August 2017


  • Leading thoughts
    Geoff Barton reflects on his journey meeting hundreds of school and college leaders since taking up the role of ASCL General Secretary three months ago. More
  • School heroes
    Character and resilience education helps pupils to develop important life skills says former Headteacher Ben Slade. Here he highlights a new programme being delivered by ex-service personnel in schools. More
  • Be prepared
    Recent incidents in Manchester and London affected everyone, including many of our own pupils and staff, says Headteacher Richard Sheriff. Here he highlights what leaders can do to prepare for such instances. More
  • Sense and accountability
    ASCL’s Primary and Governance Specialist Julie McCulloch on the current problems with primary assessment and the launch of a new ASCL-led independent review of primary accountability. More
  • Keeping your head
    Reassuringly, new research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that retention of headteachers in the education system is about 90%. However, there is still work to be done, as this figure does appear to be declining over time says NFER’s Karen Wespieser. More
  • Education post-brexit
    What should education look like in a post-Brexit Britain? Here ASCL Director of Policy Leora Cruddas explores the future of our education system. More
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ASCL’s Primary and Governance Specialist Julie McCulloch on the current problems with primary assessment and the launch of a new ASCL-led independent review of primary accountability.

Sense and accountability

The way in which primary children are assessed has changed hugely over the last couple of years. The statutory assessments taken by pupils at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 (commonly known as SATs) are much harder, with children now being assessed on content they previously wouldn’t have encountered until up to three years later. The focus of the tests has also changed, with a much greater emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

The challenge of implementing these changes was aggravated by the rushed and chaotic way in which the new assessments were introduced. The framework for the new Key Stage 2 writing assessment, needed from September 2015, was delayed until the November. Sample test materials and exemplification documents were published late, with some not available until April 2016 for tests due to be sat the following month. Two of the 2016 tests were mistakenly published online in advance.

The government has, to be fair, made some positive steps to help primary leaders and teachers to embed the new approach, and to address some of the most glaring problems associated with it. These include promises not to introduce any new national tests or assessments before the 2018/19 academic year, to improve the moderation of teacher assessment and to make the Key Stage 1 grammar, punctuation and spelling test non-statutory.

The recent government consultation on primary assessment, which closed in June, also includes some thoughtful and sensible proposals that, if implemented, could lead to further improvements.

Pernicious effects

Nothing that has been proposed so far, however, would have any impact on one of the most pernicious aspects of the current system: the distorting effect of the Key Stage 2 SATs on the primary curriculum. This issue was brought into sharp relief by a recent Education Select Committee report on primary assessment (

Drawing on nearly 400 submissions of written evidence, plus a series of oral evidence sessions with teachers, school leaders, academics and other experts, the select committee’s report concluded that “many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself”. Damningly, the report concluded that “this high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school”.

ASCL agrees. While the increased focus on progress in primary accountability is welcome (primary schools can now be above the floor by meeting either an attainment-based or a progress-based standard), the current system still places far too much weight on a single set of tests in English and maths, taken in one week in May by 11 year-olds.

Teaching to the test

Back in 2010, before the recent ramping up of expectations exacerbated the situation even further, the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review ( found that “many teachers felt impelled, because they considered they were being judged on the SATs results, to spend a good deal of time in Year 6 and sometimes earlier in revision and practice tests… In addition, disproportionate time was spent on the subjects tested at the expense of creativity and personal and social development.” Quoting the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE), the report concluded that “in a great many schools coaching for test performance has replaced education”.

The select committee made a number of recommendations for improving this situation. These included publishing a rolling three-year average of Key Stage 2 results instead of results from a single cohort, and requiring Ofsted to report on the extent to which schools offer a broad and balanced curriculum.

These are interesting suggestions. We believe, however, that there is more that we can do, at a system level, to incentivise and reward primary schools for providing children with a broad, rich and deep curriculum, and to tackle the unintended consequences of the current approach.

Key questions

ASCL has therefore initiated an independent review of primary accountability, bringing together a group of experts ( to explore the impact of the current approach to accountability on the primary curriculum, and on children’s experience, and to make recommendations for how the system may evolve. The review will consider questions such as:

  • In what ways do curriculum, assessment and accountability currently work together or conflict with one another in the primary phase?
  • What data is gathered on primary school performance? How reliable is it? How accurately does it reflect the effectiveness of a school?
  • What are primary schools rewarded for doing, and sanctioned for not doing?
  • What unintended consequences result from the current approach to accountability?
  • How may that approach be changed in order to tackle those unintended consequences, and incentivise and reward primary schools to provide a broad, rich and deep curriculum and experience for children?
  • How can primary schools effectively demonstrate the broad value they add?

The expert panel first met in June. We aim to publish a report and a series of recommendations in the autumn term. One of the outcomes of this work will be to feed into Ofsted’s thematic review of the curriculum, announced by HMCI Amanda Spielman at ASCL’s Annual Conference in March (

The review would very much welcome input from ASCL members in primary, infant, junior or middle schools. Please email me at to share your thoughts.

ASCL PD Events:

Getting to Grips with Accountability Measures: Leadership of Data 2017

(Various dates and locations available)

These popular conferences for members of the SLT and data managers, seek to explore the challenges facing school leaders as they respond to the ever more sophisticated range of data available to schools. A number of workshops will be available, including more detail on Key Stage 2 accountability. Find out more and book your place online:

Regional Information Conferences 2017

(Various dates and locations available)

Get all the updates you need to know about the key national issues, including on primary assessment, in one day from the ASCL specialist team. These conferences are an essential event in all school and college leaders’ diaries. Find out more and book your place here:

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Primary and Governance Specialist