How literacy and numeracy tests put the Foundation Phase at risk; Speech to the Policy Forum for Wales Keynote Seminar

24 Apr

I gave a short speech on the introduction of national literacy and numeracy tests at a Policy Forum for Wales Keynote Seminar this morning. There was also an interesting Q&A session on the national literacy and numeracy framework and tests that I took part in along with Richard Goss (Head of Learning & Skills, CfBT), Eifion Evans (Director, Education and Community Services, Ceredigion County Council) and Darren Evans (Wales Reporter, TES).

Below is a copy of the speech:

I have been asked to speak today specifically on the impact of the new literacy and numeracy tests which are being introduced and the pressures they bring to teachers’ workloads. In examining the impact conducting these tests will have on classroom practitioners, it is important we do not forget the background to their introduction. There has been a huge increase in teaching workloads over the past few years, since the Education Minister’s ‘teaching makes a difference’ speech promised ‘no new initiatives’.

Indeed, since 2010 there have been, at the point of writing, 61 Welsh Government consultations for teachers to respond to, totalling over 2,500 pages. There has been a year on year increase since 2010 with 2013 looking like yet another record breaker. This is not to mention dysg newsletters; reams of guidance; ministerial statements with new instructions and dictates; the Robert Hill review into the future of education delivery; the qualifications review, and anything else my own workload has meant I’ve overlooked. Oh… add in the small matter of actually undertaking the daily role of a teacher’s planning, teaching and marking.

Teaching is fast becoming, if it hasn’t already become, the most regulated, scrutinised and bureaucratic profession in Wales. Whilst accountability and scrutiny are naturally important, even welcomed and expected by the profession itself, the current situation is becoming unsustainable for many.

Sitting these tests could take up to two weeks. Marking them is, perhaps optimistically, expected to take around 2 hours for 30 scripts according to the Welsh Government, with a significant amount of time lost in inputting the data scores of the students and the tests for evaluation. This is not even taking into account the hidden work that is required such as sanitising classrooms, covering wall displays, for example, to ensure the test guidelines are met. For teachers who have spent part of their Easter break in their classrooms re-doing their wall displays I’m sure that is seen as a complete farce.

We should not make the mistake of seeing these tests as an afternoon of inconvenience. They will have a significant impact on teacher’s time. The planning; reading the guidance; creating appropriate space for conducting the tests; the testing itself, and the marking and data delivery all add up to a noticeable amount of lost teaching time and added workload, pressure and stress.

SATs were abolished in Wales for a reason. What we are seeing is a return to SATs in Wales, but at much more damaging levels, given that the new tests will occur every single year between Year 2 and Year 9, making the current generation of pupils the most tested yet.

One of the most concerning aspects of the introduction of these tests is the way it undermines the whole ethos of teaching in Wales. For those teachers who were inspired and enthused by the Foundation Phase, this is a horror story. The foundation phase was introduced with a very specific style of learning, one, I believe, the vast majority of teachers and schools have supported and taken on board. The very nature of introducing formalised testing in this way contradicts and destabilises that approach. There is a potential for these tests to put at risk the benefits of the foundation phase, a policy that has received cross party support and gained international admiration, before they have even been appreciated and analysed.

This manner of testing,

– testing the ability of children to work unaided by peers or staff.
– testing the ability of children to focus for periods longer than they should or are able to. (from year 4 onwards pupils are expected to sit the tests in one go)
– testing the ability of children to answer questions for no purpose other than it is a test.

is in total opposition to the principles of Foundation Phase and the Skills Based Curriculum. We have to ask the question if this sounds the death knell for them before we have had a chance to analyse their impact.

In terms of getting to grips with the framework and tests, this has been made even more difficult since the Welsh Government have withdrawn two INSET which would have allowed teachers to access training to deliver the proposals. How are teachers really expected to change their schemes of work to accommodate such a significant change in the teaching ethos of a school without that vital run in time?

There are also serious questions about exactly how functional these tests will be. Individual schools will have a two week window to conduct these tests and the freedom to choose to do so in groups within their cohorts. Where are the guarantees that those children sitting the tests at the end of the window will not have already been made aware of their content by friends, or family, who have already sat the tests in their schools or schools in the surrounding areas, through word of mouth and social networking discussions? It is naive to think that the system isn’t open to manipulation, especially with such high pressure being placed on the children sitting them.

It is with these concerns of protecting our members and for educational purposes, that the NUT along with the NASUWT issued guidance to our members as to how they should approach the introduction of testing. That guidance stated that:

• Teachers should not be expected to administer the tests, unless they form part of a timetabled lesson and are undertaken in the teacher’s classroom.
• Teachers should not be expected to prepare their classrooms for the tests.
• Teachers should not be expected to mark the tests.
• Teachers should not be expected to input data from the tests.

That guidance is focused on ensuring that as little teaching time is lost as possible. The Welsh Government is always keen to stress that teaching and the quality of teaching is the key driver in education performance. It is good to say we have common ground on that. What we say is that you don’t build on that fundamental truth by reducing the time teachers have with pupils, and you don’t support teaching by turning your back on an ethos of teaching that is supported throughout Wales.

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