Thursday, 12 December 2013

Testing question

A few weeks ago, we visited a unique village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv which maintains an even balance between Arab (whether Christian or Moslem) and Jewish residents, all of whom are Israeli citizens.  It has its own Primary School in which Arabic and Hebrew are used equally; it is only very recently that the school has been recognised (and thus funded) by the state which has apparently been deeply suspicious of such integration.

One of the inevitable questions asked was how pupils cope with transfer into the Secondary School system outside the village.  We were told that Arab parents often in fact send their children to Jewish schools simply because the quality is so much higher, and, whichever schools children move on to, the village youth group is one of the places in which any problems created by any one-sided Secondary School teaching of history can be tackled.

We were also told something else.  The attainment level of pupils leaving the village Primary School is usually lower than that of others entering the same Secondary School; the commitment to a broader curriculum and a bi-lingual approach is at the ‘cost’ of progress against particular targets.  But, the interesting thing, by the end of Secondary School, these pupils are usually amongst the highest achievers.

The explanation ventured was that delivering children at the end of Primary School who have a broad and positive experience which includes a sense of themselves and their ability to achieve prepares them better to flourish and learn at Secondary School than delivering children whose education has been focussed on achieving particular attainment levels in particular subjects.

Things are not so in England.  The Chief Inspector of School’s Annual Report just published calls for the reintroduction of attainment tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (7 year old) and Key Stage 3 (14 year old) as well as the present such tests at the end of Key Stage 2 (11 year old). 

Ofsted analysis has revealed that a disproportionate number of better rated teachers are being deployed at the top of Key Stage 2.  It appears that many schools, which know they will be rated in league tables by the levels of achievement in particular attainment tests at this stage, focus their best teachers not on broad curriculum but on preparing for these particular tests.  Who would have thought it.

And the Chief Inspector’s ‘solution’ to this is not to encourage instead the rewarding of schools for distributing the best teaching across the whole age range and curriculum so as to deliver children at the end of Primary School who have a broad and positive experience which includes a sense of themselves and their ability to achieve.  It is to encourage particular testing at multiple points.

I find I’ve gone back often in this Blog to issues of rewarding outputs and of schools' souls, but I don’t think this perspective stands much of a chance of an early return to favour; the Chief Inspector’s report comes hard on the heels of an international OECD report of ‘Pisa’ tests on 12 000 15 year old UK pupils in Maths, Reading and Science compared in particular with much higher achieving students in Shanghai (taken by the media to be representative of China as a whole).

I do actually wish I knew a little more about the Shanghai situation.  Superficial media comments would suggest that high parental expectations and liaison is a significant factor, and this is a variable within England which is rarely sufficiently analysed when comparing  local and regional variations in league table places here.  

The caricature is that these expectations and approach are significant factors in a child and adult suicide rate twice ours, which, if true, would be an indication that the Israeli school is on to something fundamental which the Shanghai schools may not be.

The picture was taken at dawn behind our house earlier this week.  We hear that it is snowing in Jerusalem; we were in shirt sleeves there eleven days ago.    

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