Heads’ plan to replace Sats and curb academy freedoms

School leaders’ union sets out vision for overhauling assessment, inspections and admissions

Amy Gibbons


Ministers are being urged to replace Sats, make the core national curriculum mandatory for academies and consider holding schools to account on their teacher retention record, as part of a raft of education reforms proposed by school leaders.

In its Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, published today, the Association of School College Leaders (ASCL) union is also calling for a pilot to ring-fence a fifth of teachers’ time for professional development, and for new headteachers to be given a grace period of two years before their first Ofsted inspection.

The reforms, which ASCL says should be introduced over the next five years, are “deliberately designed to be eminently doable”, according to general secretary Geoff Barton.

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In addition to streamlining primary assessment, introducing an entirely new “accountability dashboard” and making the core national curriculum compulsory across the state sector, the proposals include a rethink of the admissions system – with schools required to add disadvantaged children to their priority list.

The key proposals set out by ASCL today are:

1. Replace Sats with ‘adaptive assessments’ at key stage 2

The blueprint sets out major reforms to the primary assessment system.

Under ASCL’s plan, statutory tests would be reduced to “two key points”: a phonics check at the end of Year 1, and new “adaptive assessments” at the end of Year 6.

Asked by Tes what this would mean for the brand new Reception baseline assessment (RBA) and the Year 4 multiplication table check, Julie McCulloch, ASCL’s director of policy, confirmed that the tests would be optional under the proposed reforms.

Speaking to journalists yesterday afternoon, Ms McCulloch said: “I think there may well be a role for those tests – individual schools might want to do them, individual trusts might want to ask their schools, say, to keep doing the multiplication check, if they want to use that as as a point of assessment across their schools, but we think, for national assessment, those two that we set out [for Year 1 and Year 6] are the most important.”

The blueprint says that the new Year 6 assessments would make “much greater use of technology to ensure they are more intelligent and personalised”, enabling all pupils to “demonstrate what they can do”.

2. Make national curriculum mandatory for academies

ASCL wants the core national curriculum to be compulsory in all state schools for students up to the age of 16, with an “agreed amount of specialism” allowed from Year 9 or Year 10.

Currently, only maintained schools are required to follow the national curriculum by law, while academies have greater freedom over what they teach.

But ASCL believes all state schools should be held to “a truly national expectation for the core education children and young people are entitled to receive”.

The blueprint adds that there should be some flexibility involved, with “time and space around the core national curriculum for all schools, or groups of schools, to develop their own local curricula, to suit their context”.

Asked by Tes during yesterday’s briefing how ASCL’s academy members had responded to the suggestion, Ms McCulloch said: “It has been something that we’ve spent a lot of time debating, particularly among our council members, as you might imagine.

“But, actually, a large proportion of our council members are running academies and they were very warm to this proposal.”

The reasons behind this, she said, “were a sense that we think there is basically an entitlement for all children and young people to a fairly slim, common core curriculum”.

"We talk in the document about fewer things in greater depth, thinking about what we as a society think are the most important things that we want children to learn as they go through the system, and there was pretty strong agreement actually among our members that that should be an entitlement for children in all schools and colleges,” she said.

"And the other point, I guess, on that as well is we know the extent to which, at the moment, assessments drive curriculum – that’s one of the things...we talk about elsewhere in the blueprint.

“To some extent, those kind of academy freedoms around the curriculum aren’t something that are really embraced to any great extent by most schools because there are different drivers there in terms of what they do.”

3. Prioritise admission of disadvantaged children

With a view to closing the disadvantage gap, ASCL is keen to increase the number of pupils prioritised for school places based on their circumstances.

As it stands, the admissions code requires schools to give priority to children in care, or those who have previously been in care, in their oversubscription criteria.

However, ASCL believes the code should go further – extending this right to children eligible for the pupil premium or all those in persistent poverty.

“Middle-class parents have the buying power to afford homes in areas near popular schools that are rated as good or outstanding. We may not necessarily agree with the way that Ofsted ratings work but this is the reality,” Mr Barton said.

“There are, of course, many excellent schools in disadvantaged areas, too, but the economics of property ownership mean that disadvantaged families don’t have the same access as middle-class parents to certain schools.

“This is an entrenched injustice which reinforces an unhealthy division between affluent and disadvantaged areas and children.”

4. Introduce new ‘accountability dashboard’

The blueprint sets out plans for a new accountability system, which could see schools judged on their teacher retention record as well as pupil outcomes, the range of subjects on offer and exclusion rates.

ASCL says the system should include some “nationally determined measures”, as well as others that are “nationally or locally considered important”.

The union says this could take into account:

  • Pupil outcomes (eg, attainment measures, progress measures, destination data).
  • Curriculum provision (eg, subjects available, time allocations for different subjects).
  • Staff development (eg, teacher retention, time allocation for professional development).
  • Inclusion (eg, attendance rates, exclusion rates). 
  • The school’s impact on and engagement with the broader education landscape.

ASCL says performance against the measures “should form the core of the inspection process”.

“In the immediate future, these measures will need to take into account the changes to statutory assessments and examinations during the pandemic,” the blueprint adds.

“They should also reflect what we, both nationally and in individual schools and colleges, believe children and young people most need in order to recover from the impact of the pandemic.”

5. Give new heads Ofsted grace period of two years

To allow school leaders sufficient chance to make a difference in their role, ASCL is calling for a two-year window between the appointment of a new headteacher and the first Ofsted inspection under their leadership.

“Improving a school, particularly one serving more disadvantaged communities, takes time,” the blueprint says.

“If we want to encourage strong leaders to lead challenging schools, they need to feel supported to do so.”

ASCL says that it would like to see an “explicit agreement” that no school will be inspected within two years of a new headteacher being appointed, unless there are safeguarding concerns or the school itself requests an Ofsted visit.

6. Pilot to ring-fence a fifth of teacher time for CPD

The union is keen to investigate how protecting more of teachers’ time for professional development will impact on pupil outcomes, and recruitment and retention, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

It is therefore proposing a pilot to ring-fence 20 per cent of staff time for collaborative planning, coaching and continuing professional development.

‘Eminently doable’

Publishing the blueprint today, Mr Barton said: “These proposals are deliberately designed to be eminently doable. They build on what is largely a good education system with targeted proposals, which we believe would make the system work better for all children and young people.

“We propose streamlining the cluttered curriculum, modernising assessment and exams, providing extra funding for the children and young people who most need that support, and making school performance tables more meaningful for parents and pupils.

“There’s nothing new about the attainment gap between rich and poor. We’ve been talking about it for years. But we’re still not making anything like the progress that is needed in closing that gap and we can’t expect to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. It is time for change.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Most disadvantaged pupils now attend good or outstanding schools, and the admissions code already allows schools to prioritise disadvantage in their admissions if they wish to.

“Since 2011, disadvantaged pupils had narrowed the gap with their peers at every stage of education up until the pandemic.

“Our ambitious, long-term education recovery plan, including an investment, to date, of more than £3 billion and a significant expansion of our tutoring programme, is supporting children and young people to make up for education lost during the pandemic.”

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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