Mathematics Education: Exploring the Culture of Learning

By Barbara Allen; Sue Johnston-Wilder | Go to book overview
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'I'll be a nothing'

Structure, agency and the construction of identity through assessment 1

Diane Reay and Dylan Wiliam


Drawing on data from focus group and individual interviews with Year 6 pupils in the term leading up to Key Stage 2 National Curriculum tests, this article explores the extent to which children's perceptions of the tests contribute to their understandings of themselves as learners. The tension between agency and structure becomes apparent in children's differential dispositions to view the testing process as a definitive statement about the sort of learner they are. Although children's responses are varied, what most share is a sense of an event which reveals something intrinsic about them as individuals. The article also explores the emotions, in particular the anxiety and fear, which permeate such understandings of the National Curriculum assessment process.

Introduction and background

The primary purpose of the 1988 Education Reform Act was to create an educational 'market' that it was assumed by its proponents, would increase standards of performance in schools. Freeing schools from the homogenising effects that local education authorities were believed to exert would create a diversity of provision, allowing parents, who were generally viewed as the 'consumers' of education (rather than, say, students, or the wider community), to choose schools that reflected their aspirations and wishes.

Popular schools would expand, and those that were not, would have to improve, or, if they could not, would close. However, in order to allow the market to function 'efficiently', it was necessary to create an index of performance. The national school-leaving examination (the General Certificate of Secondary Education) provided such an index for students at age 16, but of course would provide no information about the performance of students in primary schools. The solution enacted in the Education Reform Act was the creation of a National Curriculum for all students of compulsory school age in England and Wales, with national assessments for all 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds, the results of which, at least for 11- and 14-year-olds, were to be published for each school.

Although it was claimed that these results would also be useful for informing parents of the academic progress of their children, the information on the attainment of 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds is not available until June or July, and is therefore far too late to influence choices of junior or secondary schools, or of subject options in upper


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