too long this approach to the curriculum has been the preserve of the privately educated. Some state primary schools are leading by example in this respect, despite the Government. I will continue to press Ministers to change course, to ensure that changes to primary school accountability better reflect the ‘rigour of the future’ that the CBI and the best schools tell us is lacking.
Second, these proposals have all the hallmarks of policy making ‘on the hoof’- all too often the case with this government’s record in education, as we have seen on plans for GCSEs and on changes to the National Curriculum. In his Statement to Parliament yesterday, David Laws argued for schools to have progress measures between Key Stage assessments so teachers and parents can monitor progress and attainment. This only a week after Michael Gove told MPs that Key Stage level descriptors- used by teachers to monitor performance- will go. In a rush for headlines, Ministers are confused. There might be a case to look at reforming level descriptors to ensure sufficient challenge but scrapping them outright is completely misguided and will undermine standards in primary schools.
Third, ranking pupils at 11 against others in their cohort will do nothing to raise standards, quite the opposite in fact. This is a classic policy red herring. By ranking pupils against others in their year- rather than against set, year-on-year standards- this will lead to distortions from one year to another. There is not a sound policy case for this. Indeed it strikes me that this is more about media posturing than credible policy. We know that formative assessment in schools can have the biggest impact on learning outcomes, yet the government was completely silent on this.
I have been clear that I want to work constructively on the idea of setting baseline assessments at 5. There is a progressive case for doing this. All-too-often it is the case that the prior attainment of children from socially-deprived backgrounds is much lower than for the rest. It is indeed important that schools are able to identify a baseline of pupil attainment so that teachers can monitor learning and challenge all children to reach their potential.
Today we learnt that the Government has fallen short with its plan to deliver universal ‘secondary ready’ education. Instead of confusion and policy on the hoof, we need reforms to primary education that promote the rigour of the future. That’s how we ensure pupils are ready for the world ahead of them.
Stephen Twigg is Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary.