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Sats are formal tests. Let’s not pretend they aren’t

The pressure on children to perform well in Sats has never been higher – despite the government’s repeated insistence that they’re ‘just another test’

Sats are a formal exam, don't say otherwise

Next week, some 600,000 10- and 11-year-olds will be sitting their Sats. Despite these key stage 2 assessments having been with us since the 1990s, it’s fair to say that warmth towards them has not increased with time.

There were outright boycotts by NAHT and NUT (now NEU) members in 2010 and real fury in 2016 with the “chaotic” introduction of tougher tests in line with the new curriculum. And at this year’s NEU conference, members voted for a ballot to boycott them again, which was followed by an announcement from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that his party would abolish them if they came to power.

Concerns centre on the pressures being put on children at too young an age for what is in fact meant to be a check on how schools are performing and, more importantly, whether government policies are working. But it’s hard to disassociate them from the children: after all, they are the ones doing the performing.

Schools minister Nick Gibb says that the headteachers he meets who are running “very good primary schools would not dream of putting pressure on our young people”.

The implication here is, of course, insulting. No headteacher wants to put undue pressure on children. But it’s hard. They know that if results fall below the floor standard, the school can be forcibly academised or moved to another trust. They could lose their jobs and their teachers would come under scrutiny and might not get a pay rise. That’s a helluva lot of pressure to tell heads to suck up.

And they do need to prepare children for these tests. How much preparation is enough and how much too much is always going to be tricky and has led to accusations of a narrowing of the curriculum. Teachers can get children ready by giving them tests as a matter of course so they see these as just more of the same. However, the formality surrounding Sats only draws attention to their not being the same.

Children will go into their classrooms to do the tests but the classrooms will look very different. They will see no displays on the walls. They will be seated differently too, to ensure they cannot see one another’s papers. And they will sit in silence for 45 minutes.

The papers are not simply given out. Two members of staff have to collect the pack of sealed papers from the secure locked cupboard in which they are stored. The sealed pack is then taken into the classroom and opened in front of the pupils.

The children are then told to copy down the school’s name and Department for Education number onto their papers from the board at the front of the classroom in black or blue pen or dark pencil.

So let’s not pretend it isn’t anything other than a formal test and one that is impossible to keep from the children. The government know it, we know it and the children know it. What needs to be done about that is more difficult. And calls for abolition without any idea of what should take their place are just silly.

Government has made a start by proposing removing Sats as a trigger for intervention, instead relying on Ofsted judgements. They could go further by cutting down on the rigmarole surrounding them. And not only for the children. The bureaucracy for staff is mind-blowing – 60 pages on assessment and reporting statutory guidance, 34 on test administration guidance, 32 on access arrangement guidance, 21 pages on the attendance register and dispatching scripts, which involves a nine-step process for sending off the papers.

Yes, it’s a thoroughly complicated procedure, but it does show one thing at least: the government really does know how to put the performance into performance measure.

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 10 May 2019 issue under the headline “Sats are formal tests. Let’s stop pretending they’re anything but”