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.