English in England: testing, attainment and teaching; SATE Seminar 16/03/2016

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Dr Gibbons introduced the theme of the seminar, outlining the main concerns with high stakes tests. Admittedly, my knowledge of the English exam system is fairly limited and I can never quite remember which KS stage translates into primary or secondary level here, so the historical context was useful.

The main criticisms of England’s National Testing system don’t come as a surprise. Over the last 25 years, a culture of assessment has become embedded, with assessment leading learning. Simon Gibbons’ list of criticisms includes the obvious concerns many Scottish teachers have of our own Government’s plans for standardised school testing. Teaching to the test, a narrowing curriculum, validity and reliability, pressure on pupils, teachers and schools and shallow rather than deep learning all feature prominently on Simon’s list. These are concerns none of us want to become a Scottish reality, in another quarter of a century.

Simon went on to reference an Institute for Public Policy Research report which raised concerns that the current system in England is failing to consider some crucial aspects of a young person’s development. Simon cited a Commons Select Committee Report which recommended that the National Testing system be reformed to remove the need to pursue results ‘at all costs’. In the Scottish context, I think we’d all concede this is a concern.

He came back to a key question several times – did these tests work? Simon repeated his view that whether or not a teacher disliked them, if they did what they were supposed to and raised attainment overall and for the majority, then they were worthwhile. According to results, SATs scores have gone up. Attainment for white British children eligible for Free School Meals (FMS), a key indicator used to determine economic disadvantage, has improved significantly in the last seven years. Success. In part. Here’s the thing though. The FSM gap for white children has barely changed and in fact, this gap widens as children get older. Ultimately, success in part, given the stakes, isn’t really success at all.

Bethan Marshall

Dr Marshall opened the second half of the seminar by describing what a ‘standard’ English lesson in a school in England would look like. Many of the elements she mentioned aren’t far removed from what’s happening daily in our own departments. There’s learning intentions prominently displayed (but in every lesson) and the learning objective activities are framed according to the learning objectives. I’m not convinced by the ‘learning objectives in every lesson in every subject’ approach but it was the use of the PEE paragraphs being squeezed into English lessons as standard that took me by surprise. As English specialists, we are familiar with PEE, PEER, PEAR, PCQE etc. However, Bethan explained the pedantic fascination with PEEing south of the Border extends to teachers being required to do it in most lessons. Pupils write paragraphs explaining point/evidence/comment at the end of most lessons – to ensure a ‘product’, to provide evidence that meaningful work has been ‘done’ that period. She explained that in England, PEE paragraphing is introduced in Year 7 (age 11) and that pupils don’t see the purpose of it. OFSTED has, in the past, criticised the over focus on PEE, stating it should be a strategy and a skill built up over time but not used in every writing lesson.

Bethan went on to suggest it is better to introduce PEE later in learning, prior to exams of course, but she sees earlier stages (our BGE?) as the place for reading a plethora of texts with classes. This allows pupils to engage with literature, they can be encouraged to respond imaginatively to it, ultimately, seeing the study as worthwhile, meaningful and possibly, even enjoyable. To conclude the average English lesson south of the border, learners will look at success or examination criteria, with the focus ultimately and always on that end result, the test. The biggest driver in England determining how teachers teach is accountability. The situation is worsening with immense pressure placed on teachers.  Most practitioners will stick to teaching what they are told to and how they are told to do it.

Bethan talked about observing a lesson taught by a teacher called ‘Paul’ on Lord of the Flies, which deviated from the norm. Crucially, there was a lack of explicit reference to any form of assessment in the lesson. Paul directed pupils, but ultimately let them lead the discussion, raising ideas and building on the suggestions of others in the class, while he listened. Bethan explained that Paul’s approach wasn’t the norm, in either his own department or in other schools, where a more regimented lesson structure would be used. Overall, pupils were being asked to really think about what they’d been reading rather than the lesson being mechanistic and ultimately exam-driven. And it worked.

