New Curriculum Assessment
The new curriculum shifts us from a curriculum focused largely on processes and skills to one based on hard-edged knowledge. Where in the past we have prioritised the tracking of an individual’s progress, the new curriculum pushes us to focus on the acquisition of each year’s prescribed topics.
You can already see examples of this new, crisper approach in two places – the phonics check in Year 1 and the spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) test in Year 6. Soon you will be able to see it in the same test for Year 2, and possibly more in the revised SATs from 2016. They are absolute tests of knowledge, each question with an indisputable correct answer.
In the past, we synthesised pupils’ strengths and weaknesses to arrive at a fair ‘bestfit’ judgement – in future, we will tot up the sum of their knowledge. In writing, for example – the most notorious of assessment challenges – we juggled the complexities of composition, grammar, spelling and expression to arrive at a single mark, whereas now we have the absolute measure of whether, for example, they can underline the adverb in someone else’s sentence.
This approach is easier and technically more ‘reliable’, but it is also more atomised and less informative about how well pupils use their knowledge.
Accountability will continue to depend largely on English and maths results, except at the end of secondary school, where an average point score will be used across eight subjects (ten if you acknowledge the double-weighting of English and maths).
Primary schools should note that the new system will count reading and writing as separate subjects, diminishing the contribution of mathematics, but raising the significance of writing, which has traditionally lagged behind. Good reading results have often offset poor writing results, but this won’t happen in the future. With a harder curriculum and a tough threshold of 85 per cent in each of reading, writing and maths, that will push a lot of schools to focus their improvement plans on writing. That 85 per cent, by the way, means 85 per cent achieving the expected level in each subject, not 85 per cent of children achieving all three.
The standard is rising by roughly half a level, so that by the end of primary school, expectations will stand at that place we now know as 4b or thereabouts. This confirms what we already know about the new primary curriculum in English and mathematics. It is harder. The pupils who now make or break results (the top 3s and fragile 4s) will no longer be the ‘borderliners’, but those who currently attain 4c and 4b. A similar phenomenon will occur in secondary when the GCSE standard rises. There is little in the new regime to disperse the focus on these borderliners.