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'Get real, DfE – Sats cover more than just "basic skills"'

To suggest that Sats simply ensure that ‘our children can read, write and add up’ is wrong, writes James Bowen

The key stage 2 Sats tests take pupils far beyond the 'basics' like 'adding up', says James Bowen

Psst. Don’t tell anyone, but I think I know what’s going to be in the maths Sats papers later this year.

Last weekend we saw the Department for Education defending Sats, in part, by saying that few things matter as much as “ensuring that our children can read, write and add up.” 

From that, I am left to conclude that the maths papers will be focusing exclusively on children’s basic addition skills this year. You can forget about division, multiplication and subtraction – apparently, it’s just "adding up" that matters this time around.

While some might accuse me of being overly pedantic, this kind of lazy shorthand has always infuriated me, and I know it will rile a fair number of primary teachers and school leaders, too. 

Of course, we should remember that this sort of messaging isn’t aimed at teachers and other education professionals – it is very much for the consumption of the wider public. 

Who in their right mind would disagree with the notion that children should leave primary school with a firm grasp of "the basics"? Surely, it’s only right that we should check that children leave primary school being able to read, write and do a few basic addition calculations (the teacher in me still refuses to write "sums".)

Those of us who have worked in a primary school or who have had a child go through Sats will know that this characterisation of the tests is, at best, a little disingenuous. 

Scrapping Sats?

The DfE needs to come clean that these assessments go far beyond a simple check of "the basics". In maths, for example, we expect 10- and 11-year-olds to demonstrate relatively complex problem-solving and reasoning skills. The reading paper requires a highly sophisticated level of comprehension. I’m sure I can’t be the only Year 6 teacher who, on at least one occasion, has found themselves desperately scrabbling through the answer booklet to try and work out exactly what the author actually meant when she used the phrase highlighted in the text. 

Let’s not ignore writing either.

“It’s disgraceful that children can leave primary school without being able to write a sentence!” I hear "Angry from Hertfordshire" cry in disbelief. Of course, ‘Angry from  Hertfordshire’ almost certainly isn’t aware that the key stage 2 writing framework requires a child to be able to use a range of devices to build cohesion (e.g., conjunctions; adverbials of time, place; pronouns; synonyms) within and across paragraphs in order to be judged to be writing at the "expected standard". Nor will they know that in the grammar part of the writing assessment they may well be required to think of and "insert a subordinating conjunction" into a pre-written sentence.

I’m not sure there are many people who would see an inability to do either of these as a sign of serious literacy problems at the age of 10 and 11. Nor does this quite fit the narrative of "not being able to write". No matter – who cares about the underlying detail, when there’s a great headline available?

One of the main problems with this sort of rhetoric is that it will be used, rehashed and reused later in the year when we are told that we should all hang our heads in shame as X per cent (insert the percentage of children not achieving the "expected standard" in reading, writing and maths Sats here) are leaving primary school illiterate and innumerate – even when a scaled score of 98 shows no such thing.

I am certainly not calling for a "dumbing down" of the KS2 curriculum. While I have serious reservations about some of the grammar and spelling requirements, overall I have no problem with us aiming high for our children. Equally, unlike some, I’m not entirely convinced that scrapping Sats altogether would solve all our problems – the issues with high-stakes accountability clearly run far deeper than just these tests. As has been said by many others, it’s not so much the tests themselves that cause many of the problems, but rather how the results are used.

I would just like to see politicians and policymakers be a little more careful with their language when it comes to talking about Sats.

Of course, if this year’s maths paper is simply a list of basic addition calculations, I will be forced to eat an enormous slice of humble pie. Remember, if that exceptionally unlikely event does occur, you heard it here first.

James Bowen is the director of policy at NAHT and director of NAHT Edge

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