There is nothing wrong with testing primary school children
For nearly 200 years King's College School has taken the children of all sorts of London families – in the early years, these included the offspring of Charles Dickens and Gabriele Rossetti (the precocious pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriele Rossetti). More recent alumni include Teenage IT wizard Nick D’Aloisio, Marcus Mumford and Dan Smith of Bastille. But for many years, almost every boy joining the senior school has come in at the age of 13, either from our own junior school or a prep school. Now, a few hundred years later than the rest of the country, we will be taking boys directly into the senior school at the age of 11.
And that means we are suddenly dependent on the quality of teaching and attainment in our local primary schools.
Ten years ago or more, and through no fault of their own, primary schools seemed plagued by endless government initiatives that gobbled up time, resources and money, but made no difference whatsoever to the quality of learning that went on in children's classrooms. But now that we are offering places to boys at 11, I have started visiting local primary schools, and I have been struck by the fantastic achievements I am seeing.
Classrooms are colourful and friendly, as I think they always have been, but there is a clear-headed sense of bringing the best out of each pupil academically. I may be wrong, but since the time I was looking at Oxford city primary schools for my daughters nearly twenty years ago, there seems more sense of focus, and more acceptance that the brightest need just as much attention as the strugglers. One thing that has helped all of our schools to flourish has been an acceptance by both Labour and the Conservative governments that setting and measuring standards is part and parcel of school life.
Over the years, many parents quietly despaired that their children were taught in classes where discipline was poor, or teacher standards low. Education secretary, Nicky Morgan, says she will preserve the national curriculum tests (SATs) at 11, and is consulting on tests at 7, too. She knows that this is one of the few ways government can keep a track of how each school is responding to its central mission: educating the young.
Every parent, teacher and pupil needs the year 6 tests, especially, to be fair, transparent and rigorous. From September 2016, the very clear signalling that exists currently, where level 4 is deemed the expected level of achievement for a year 6 child, will be abolished. There is some uncertainty about how parents and schools will respond to the release of raw and scaled scores, taking the place of the former levels, and the government will need to ensure the information on children across the country is consistent and fair. But the principle that parents can find out just how their child is getting on in reading, in writing accurate English, and in mathematics, is surely right. This can only be remotely telling if such core skills are assessed externally. And that means tests.
As the head of a secondary school that rather unusually has only just connected with primary schools, I feel uplifted by the good practice I see around me, and by the happiness and enthusiasm of the children in every class I have visited to date. But I know such strength is not replicated everywhere, and, in any case, that all school triumphs are fragile. The government must keep faith with a national 11+ assessment, they must ensure it is unfussy and fair, and we as teacher should accept that parents have a right to know by this crucial age just how their child is getting on in subjects that will shape their lives.