I’ve always been heavily involved with the Key Stage 2 Tests. I’m a senior member of the marking team, I’ve been involved in pre-testing and post-testing, I’ve been a member of the question-writing team, and I think I’m the only civilian ever to lead the evaluation of national pupil performance. I’m often asked to take trial papers into schools so the authorities can try out questions and whole papers.
At the end of the summer term in 2013 I made one such trial visit to a school which was happy to be involved in the pre-testing. It was an unforgettable experience and I couldn’t stop thinking about it and talking about the school for days afterwards. The intake and area seemed unremarkable but everything else was little short of amazing. The school invariably has terrific results in the Tests, but there was every indication these were gained through high expectations, excellent relationships between and among staff and pupils, and exceptional teaching.
I spent a morning with the Year 6 class. This was a mixed-ability group – though only in the sense that half the class were at level 5 and the other half at level 6 (if you’re not used to English levels, level 5 corresponds to the highest-rated standard – and level 6 goes beyond that, i.e. exceptional).
After the children had sat the trial test the teacher insisted (unlike the school I visited the following day, where the teacher couldn’t have been less obliging and couldn’t get me out of the door quickly enough) that I spend the rest of the morning talking with them and giving them feedback and further ideas. They were brilliant, full of enthusiasm and suggestions of their own, mutually supportive, and highly articulate even though most came from families who’d only arrived in the country in the last generation or two. When was the last time a primary school pupil said “That’s an example of litotes, isn’t it?” when you were speaking to pupils, and then kindly explained it for you?
It was as near magical an experience as I ever wish to have. The Head asked me to sign the visitors’ book, and I noticed that a few days before Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools had visited and enjoyed himself just as much as I had. I don’t blame him for pointing out that here was a school which you might have expected to be unremarkable yet was producing the very highest standards, and doing so not by rote learning and teaching to the test but by a culture of high expectations and mutual support.
It was a wonderful visit and I felt a little guilty I’d been paid for the experience.
A few weeks later I opened the paper and saw the school’s name mentioned. I assumed I was going to read of its usual performance at the very top of the national rankings. No, it wasn’t that at all. The school, or someone within it, had been found guilty of Maladministration – in other words, fiddling the answers (and since I’m usually involved in the reviews and appeals panel I know we do find a few examples of some very dubious behaviour every year).
So the school’s results were cancelled and the school has been removed from the most recent performance tables. The reputation of the whole school is tarnished and careers are ruined. Of course, I don’t know what the misdemeanours were. But what I do know is that I was invited into that school and made welcome by the Head and the Year 6 teacher and class. Every moment of the morning made it clear that those pupils had been magnificently prepared for secondary school by the school and their teacher. And I also know that the most exciting and joyous school visit I’ve ever made turned out to be the saddest.