It’s no surprise that the big education headline-grabber in the national media last week was the proposed changes to GCSE and A-level exams next year, somewhat overshadowing the changes to primary school assessments.
Rightly so: the significance of those qualifications to young people completing their education is far greater than the quibble over whether you achieved a scaled score of 99 or 101 in your Year 6 grammar test.
The changes at key stages 1 and 2 shouldn’t be overlooked, though. Indeed, I’d argue that they should be welcomed, and we should use them to try to make those changes permanent.
There are many who would argue that the change doesn’t go far enough. The campaigners who have argued against Sats in their entirety have now shifted their arguments to focus on Covid, but with the same goal in mind.
By the same reasoning, I’ve maintained my view that the argument shouldn’t be against the tests themselves, but against how the resulting data is used.
Sats 2021: Focusing on the reading and maths
Let’s start with the easy ones: dropping science and grammar tests will have a negligible impact on schools, save for the reduction in teacher workload and a potential increase in time spent on the more valuable aspects of writing.
The reading and maths tests will still go ahead next year, and I’m pretty happy with that. As much as some might argue about the narrowing of the curriculum, I don’t think I object to primary schools focusing on getting children to a basic standard in those most central of subjects.
No question, I’d make changes if I were in charge – dropping the “expected standard” threshold, for a start. But, if the stakes are right, then I think a focus on the core, throughout primary, makes sense.
Again, there are those who will argue that the tests are the wrong way to make such judgements. But a look at the alternatives highlights the failings of this argument. Teacher assessment of writing has been a joke since 2016, with the narrowing of the writing curriculum to meet a few bullet-point statements, and inflated outcomes as a result of the vague and incoherent system. Teacher assessment is no more reliable than tests, and maybe less so.
Coronavirus: Assessing the impact on education
The problems arise because of the high stakes surrounding the results: the published league tables; the heavy data focus in inspection outcomes (thankfully now much reduced); the overly simple approach to raising standards taken by local authorities and multi-academy trusts, without making any sense of context. These are the battles where we should focus our energies, and this year the Department for Education has given us the perfect vehicle.
It makes sense for 2021 tests to go ahead in Year 6. It will be our first opportunity to get a scale of the impact of Covid-19 on the education of the nation. Those arguing that the tests won’t be fair because of the virus are missing the point. If the stakes are low, then there is no issue of fairness, because pupils and schools aren’t affected by the outcomes.
Any dip in results in 2021 is then reflective not of individuals’ failures, but of the impact on the system at large. And we need to understand that as a nation.
But, if this year goes to plan, we’ll have had two years with no science tests, no grammar tests, no league tables and presumably no real impact on the effectiveness of our schools. And that’s the point at which we can argue to keep it that way.
Pushing the DfE to scrap primary assessments altogether is a fool’s errand, but 2021 will be the opportunity to show that the stakes can be reduced for the good of everyone.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979