Today I walked back up the lane with my daughter and her friend after meeting them at the school bus. Her friend had the Year 6 SATs results in hand. Her friend is bright, so there will be celebration and happiness in that home tonight. Because when all is said and done, the SATs results tell you where your child stands in the grand scheme of things. Do they pass or fail? Are they above or below a randomly selected “expected level”? Are they up to scratch or not? I’d imagine there are homes where there is not all that much happiness tonight, because no parents wants to be told that their child is “below average”. To be compared unfavourably to the children of everyone else.
This same idea of ranking is taking hold in the field of assessment. Everyone is talking about comparative assessment as the Next Big Thing (now where have I heard that before?) Rank the children and decide whether they meet your expectations, either in effort or in attainment. Put them all metaphorically up on the wall. Pure data as the ultimate arbiter of whether a child succeeds or not. If you like the sound of comparative judgement, just imagine for a second what it would feel like if we assessed teachers in this way. “I’m going to compare you to you. You are better than you. You are definitely not making the required progress.” I can’t get my head around only looking at a child’s work for a matter of seconds, and making a judgement on it, no matter how accurate we think we all are if we aggregate ourselves. (Clue: not very.)
I mourn the demise of levels, if this is the alternative we are left with. I know people love the idea of moving beyond levels, so I’m saying this from a parental viewpoint and not a teacher one, but at least with levels, you saw what your child could do and not where they were in relation to a midpoint meaning ‘average’. The idea that your child has passed or failed was a lot more fuzzy with a letter and some descriptors, than it is with a scale of numbers or a rubbish/average/superb message. Above or below a number feels like your children are being compared in relation to other people’s, rather than being seen as individual people. Year 6 children will whisper “What number did you get?” in the playground this week, as might their parents outside the school gates. And comparing yourself or your children to other people is not an attractive habit to encourage. (Unless it’s Sports Day or you really like competitions.)
Data is seductive. It draws you in and it shows you the big picture, so you can make accurate judgements (hmm), but people can lose sight of the individual trees if they get too focused on studying the big forest of children. I reckon that most parents don’t really want to know where their children sit on a scale of low to high, mainly because they already know. (Although if the answer is “better than average” they’ll probably take the accolade.) I certainly don’t want my children reduced to a number in a National Test or data mined to find progress; their learning measured as an abstract thing. I want to know about how they are doing in relation to themselves. Yes, SATs and GCSEs act as a kind of mythical end point, but your life isn’t over and decided at eleven or sixteen.
The oldest kid got a praise postcard in the post today. It is, according to him, “the second best reward you can get in school”. It was from his Science teacher, saying that he’d tried very hard this year. He has fallen deeply in love with the subject (hurrah!) just like his sister has done with maths (double hurrah!). This is the feedback that I want as a parent. Not a ranking on a government scale, or an expected level, or a measure against their classmates, but the message that the teachers know my kids and like working with them. When I go into school, I always try to remember to say thanks, for the hard work and dedication they put in. I want them to know that I appreciate them. And I respect them. And that I’m definitely not planning to rank them.