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Be wary of what the DfE tells you about Sats

No matter what the government may say to parents, Sats are harmful and must be abolished, writes Bernard Trafford

Sats are supposed to be helpful for parents, but do we believe what government says, asks Bernard Trafford

On holiday in Scotland last week, I heard a hotel waiter explaining to a party of American visitors that some local custom had been going “for donkeys’ years”. After a pause, one of his customers drawled, “I get the history, but what’s that stuff about the donkey’s ears?”

It depends how you hear things: and in politics, at any rate, how you choose to see or hear them. Take Sats. Jeremy Corbyn assured himself of a warm welcome when he told the NEU conference over Easter that he would abolish Sats.

He’s right that Sats should go: they do little discernible good but significant harm – much like school inspection, then. Forget the oft-repeated assertions and pure doublespeak from Department for Education mouthpieces that say Sats are helpful to parents: I suspect that, actually, relatively few parents are fooled.

Sats are no more than a means (a dubious one, at that) for measuring the progress of the whole Year 6 cohort in a school, so that one school can be judged against another. That was verified to the NEU (somewhat surprisingly, given his day job) by Ofqual chair Roger Taylor, who asserted, “The purpose… is not to assess the children, it is to do that in order to understand how the schools are doing in delivering education.”

Well, thanks for your honesty. To be fair to Mr Corbyn, he declared that a Labour government would consult on how to separate assessment of children (which is fine and necessary, by the way) from assessment of schools. Alas, he didn’t appear about to back off on the latter function: that’s a shame, because it’s the excessive accountability regime that is hurting schools and, through its mechanisms (including Sats), children.

Bland reassurances from government 

I’ll explain yet again. Schools are judged and ranked in league tables by their pupils’ Sats scores. If a pupil is struggling and unlikely to achieve a satisfactory grade, it’s not simply a problem for them, requiring some support to help them learn, achieve and thrive as an individual: it becomes one for the school, which then pushes and shoves them towards the collective level in order to keep Ofsted and government off its back. That’s why Sats exert pressure on children, why they should be abolished, and why policymakers should stop lying to parents about their alleged value to their children.

While in Scotland, I encountered another example of government doublespeak. The thinktank Reform Scotland has discovered that the number of subjects taken by pupils in S4 – loosely called standard grades – has fallen in many schools from eight to six. Its research director, Alison Payne (writing in The Times on 3 May), quoted the Scottish government’s assertion that it doesn’t matter what’s studied in S4: the focus should be on the totality of qualifications pupils obtain.

OK – perhaps. Better, arguably, to study fewer subjects and gain higher grades in them. Or is it? Six looks a narrow curriculum to me, and Ms Payne’s concern is that some schools are still offering eight, creating an “opportunity gap”. Significantly, Scottish independent schools are sticking with eight. The private sector is never slow to spot a marketing advantage: more kindly, one might suggest that it’s leading the way in maintaining a standard.

However that shift is presented to parents (and they’re currently short of information, according to Ms Payne), it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there’s a resourcing issue here, too. If six subjects becomes the norm, schools short of cash will almost inevitably narrow the curricular offer overall, saving a bit on staffing.

Hold on! Isn’t that what’s happening in England with EBacc? Once some subjects are designated more important than others, the current funding crisis dictates that those will be protected at the expense of – well, the arts for a start. The DfE may monotonously deny it, but we all know it’s true.

Donkeys’ years or donkey’s ears? Parents should be careful what messages they take from government, whether north or south of the border, and be doubly suspicious of its bland reassurances.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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