This week’s columnist, Teachers are worth listening to - Huw Thomas

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The Diocesean director of education for Sheffield argues against oppressive testing of pupils

In 1992 I was barred from Meadowhall. They were hosting a government ‘roadshow’, promoting new SAT tests and I joined a protest setting out to balance the argument.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX''GCSE pupils learning french in a class at a secondary comprehensive school.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX''GCSE pupils learning french in a class at a secondary comprehensive school.

This was not welcome. We were told to leave. When I raised the possibility that teachers should be listened to, I was lifted by the dungarees, carted past Marks and Spencers and ejected by security guards who told me I was barred for life.

Back then, ours was not a popular cause. The mood was for national assessment strategies and Education Secretary Ken Baker, who often did the right thing in the wrong way, unleashed waves of testing.

Within a decade I encountered the sea-change. Ten years later I joined colleagues with a petition opposing the excessive testing of our 11 – year-olds. If you’ve ever campaigned on Fargate you will know the usual response of passers-by is to treat you like a medieval leper. However, on that Saturday, as people realised what we were about an amazing thing happened: folks came across to us wanting to sign. Many had children, to whom they referred. “She done ’em last year” or ‘no way to treat kiddies’.” This was a testing regime that has gone too far.

In the week when we celebrate with our A level students and wish those awaiting GCSE results the best, I’d congratulate our young people. I’d then mark the report card of those responsible for national assessment with the comment “could do better”.

Assessment is essential for good education but our oppressive diet serves the needs of those who monitor classrooms more than those who teach in them. Those who shape education have fallen into a trap of letting data run the show, valuing assessments rather than assessing what is valued.

We recently witnessed the sacking of an ideologically driven and unpopular Education Secretary who didn’t listen. We are also blessed with an inspired and thoughtful generation of teachers well worth listening to, who are committed to assessment that enables learning. That’s why headteachers have announced plans to counter the government’s crude league tables with more trustworthy ones. It’ll be amusing to see how these are received. It’s also why, when this government recently and irresponsibly abandoned assessment levels, putting no alternative provision in place, Sheffield schools devised a means of tracking pupils learning so effective that it is being taken up by schools across the region.

Now would be a good time to pit the intelligence of our teachers against the simplistic thinking of our masters, to listen to what they know is of value in education and to allow their insight to shape assessment policy: for a cause like that, I’d be lifted by the dungarees again.