Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) published the provisional results of the national curriculum assessments taken by all 11-year-olds.
Just 53 per cent of children across the country met the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, whereas 78 per cent achieved the old Level 4 or above last year.
In West Sussex, only 44 per cent of youngsters made the grade when it came to reading, writing and maths combined, with the attainment in writing falling well short – 60 per cent compared to a national average of 74 per cent.
Before being replaced by Justine Greening MP, former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the 2015 and 2016 results were not comparable as they were achieved using two entirely different systems.
A DfE spokesman added: “Children sitting Key Stage 2 tests in 2016 were the first to be taught and assessed under the new national curriculum.
“The expected standard has been raised and the accountability framework for schools has also changed.
“These changes mean that the expected standard this year is higher and not comparable with the expected standard used in previous year’s statistics.”
The results, though, still prompted a swift response from local authorities.
The county council said it would be “working closely” with schools to develop an action plan to improve the results.
A spokesman added: “This year children at Key Stage 2 were assessed with much stricter criteria than previous years and it has had a significant impact on the outcome. All local authorities moderated their own results and we stringently adhered to the new standards.
“Although our standards in reading were close to the national average, our children’s standards in writing need to be improved so we will be working closely with all of our schools to help with this and embed the new tests into their curriculum.”
That work will include looking at ways to close the widening gap between girls and boys.
In West Sussex, 40 per cent of boys met the required standard, compared to 49 per cent of girls. That gap was replicated at a national level with girls outperforming boys by 57 per cent to 50.
No gender gap was recorded last year.
Tobias Melia, head of Our Lady Queen of Heaven School, in Langley Green, was not surprised by the Key Stage 2 results, agreeing with many who felt the tests had been too difficult. He said: “Without a shadow of a doubt, I think the expectations of what children needed to do was so above and beyond what we would expect most 11-year-olds to be able to do.”
As an example, he said the reading text would have been relatable to children of his generation who grew up reading the likes of Enid Blyton, but added: “It was a different text to what many children now are engaged with. The government would acknowledge that.”
Mr Melia also felt results would pick up quickly as schools adapted their curriculums.
He said: ““For this first year it’s been a real learning curve for the schools and also for the government and local authorities. They will look back this autumn and reflect on this.
“I think schools will be better again next year. The more you practice, the better you get. As schools and children get more used to the new assessment style, the more results will improve. It takes time.”
One fact that could cause concern for parents was the performance of West Sussex schools compared to those in neighbouring counties.
In East Sussex, the pass rate was 50 per cent, while in Surrey it was 58 and 57 per cent in Hampshire.
The gap between the authorities was much wider than last year, with West Sussex trailing the other three by between 3 and 6 per cent.
So why did the gap increase so much?
A council spokesman said: “We can’t accurately explain why our results were affected by the new tests more than other authorities but we are positive that we will be able to improve on the results in the future.”
He added: “We recognise our teachers work extremely hard in the interests of all our children. We are currently working on an action plan and are confident that improvements can be made quickly.
“We also recognise some of our schools face significant financial and social challenges and have recently introduced a new school improvement strategy which will impact on school outcomes in 2017.”
Another point highlighted by these latest figures was the performance of academies compared to state-funded schools. The results showed state-funded schools were still out-performing academies – but their lead was slim at best and nonexistent in places.
But the figures masked an important variation between the types of academy. Splitting them down into their three categories, a different picture emerged.
Converted academies – those which chose to leave local authority control – out-performed state-funded schools in all areas, recording a pass rate of 57 per cent in reading, writing and maths, with 6 per cent of their pupils achieving a higher standard than expected, compared to the 5 per cent national average.
It was a different story for sponsored academies – schools which had been instructed to take on academy status by the government – where just 43 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard.
For free schools, that figure was 48 per cent.
Perhaps this should not be a surprise as the schools which choose to convert are often the ones that have historically performed well, while those forced to convert were the ones struggling the most.
The government’s reasoning has been that putting failing schools in the hands of an educational sponsor will lead to better results.
The idea has not really been proved by the Department for Education figures. Results for sponsored academies have remained as much as 12 per cent below the national average, with only those who converted five or more years ago showing a rise in their performance. Even they are still 7 per cent behind state-funded schools.
So is the government’s decision to force low-achieving schools to convert working? Mr Melia said he did not think academisation was necessarily the way to improve results - he put success down to the team in charge.
He said: “It doesn’t matter if the school is a local authority school, an academy or a free school – if you have the right staff and good engagement with your children and parents, and governors that are scrutinising the leadership of the school, the results will follow. The government has tried to work out if there is a correlation between academies and results. I don’t think they have got enough evidence yet. It’s such early days.”
It may not be all doom and gloom for the children – or their respective secondary schools. The government’s new system of measuring a secondary school’s performance is now based on how much progress each child made after leaving primary school.
If the Key Stage 2 results of this year’s intake were particularly low, then they stand a big chance of showing an impressive amount of progress by the time they take their GCSEs.
Expect some outstanding figures in 2020/21.
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