Exclusive: DfE refused to act on Sats cheating findings

Whistleblower head warns that 'fatally flawed' system is letting down children who can't live up to inflated test scores

Inflating grades

The government has refused to explain why it did not intervene at a primary school after an independent investigation uncovered a "culture of inflating" Sats results dating back several years.

The Department for Education's Standards and Testing Agency (STA) was sent the report from the probe – conducted by a recently retired head and a team of lawyers –  by two separate parties.

But the agency did not follow up with its own investigation at the school. And it refused to act on the irregularities and malpractice uncovered by correcting the resulting pupil data.

The secondary head who raised the alarm about national testing malpractice at the primary – one of his feeder schools – is deeply concerned about the DfE agency's inaction on such cases. 

He says that an under-resourced investigatory system is creating "massive" problems for the wellbeing of children, who are being expected to live up to artificially inflated test scores that they never actually achieved.

Sats 'malpractice'

The secondary head, who wishes to stay anonymous for legal reasons, says the failure to correct such Sats scores could also result in pupils not getting the funding they need.  

"It is just not right," he said. "The system is fatally flawed in terms of protecting the children going through it."


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His warning came as Tes revealed that the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) employs just four people, none of whom have qualified teacher status (QTS), to investigate hundreds of maladministration cases in schools.

Official figures released yesterday showed that the agency carried out 793 maladministration investigations across key stage 1 and key stage 2 in 2018, up from 524 in 2016.

The concerned secondary school head alerted Tes after he reported tests misconduct at the feeder primary and was told that no action would be taken.

The headteacher who works in one of the Home Counties, said investigations needed to be more in-depth if "institutionalised" cheating in schools was to be extinguished.

He contacted the STA in September 2018 after he uncovered evidence that suggested one of his feeder primary schools had been inflating its KS2 Sats results.

His concerns sparked the independent investigation, which concluded that Sats malpractice had taken place at the primary "for many years". 

The secondary head said he first became suspicious about the primary's practice in 2017, when his school's Progress 8 score was dragged down by the performance of a small group of pupils – all of whom came from the same primary school.

When those six children were removed from the equation, the secondary school's progress measure improved significantly. The headteacher believes this means that the pupils were working towards targets that were "never feasible in the first place".

The independent investigation into the primary school's conduct, which was commissioned by its academy trust and was the basis for a confidential report completed by May 2018, found that a “culture of 'inflating' levels had been custom and practice at the school for many years”.  This involved staff "inappropriately" raising pupils' Sats scores.

Teachers 'bullied'

As well as reviewing the data and the supporting paperwork, the investigator conducted interviews with staff. Each person provided a signed witness statement or was given the opportunity to correct summaries of interviews where they declined to sign a statement.

The investigation report, seen by Tes, found that:

  • "There were irregularities in the way in which phonics testing in Y1 had been carried out and marks awarded to pupils."
  • "Teachers felt pressured to give inflated levels to students during KS1 and KS2 [...] a number of pupils' levels/assessments had been moved up inappropriately from the professional assessment for that child."
  • "Malpractice took place with regard to the conduct of Sats assessments at both KS1 and KS2."
  • "That the culture of 'inflating' levels had been custom and practice at the school for many years...All teachers seemed to be aware of this practice and it would appear to have been 'normalised' within the school."
  • "There was a 'bullying' approach towards staff from the headteacher at the time, which led to staff being complicit in the practice of incorrectly raising levels for some pupils."
  • "The inflation of levels at [the primary school] had impacted on pupils when they moved on to secondary school. The data provided by [the secondary school headteacher] demonstrates the effect that inflated KS2 levels have had on their levels of progress at secondary school."
     

A total of six members of staff were suspended by the trust. Of these, two were dismissed for gross misconduct, three received a final written warning and one left the school before the disciplinary process was concluded.

The trust reported the findings to the STA and the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) in 2018. The secondary school head, who was also privy to the report, sent it to the STA in September that year as evidence to support his claim that his school's KS4 data should be amended.

However, in January 2019, the STA refused to amend the secondary school's data, citing a "lack of concrete evidence" that maladministration had taken place. It also said its legal powers were limited, given that the alleged misconduct took place at a point too far in the past.

In a letter to the secondary school head, it wrote: "The allegation relates to the KS2 results from a number of academic years ago, which means that the evidence is no longer available for review (such as completed test scripts and evidence (for example, class books) to support TA [teacher assessment] judgements)."

The STA added that after conversations with the local authority it considered the test data "secure".

But Tes has also spoken to senior staff at the primary who said the STA did not visit the school or speak to any staff. The DfE has not denied this.

In its letter to the secondary head, the STA said that there were "no concerns" regarding the accuracy of TA judgements during external moderation or during the local authority's data checks for the school.

It wrote: "As part of [the trust's] report [on maladministration at the primary school, it] provided statements from staff members. Whilst some of the statements raise questions about the assessments at the school during this time, it is not evidence that maladministration actually took place.

"In summary, due to the timing of the allegation, the legal powers STA had regarding assessments pre-2017 and the lack of concrete evidence to support the allegation, STA will not make a recommendation for your school's KS4 (GCSE) data to be amended."

According to the secondary head, the STA did not speak to the trust or intervene at the primary by altering KS1 or KS2 Sats data. His account was corroborated by senior staff at the primary school.

He said: "I think the only people [the STA] spoke to [were] the local authority. More people are needed to be able to actually investigate any claims.

"I think there is a national problem which needs to be considered and addressed. If a child comes to us with inflated data and we don’t know about it, they are going to be in the wrong set; they will possibly not receive the money they need; they are going to have a set of target grades which, based on these Sats results, will follow them into Year 11.

"The school can’t change those results. They are never going to get those top grades because they were never feasible in the first place.

"The system doesn’t have the due diligence, doesn’t have the resources. There are massive issues in terms of wellbeing for these children and it is just not right. The system is fatally flawed in terms of protecting the children going through it."

When asked why it didn't intervene at the primary school or amend the Progress 8 score at the secondary school, the DfE said it did not routinely comment on individual cases.

A spokesperson added: “Teachers and parents must have confidence in the integrity of the assessment system, which is why the department will always take allegations of maladministration seriously and take action where evidence of wrongdoing is found.”

 

 

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