Perverse incentives are real

I’ve just spent a few pleasurable hours looking at the science writing from my y6 class. I say pleasurable, because they’re very good writers this year (thanks Mr M in y5!), but also because there were elements of their writing that hinted at an education. Some children had picked up on, and correctly reinterpreted, the higher level information I had given in reply to their questions on the chemistry of the investigation. All of them had made links with ‘the real world’ following the discussions we’d had.

It all sounds good doesn’t it?

The sad truth is that in spite of the fact that I’m an advocate of education not attainment, the knowledge of what will and will not form part of the end of year measurement is still there, influencing my decisions and having a detrimental impact on my education of the children.

This is because while I am marking their work, I am making decisions about feedback and whether  to follow up misconceptions, or take understanding further. Let’s remember that this is science. Although I personally view its study as crucial, and its neglect  as the source of most of the world’s ills, it has nevertheless lost its status in the primary curriculum. So my thoughts are, ‘Why bother? This understanding will not form part of any final assessment and no measurement of this will be used to judge the effectiveness of my teaching, nor of the school’. Since this is true for science, still nominally a ‘core subject’, how much more so for the non-entities of art, music, DT, etc.? Is there any point in pursuing any of these subjects in primary school in an educational manner?

The argument, of course, is that we have an ethical responsibility as educators to educate. That teachers worth their salt should not be unduly swayed by the knowledge that a narrow set of criteria for a small population of pupils are used at the end of KS2 to judge our success or failure. It reminds me of the argument that senior leaders shouldn’t do things just for OFSTED. It’s an unreasonable argument. It’s like saying to the donkeys, ‘Here’s a carrot and a very big stick, but just act as you would if they weren’t there!’

I’m not in favour of scrapping tests and I’m no fan of teacher assessment, but it’s undeniable, that what I teach is influenced by the KS2 SATs and not all in a good way. The primary  curriculum is vast. The attainment tests are narrow. It also brings into question all research based on using attainment data as a measure of success. Of course it’s true that the things they measure are important – they may even indicate something – but there are a lot of things which aren’t measured which may indicate a whole lot of other things.

I can’t see how we can value a proper primary education – how we can allow the pursuit of further understanding – if we set such tight boundaries on how we measure it. Testing is fine – but if it doesn’t measure what we value then we’ll only value what it measures. I’m resistant to that fact, but I’m not immune. I’m sure I’m no different to every other primary teacher out there. Our assessment system has to change so that we can feel fine about educating our pupils and not think we’re wasting our time if we pursue an area that doesn’t count towards a final mark.





2 thoughts on “Perverse incentives are real

  1. You are right and I think this is where all need to work constructively together. I think the one thing that needs to happen in order to move us forward is that as teachers we need to think about why it is that the government thinks without these accountability measures the standards in literacy and numeracy would decline. There is precedent for this and it was only reading Robert Peel’s book that made me realise that the concern is valid. It has happened.

    Those who push for the idea that we should be about “making children happy” and “giving children a childhood” while ignoring the educational impact on the children (in terms of illiteracy and innumeracy) do primary teachers no favours. Yet KS2 SATs as you point out creates perverse incentives that actually create a barrier to a broad and balanced curriculum.

    The current drive of the unions to no testing is a red herring as it is an attempt to go back to no accountability and that is not going to wash (and neither should it IMO). What is the solution? Low stakes testing of all subjects would work but of course the anti-testing people are going to hate it. What’s the alternative? Because it can’t be going back to no accountability and poor educational outcomes in all subjects.

    • I don’t know what the answer is. Was the perceived poor state of English education the result of lack of accountability or was there an issue with the level of education of the teachers and the poor standard of the curriculum? We have an accountability culture but only for a narrow (albeit crucial) domain, particularly in primary education. Leaving science to be the poor relation is appalling. How are teachers held to account for the teaching of science and the foundation subjects? If we are to have accountability then it needs to be informed in a way ours is not. We look at test scores from the end of KS2 and we draw a whole load of inferences that wouldn’t pass muster in the most basic of statistics courses, nor in an undergraduate sociology assignment. I’d be inclined to think that we need to start at the other end: make sure that the entrance requirements for teacher training were sufficiently rigorous; make sure the curriculum was well-supported with text books produced by academics and not by commercial organisations. If we are going to use testing – and I think we should – we need to test all subjects. However, whenever we set a ‘pass mark’, outline a narrow band of success criteria, and threaten schools and teachers over the outcomes, we can not escape the perverse incentives to teach only what is tested and to only bother with those pupils who are deemed able to ‘pass’.

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