Why year 7 resits might be a good thing

Nothing says cross-spectrum support in education like Jonathan Simons agreeing with Sue Cowley. Year 7 resits: not many people are fans. My initial reaction, too, was negative. Just leave us alone to teach them, I thought. Every drop of juice has been squeezed out of the testing and accountability fruit. But might year 7 resits be a juicier proposition than we’ve thought?

Schools are given a sizeable chunk of money to help level 3 kids catch up. It’s reasonable for government to want to check that money is being used well. Currently, schools put together some paperwork “evidence” which sits in a box file getting dusty until Ofsted arrive: not the most robust form of accountability. An assessment is more reliable and valid than bureaucratic bum-covering.

Myopia and wishful thinking makes it easy for us to see progress where it may not really exist. An external examination encourages us to look at the interventions we choose with a more sceptical eye. Is this really evidence-informed? What can we learn from other departments and schools? Too often I’ve seen year 7 catch up spending be left up to a keen but inexperienced Key Stage 3 co-ordinator, whose focus is engagement through a creative, innovative solution, rather than something solid but effective like Fresh Start or Connecting Math Concepts.

A common argument against high-stakes assessment is that it distorts incentives. High stakes will certainly affect incentives, but it need only distort them if the stakes don’t match the stakeholders’ desired outcomes. We’ve seen the impact of an unbalanced accountability system, which had an undue emphasis C-D borderline and a dubious definition of “equivalent” qualifications. The move towards progress 8 and the EBacc is improving this. But one thing that is tougher to change is the emphasis on year 11.

People (rightly) say it makes sense to teach children properly in Key Stage 3 so there’s no mad rush in GCSE year, but it’s rare to see a head follow through on that idea. The strongest teachers, the most intervention, the priciest resources are thrown at this year group. It’s hard to blame headteachers for this. The argument goes, every year, why should it be this year 11 cohort that miss out in favour of year 7? This argument is even easier to make when a drop in results could have catastrophic results for the school, not to mention the head themselves.

The one thing that might finally tear attention away from year 11 is inescapable accountability in other years. The progress of the weakest in year 7 seems a good place to start. With an assessment on the way, sorting out year 7 takes on a new urgency; it’s not so easily pushed to the bottom of the SLT agenda. Staffing year 7 bottom set with the best teacher might take on renewed importance.

There’s no doubt the assessment would have to be very carefully designed. It should focus on a limited range of knowledge, such that it is feasible for secondary schools to teach it in a few months to children who may have failed to learn for years. It must also be genuinely useful knowledge that opens up doors to access the rest of the secondary school curriculum. The phonetic code; broad background knowledge and cultural literacy; times tables; fraction-decimal conversions; units of measurement. Knowing these things gives pupils the foundation they need to succeed at secondary.

Finally, the assessment should test as much of the domain as possible. The beauty of a times table check is that the sample in the test is identical to the domain. Teaching to the test isn’t an issue: the test is just as broad as what was to be taught. A resit test can be aimed squarely at the weakest pupils. Unlike SATS, we don’t have to worry about creating a bell curve that covers the whole population. There is potential to make this a test worth teaching to.

For once, a vulnerable, easily ignored group could be made the priority. Year 7 retakes, done properly, could be a real opportunity.

5 thoughts on “Why year 7 resits might be a good thing

  1. oldprimarytimer

    Speaking from a primary perspective and talking about maths in particular, your list might work for the ones who missed it by a mark of two- and for those who just scraped through- but you need to get further back and much deeper for most children who don’t make it. Of course knowing your tables helps. That is a fairly quick fix. However, many children who don’t make the expected level don’t have a secure understanding of what multiplication and division really are. They might just about get that multiplication is repeated addition but won’t understand the scaling aspect at all. They know multiplication and division as procedures only- but not really when to use them. They don’t see the the relation between division ( sharing and splitting aspects) and fractions and therefore are very unclear about fractions as operators. This leads to confusion around percentages work.
    Similarly the scaling of place value is confused- they are usually ok at the additive aspect (200+40+7). This makes conversions of units problematic; they don’t share the feel for number that good mathematicians have. All of the above is a massive barrier to developing adequate proportional reasoning.
    But stepping even further back into what they should have learnt in ks1, they often lack a solid knowledge of additive number bonds and derivation strategies ( bridging and adjusting, nearby facts, place value scaling) – the stuff we taken for granted. This renders calculation such hard work because they are effectively having to rely on counting strategies. This overloads their working memory and prevents from being able to reason about number. Fixing this should come way before fixing tables – though obviously you need to know where the child is at.
    What is worse, some of these children are a bit hazy about addition and subtraction as inverse operations.
    In the mad dash to get kids ready for sats, many children with real mathematical difficulties do not get the opportunity to spend enough time developing conceptual understanding or enough time reasoning with the maths they do have.
    It’s never to late to help children who have are struggling but it needs a thorough diagnosis of what they can and can’t do.
    This list comes from the research and development behind Edge Hill University’s Every Child Counts maths interventions, in particular Success@arithmetic: number sense and Success@arithmetic:calculation. The number sense intervention is aimed at primary but there may be one or two secondary children who need to go this far back. The calculation intervention is aimed at yrs5-7.

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  2. Mark @EarlsHighMaths

    You make some interesting points from an education policy persepective, Bodil. If this encourages more cross phase collaboration between KS2/ KS3 then it could be an opportunity to tackle some of Ofsted’s ‘KS3 the wasted years’ points; https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/459830/Key_Stage_3_the_wasted_years.pdf.

    A meaningful difference could be made and counter some of the ‘dead time’ between May’s Yr6 SATs tests and September Yr7, then more joined up thinking is needed. But should this not be the case in making our weakest students ‘secondary ready’ regardless of SATs re-sits?

    From our students’ points of view (which is where I imagine your initial negative reaction stems from), they will not remember how we taught them maths concepts, but they will remember how we made them feel. Students who have a negative view of maths or have a negative experience (akin to failing the 11+ exams from years ago) and not have the love of learning, will switch off and disengage with the process. I fear they will become quietly disaffected, and this plan will brand students as ‘failures’/ ‘not up to standard’ from an early age, which is a difficult narrative to change.

    So on balance, I’m still struggling to see the upside and can see the profession, rightly so in my view, continue to battle this policy.

    Thanks for the reference to Fresh Start and Connecting Math Concepts – I’ll look into it!

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  3. Michael Tidd

    Might it not be better to give the incentives to primary schools to get the basics right instead of the unhelpful balance of the SATs?
    Better late than never, maybe.. But even better sooner

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  4. suecowley

    I’m impressed that you’ve managed to find a positive in this idea. However, unless there is some kind of miracle at work, I don’t see how you will find an intervention that will work in 12 weeks, in a new setting, after a long summer holiday, unless you believe that primaries are missing something really obvious. I honestly don’t see how secondary schools will timetable this – they’d have to give these children additional lessons and narrow their curriculum. It’d end up being like the old ‘remedial’ classes they used to have when I was a kid. Also, you’re coming at this from the angle of maths, but bear in mind it will be English SATs too.

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  5. mhorley

    Thanks for posting this and fuelling the debate. You raise some interesting points that I hadn’t considered previously, i.e. the fact that it can be a very specifically created Year 7 test rather than just the same KS2 SATs paper again. As such we don’t actually need to call them “resits”. And in fact, why do they need to occur at the beginning of Year 7? i.e. what is going to be achieved in 12 weeks in a new school that hadn’t been achieved in many years at Primary? But on balance I’m still opposed to this being a mandated high-stakes test imposed by DfE. It should be up to schools to come up with ways of assessing Year 7 students appropriate to the school.

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