Paul’s breadth of subject knowledge allowed comparisons with other texts eg Coral Island and Of Mice and Men. He hardly used the interactive whiteboard (which would normally be used in typical lessons a lot) relying on it only for the comparison study. Bethan again stressed the risk-taking factor when you are seen to be going against how lessons ‘should’ be taught. A teacher, she said, in a lesson focused on one outcome, can force through what has to be covered and doesn’t always take into account, or allow the richness, of what a cumulative lesson could.  In effect, there are two types of English lesson – the skills-based for exams and the kind during which pupils get to actually ‘do’ English (Simon Gibbons citing Dixon, 2014).

Simon Gibbons closed with the idea that the very pupils failing the tests need a different approach, not just to be assessed in the same way, again and again until they pass. The seminar concluded with a discussion around the fact that in many cases, the most interesting classroom conversations often happen with non-certificate classes where there isn’t the rush to always be assessment ready.

I’ve thought a lot about the seminar since attending and I think, beforehand, I was looking for route map for the way we should be introducing assessment through the National Improvement Framework, to allow cherry picking of the best of England’s experience and ensuring we avoid all of the pitfalls. I was alarmed that Paul was seen as a ‘maverick’, as his lesson style is the sort you see in English classrooms the length and breadth of Scotland, even in certificate classes. What we don’t have, being so time poor at N5 and Higher, is the chance to teach this way often enough. We manage it more within the Broad General Education, for that was partly what the junior stage was designed to incorporate, but even by S3, there’s an increasing move towards assessment and predominantly skills-based teaching.

The seminar definitely provided food for thought and the opportunity to focus on a few of the questions that will continue to be raised by Scottish teachers as we move apace towards the introduction of standardised assessments.


Susan Brownlie is SATE Local Authority Coordinator for South Lanarkshire.  Any views expressed here are her own, not those of her employer or SATE.

Assessment Seminar with Bethan Marshall and Simon Gibbons: Wednesday 16/3/16

An excellent seminar on assessment with Dr Bethan Marshall and Dr Simon Gibbons of King’s College London, co-hosted with The School of Education at The University of Strathclyde and held in The Technology and Innovation Centre.

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(l to r) Simon Gibbons, Bethan Marshall and Raymond Soltysek

A report will follow soon from one of SATE’s local authority coordinators. In the meantime, here is an extract from my introduction:

‘There’s never been a more appropriate time for Scottish teachers of English to join a strong subject association.  I’m in the middle of interviewing next year’s applicants for PGDE, and I think every year since 2001, I’ve told them that this is a time of great change in Scottish education; this year, that is true more than ever, and as I approach perhaps not the sunset of my career, but definitely the twilight, I don’t think I have ever been less optimistic about the future.

There are good things on the horizon, to be sure.  If PRD is as supportive as it is said to be, teachers will have a real structure in which to plan their own professional development.  As English teachers, membership of NATE offers access to the latest research and classroom practice, as well as resources, and is tailor made for the PRD process.  Social media, Teach Meets and Pedagoo mean that teachers are coming together to cater for their own development needs, plugging the gaps in CPD that denuded budgets and the loss of curriculum advisers have allowed to develop, and NATE offers an umbrella under which we can all shelter and share.  These, then, are exciting times for teachers who are doing it for themselves, and the one huge improvement I’ve seen over my fifteen years in teacher education is how the professional knowledge and skills of teachers has grown, almost exponentially.  When I left Jordanhill College, I knew on average it would take about 8 years to be promoted; I now see my students achieving promoted status with two or three years, and I have no doubt that they are absolutely ready for it.

But there are dark forces gathering in Scottish education that seek to change it irrevocably.  Because of our proudly independent system, we tend to feel that we are cushioned against the worst excesses of the wider world, excesses that have been chillingly demonstrated by the Westminster Government’s ideological obsession with taking all schools out of local authority control, to be managed centrally by government and locally by a patchwork of individual school boards, interest groups and private enterprises.  The disingenuous rhetoric in which those ideas are framed– ‘choice’, ‘parental voice’, ‘flexibility’ – masks what is fundamentally an economic driver behind reform. 

