Education & Family

Did too much, too soon spell disaster for DfE?

Pupil Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Schools assess pupils regularly during their time there

As teachers file away SPAG practice papers in a box labelled "waste of time", there will be a sense of frustration and schadenfreude in primary schools.

The introduction of compulsory national spelling, grammar and punctuation tests for six and seven-year-olds was met with cries of "really?" from many Key Stage 1 teachers.

Many complained, through their unions, that it was not the best idea to introduce the technical language of grammar to children who were still learning to read.

Others may have spent time explaining to parents why they were being pestered with questions about adverbs.

And if teaching unions are to be believed, many teachers have simply felt unable to cope with the amount of change going on simultaneously in primary schools.

Too much, too soon, too quickly, they chorused to deaf ears.

'Trickling out'

This has been the war cry of teaching union leaders since the early days of the administration of Michael Gove - a man who prided himself on being in a hurry.

Following the introduction of a new primary national curriculum in 2014-15, Year 2 and Year 6 children are to be tested on their knowledge of it this May.

A new set of Sats (standard assessment tests) was devised to measure progress and hold schools to account, but many of the materials associated with them have not been readily available to schools.

For example, it was not until February that writing materials were published for primary school reading assessments, sparking concerns that civil servants were struggling to keep up.

Teachers were clamouring for information just to find out at what standard they should be trying to achieve.

James Bowen, former head teacher at Mill Rythe Junior School in Hampshire, said: "We didn't start the year knowing what we were aiming for.

"In previous years we have had past papers to go on. We have known what the criteria is and how it is going to be used to assess the children.

"This year it's all been trickling out gradually.

"Then when it did come in, the standard was a lot higher than what was actually promised."

Breathing space

Then in early March, the dynamics began to shift.

A dialogue between Schools Minister Nick Gibb and head teachers, through the NAHT union, led to some changes in the way Sats were to be administered and used this year.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicky Morgan has continued her predecessor Michael Gove's fast rate of reforms

The DfE issued a clarification document giving teachers more breathing space to file their writing assessments and an assurance that this year's Sats results would not be used as a cause for intervention in schools deemed not to be doing so well.

And when it was published, Mr Gibb praised the approach of the union, saying: "Throughout this important reform process we have worked closely with teachers and head teachers and continue to listen to the concerns of the profession as the details of the new arrangements are finalised.

"We are working constructively with the teaching profession and their representatives to find solutions to some of the remaining issues."

Since then, however, that document has been reclarified five times - yet more evidence of a department under pressure.

Then in early April, ministers were forced to abandon their plans for new so-called baselines tests for Reception pupils.

'We told you so'

Teachers had been grappling to get to grips with the new assessments and associated systems for assessing their young pupils.

An official comparability study of three approved for use in schools were found incomparable, and the DfE had no choice but to kick these assessments into the long grass.

Heads and teachers mumbled "we told you so!" under their breaths yet again.

As Mary Bousted, head of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, put it this week: "The DfE's chaotic reform of assessment in primary schools has been plagued by an unacceptable string of errors, miscommunications and delays.

"Time and time again the concerns of experienced and knowledgeable educational professionals have been sidelined in the pursuit of introducing reforms before they are ready."

And with a swathe of staff cuts at the Department for Education and budget reductions of their own, perhaps the bureaucracy itself is feeling the pressure of Mr Gove's, and his successor Nicky Morgan's, heady ambitions for schools.

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