Most of us go to the dentist and the optician to have our teeth and eyes checked on a regular basis. When we turn 40 we can have our health checked by the GP. If something matters, you check that it’s all ok.
Very few things matter as much as ensuring our children can read, write and add up. That is why all over the world, from France to Finland and America to Australia children’s learning is assessed. From Berlin to Bordeaux, Boston to Brisbane, children sit assessment tests. 28 out of 35 countries in the OECD assess primary school pupils through national, standardised tests. In Australia, tests take place in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. In most US States, they take place annually. There are very few things that are agreed the world over about education – the need to assess primary school attainment is one of them.
The tests themselves vary but the principle remains constant. These tests do not exist to check up on our children. Our national curriculum tests (often called SATs) exist to check up on the system – and those who oversee it on your behalf. There are few duties on me that are more serious than ensuring that children are literate and numerate by the time they leave primary school. It is absolutely right that you should know whether we are succeeding in this duty or not.
This is why it worries me deeply when I hear calls for primary school tests to be scrapped. Imagine if the government announced that it was going to ban dental checks or stop opticians checking our eyesight. People would be rightly horrified. Stopping testing means not checking whether something is ok or not. In the world of primary school education, that means stopping checking whether our children can read, write and add up.
This doesn’t mean that we should accept exam stress at primary school. The truth is that in many schools, there isn’t any. All over the world, schools guide children through tests without them feeling pressured. This is how it should be. For these tests are tests of our education system, not our children. They test whether we – the adults - are discharging our duty to the children of our country.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – no-one has ever been asked for their SATs results when they go to a job interview. Why? Because they are not public exams. Unlike GCSEs or A-levels, I am yet to meet someone with a SATs result on their CV.
Those of you younger than 35 know this through experience, for our primary schools have been carrying out national curriculum tests for almost 30 years now. I refuse to countenance returning to a world where Government had no effective way of knowing how well our children were being taught, disproportionately to the detriment of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
The importance of testing has been one of the main things Labour and Conservative governments have agreed on in education policy over the past quarter of a century. This consensus has allowed us to measure progress in discharging our duty to our children. As a result we can tell which areas of the country and which schools need more support and which should share their expertise with the rest. It allows us all to see the improvement over the last few years in children’s reading as well as the declining gap between disadvantaged students and their better off peers. Turning our back on testing would put this progress, and children’s future, at risk.