Testing times

IN many respects, the problem with school tests and league tables is not the principle, but the failure of Ministers and schools to learn lessons from the results – and then adjust their methods accordingly.

This is borne out by the extent to which New Labour became almost obsessed with GCSE exams, presumably to avoid the political embarrassment of the national pass-rate falling, while ignoring the deficiencies of many primary schools.

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Standards will not improve, to the satisfaction of both universities and businesses, unless youngsters grasp the basics – the so-called "Three Rs" – at an early age. It is too late to address the absence of basic numeracy and literacy knowledge when children pass to secondary school, the purpose of primary education should be to ensure pupils have the best possible grounding before they develop those skills ahead of career-defining GCSE exams.

To its credit, the coalition Government has acknowledged this. Its pupil premium will ensure more helps gets to those children, particularly those growing up in less than ideal family circumstances, and the decision to test the reading skills of all six-year-olds is another signal that school reforms will driven by the importance of early years education rather than GCSE results being used as the starting point.

Of course, the teaching unions will decry the introduction of another test. However, this is a nebulous argument. With GCSE students likely to be marked down for poor use of grammar in the future, Education Secretary Michael Gove is determined to raise literacy standards. A simple test, as he proposes, is still the best way of assessing the type of extra assistance that pupils need, whether it be to help under-performing youngsters learn to read or to inspire their more academically-inclined classmates to prosper.