Socialist Worker

Testing time for the Tories

There’s a nasty agenda behind the Tories’ plans to test children as young as four. They will set children and schools up for failure while robbing vital education funds to give to big firms. But there is resistance, writes Sadie Robinson

Issue No. 2449

Teachers and children protest against baseline tests at the NUT unions annual conference this year

Teachers and children protest against baseline tests at the NUT union's annual conference this year (Pic: Socialist Worker)


The Tories are bringing in tests for four year olds so they can close schools and sack teachers.

The tests have nothing to do with improving children’s education—and the Tories admit it. 

Rather they will be used to rank schools and write some off as “failing”—or as the Tories put it, to “hold schools to account”.

The Tories are quite keen on failing schools because it gives them a reason to close them and replace them with academies. 

And they like labelling experienced teachers as failures because they can then be thrown on the scrapheap and replaced with cheaper alternatives.

Children will face the tests just weeks into their reception year. The vast majority of children begin reception when they are four years old.

They will receive a score as a result of the test. The government says this will not be used to track individual children’s progress. 

Instead it will be used to compare their progress with other children who got the same score and generate a “progress measure for the school”.

The Tories say the tests, sold to schools by six approved private companies, won’t come into force until September next year. 

Yet there is already pressure on schools to select a firm and trial the tests this year. In February all six firms were told they had to recruit 1,638 schools by the end of this month or risk losing government approval.

The Tories constantly tell us there is no money. And it is estimated that schools will face a 12 percent funding cut per pupil after the election—whoever is in office.

Yet implementing the new baseline tests could cost around £5 million a year. By the time the first batch of tested children leave school, the tests will have cost around £35 million.

Providers say it will take teachers up to 30 minutes to administer the test to each child. They will have a maximum of 30 children in a class—so it could take 15 hours to get through the whole class.

The tests are an attack on education workers and will have a devastating impact on children.

Education experts say it is impossible to properly assess a child in the weeks when they are adjusting to being at school. 

As one teacher put it, “In the first few weeks, you are mainly trying to stop the child crying.”

Meaningless

And teachers, authors and others have denounced the tests as meaningless.

The money spent on the tests will also divert yet more money from children’s education. Schools are already struggling because of lack of resources.

Lewis Doig is an early years teacher in Kent. He told Socialist Worker, “Your ability to function is limited by the room size, class size, lack of resources for children with special educational needs and the emphasis on results.”

Like many teachers, Lewis said the tests weren’t aimed at making life better for children.

“There’s a nasty agenda behind baseline testing,” he said. 

“The government wants to look at a child’s test results and where they’re at when they’re 17 to see what ‘return’ they are getting. They want to work out the costs.”

The tests will have an impact on even younger children as the pressure grows to “prepare” for the test. 

Early years workers will be judged on whether they have delivered children to reception who are “school ready”.

Worried parents will start trying to prepare their children for the test.

The six firms flogging the tests are the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring Durham University (CEM), Early Excellence, GL Assessment, Hodder Education, National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Speech Link.

There were an estimated 705,138 four year olds in England and Wales in mid-2013. For the firms each child opens up an opportunity to cash in.

GL Assessment is part of GL Education Group “one of the UK’s leading providers of formative assessments”. 

Investcorp acquired GL Education Group from private equity firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson in 2012. 

Investcorp boss James Mahoney said GL Education Group “commands a leading competitive position in the UK ‘high-stakes’ education assessment market”.

GL Assessment Ltd has seen its worth soar in recent years. In 2009 its net worth was nearly £12 million. In 2013 that had gone up to £33 million.

CEM’s questions for judging children include whether they “separate from main carer with ease”.

Speech Link’s baseline test is £4.95 plus VAT per child. It helpfully reminds potential buyers, “Remember you can spend your pupil premium funding on these packages.”

Speech Link has also grown in value. Its net worth was £118,778 in 2009–in 2013 it had risen to £322,163.

Early Excellence markets itself as more child-friendly as it doesn’t use test questions for its baseline.

Instead it asks teachers to answer various questions about a child based on their observations.

Not content with targeting children in reception, it is also set to trial an assessment for children on entry to nursery.

It is flogging its baseline test for £3.10 per child, excluding VAT, plus an £85 registration fee.

Bidding

Paula Champion is a nursery teacher in Cambridge. She told Socialist Worker, “Early Excellence has a lot of respect among early years teachers. But I am very angry at them for bidding to do the tests—and so are a lot of other teachers.”

Early Excellence tests use the Leuven scale that early years teachers use to judge children’s well-being and development.

Paula said, “They’ve taken the Leuven scale and repackaged it so that they can get the kind of data from it that the government wants. That’s all they’ve done. 

“And they will make a huge amount of money from it.

“This is not doing early years education or children any favours.”

Early Excellence has also boosted its value in recent years. In 2008 its net worth was £783,463. By 2013 it had rose to over £1 million.

Tactyc, an association for early years trainers, is one of several groups that has denounced the tests.

It said the plan “runs the risk of labelling particularly vulnerable children as ‘failing’ from the moment they begin formal schooling”.

It added, “A stated purpose of the tests will be to hold early years education providers to account for the extent to which they have prepared children to school.

“The tests risk distorting early years education as practitioners feel driven to drill young children in rote literacy and numeracy skills.”

The firms have other ways of making money too.

Speech Link organises “training courses” for teachers costing £130 plus VAT per person. Early Excellence sells furniture.

And as the culture of testing spreads, private firms running clubs claiming to help children get through them will grow.

The tests can be stopped—if teachers and parents launch a big enough campaign against them. The NUT union agreed at its annual conference earlier this month to ballot for a boycott of the tests.

It also agreed to work with campaigning groups to “persuade schools not to start the scheme in September 2015”.

“The first thing teachers should do is call a union meeting in their school,” said Paula. “Teachers need to discuss this and invite speakers in to explain the issues.

“They should talk to parents too as many will be against the tests. Teachers need to tell their school management that they don’t want to do the tests. 

“And our union needs to make sure they know they are not alone in standing up for children’s education.”

Go to tactyc.org.uk and toomuchtoosoon.org for more information. Contact saratomlinson@hotmail.com and paulachampion@tiscali.co.uk for speakers

Educating for failure

Tests do not help children learn. They have distorted education.

Children are eager to learn and are inquisitive about the world around them. 

But instead of lessons being interesting and helping young people develop, teachers are forced to turn them into practice runs for tests. 

Hours are taken up with boring worksheets, quizzing kids on each tiny fact on the page.

Human beings develop the ability to talk, read, write and listen thorough co-operation and encouragement. But these are now being broken down and taught in small chunks to be tested.

Testing children is an integral part of the education system under capitalism. They are undertaken individually instead of in groups, and so the idea of competition is portrayed as natural.

Under capitalism education plays an economic and an ideological role. It is tailored to meet the needs of the economy by churning out what the bosses need—and anything more is a waste of money.

Tests divide children up into rigid categories to prepare them for a future workforce.

No matter what the firms providing the tests say, children know they are being judged and sorted into whether they are “smart” or not.

But it’s capitalism that limits potential. Poverty, discrimination and oppression all have an impact on educational ability.

Working class people hardly get a chance to develop their ability—because they are turned off education from the start. 

How well you do in the system isn’t down to some innate intelligence. It has more to do with class.

The battle against the tests can show up class division, the priorities of the system and its limits.

Socialists want a better, broader and more equal education system. We also need to fight to overthrow a system that distorts the lives of millions to prop up a rich few.


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