In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina destroyed all but 15 of its 168 publicly funded and controlled schools; in the aftermath of the disaster, the whole school system was privatised, every child went to a school publicly funded but managed for profit by private corporations.  The vast majority of teachers were fired, most  being replaced by deunionised Teach for America apprentice teachers teaching a denuded curriculum concentrated on a brutal testing regime that is cheap to teach but casts the most vulnerable into poverty and failure.  For private enterprise, Katrina was not a tragedy; it was an opportunity.

It was also a crisis created by unprecedented natural events; but man can easily create crises, through underfunding and deregulation, crises in which a system is systematically and deliberately broken and then deemed to be irreparable by anything other than management  from a supposedly more efficient private sector.  It is this man-made disaster that is driving the move towards the privatisation – wrapped up in the educationally aspirational term ‘academisation’ – that George Osborne is building a large portion of the Budget around.

There is a much resistance to such moves in Scotland, where we are proud of our state funded, local authority managed comprehensive states system.  It has served us well, for all its faults.  But those forces which would dismantle that system are undoubtedly gathering, forces which range from groups of parents (usually middle class) rightly anxious about local school closures to influential think tanks to former highly paid public education executives who have slickly managed the transition to become champions of (and I quote) ‘increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility.’ And in a world run by TTIP in which private corporations have the legal right to siphon off profitable parts of public services uninhibited by the democratic will of the people, education services and even individual schools may well find themselves being circled by some very ravenous wolves.

There is less resistance, however, to apprenticeship models of teacher training.  Tom Hunter’s ‘exploration’ of Scottish education recently highlighted a successful academy in London, employing ‘Teach First’ teachers, described as ‘the very best graduates’, as if anyone not on such a scheme is somehow the underqualified dross of the teaching profession.  The Scottish Government’s warm response – a sort of ‘if it works, we’ll do it’ common sense – suggests that they may well look at different models of teacher training.   Let’s be clear, though.  Apprenticeship models of teacher training work on exactly the same principles as your electricity supply. Power is brought to our homes from the same power stations, along the same cables, through the same substations; it is only when the envelope with the bill arrives that a multitude of companies clamour and compete for the right to charge us for that same electricity.  Training providers  – whether individual schools, local authorities or – most likely – private corporations – will still place student teachers in the same schools with the same mentors, still access the same university courses and tutors, will still employ the same accreditation bodies as ever.  But with a product to now sell, with a contract to protect, with profits to enhance – what is the chance that the need to be ‘outstanding’ will (and I use the word advisedly but appropriately) trump the need to adhere to rigorous quality standards?

This is all going to happen, as sure as the sun rises and sets.  After the Japanese earthquake, news outlets had panels of experts that included earthquake scientists, nuclear power station engineers and financial consultants, as if economic activity is as immutable and inevitable as tectonic plate shifts and radioactive meltdown.  And, in the world we live in, it is.  Neoliberalism will have its way. 

But people can – should – speak out; otherwise, we will lose all that we value without a whimper.  Whether it is on these global issues that threaten to swallow education as we know it, or whether it is on the – not unrelated – issues of the closure of school libraries, or the development of a vocational curriculum, or the place of Scottish culture and texts in our classrooms, or the reintroduction of national testing, English teachers can and should have a voice.  For decades, that voice has been NATE, and we have two of its most influential members here tonight.  I won’t say much about them, since most of you quoted Bethan Marshall in your last assignments on assessment and therefore know her work well.  And when Conservative Home (The Home of Conservatives), a body deliciously unacquainted with the concept of tautology, describes Simon Gibbons as  a ‘classic Leftist elitist’ who ‘uses impeccable standard English’, you know he’s worth listening to.  That same august body said of NATE, ‘it’s time is up.’  That was four years ago.  It would be nice to watch it grow in Scotland.’


(Raymond Soltysek lectures in Teacher Education at The University of Strathclyde and is Regional Coordinator for The Scottish Association for the Teaching of English.  Views expressed here are his own, not those of his employer or SATE)