Nicky Morgan has justified the reintroduction of national tests for seven-year-olds in England, saying “robust” assessment was needed to measure progress in schools.
“To be really confident that students are progressing well through primary school, we will be looking at the assessment of pupils at age seven to make sure it is as robust and rigorous as it needs to be,” the education secretary said in her first major policy announcement since the election in May.
Currently, pupils in year two – the final year of key stage one in English primary schools – are assessed by their teachers, which critics say is an unreliable method of assessment compared with externally marked exams.
The proposal to reintroduce formal testing at KS1 – which was abandoned in 2004 – drew a hostile response from teaching unions who are concerned that testing imposes too much pressure on children and staff.
Others argue that high-stakes testing distorts the curriculum as schools concentrate on results to boost their position in the league tables.
“We’ll be working with headteachers in the coming months on how we get this right, holding schools to account and giving them full credit for the progress they achieve,” Morgan said, announcing that the consultation on primary assessment would include teachers and unions.
A new exam would mean that primary age pupils are assessed at the start of reception classes, in phonics ability at the end of year one, and tested in year two and year six.
Morgan told her audience at the Policy Exchange thinktank in London that “too many young people aren’t being given a fair shot to succeed because of where they live”.
Her speech included a stinging attack on the state of qualifications in schools under Labour, saying that grade inflation and meaningless vocational awards amounted to “snobbery” by policymakers.
“Rather than giving children from poor families access to great education, they instead created a new cadre of pseudo qualifications, which claimed to be equivalent to academic qualifications,” Morgan said.
“Teenagers got more certificates, and school results seemed to improve. But the qualifications weren’t credible in the jobs market – they weren’t real. They were, to be frank, a fraud on the young people taking them.”
Morgan announced long-mooted plans for a national teaching service, with 1,500 teachers seconded to work in schools in difficulty that struggle to recruit staff, such as those in rural or coastal areas.
As an incentive for agreeing to a two-year secondment, the teachers may be offered a higher salary, relocation costs and accelerated promotion into future leadership roles.
More controversial is Morgan’s announcement that secondary schools will have to enrol 90% of GCSE candidates in the English baccalaureate (EBacc) suite of subjects, or face scrutiny when inspected by Ofsted.
The EBacc is awarded on the basis of GCSE passes in subjects including maths, English, sciences, a foreign language and either history or geography.
Participation is currently voluntary but schools have failed to embrace the EBacc with enthusiasm, with fewer than 40% of all students credited with an EBacc last year.
“I’m told it’s because the EBacc isn’t right for those children. What does that mean? Who doesn’t benefit from studying our nation’s history? Who can’t benefit from understanding the fundamentals of science?
“So once again we find adults writing off children, deciding what they can and can’t do, and worse what they can and can’t go on to do, before they’ve even turned 15,” Morgan said.
But the move was attacked by the teaching unions as restricting choice.
“These new proposals are a further restriction on school autonomy and a clumsy attempt to manage the education system through exam reforms and league tables, rather than investing in the resources that truly make a difference,” said Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.
The speech also contained an announcement that five academy trusts will be offered shares of a £5m fund to take over and manage struggling schools in the north of England.
The group includes the Wakefield City Academies Trust, which runs 16 schools in the north, and the Tauheedul Education Trust based in Blackburn, which runs a string of outstanding state faith schools and is preparing to sponsor its first non-faith schools.
This article was written by Richard Adams Education editor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd November 2015 13.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010