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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.

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This entry was posted on March 22, 2016 by and tagged .

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