‘Hidden market’ in Sats moderation

A Tes investigation has revealed a growing trend for schools to ‘shop around’ and pick and choose which authority moderates their key stage 2 writing assessments

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

A "hidden market" in the moderation of the high-stakes primary writing assessments is emerging, a Tes investigation has found.

For the next four weeks, local authorities will send moderators into at least a quarter of primary schools to check that teachers’ judgements of pupils writing in Year 6 is consistent with national guidelines.

And a quarter of authorities have moderation arrangements with at least one school from another area, according to statistics from the Standards and Testing Agency obtained by Tes through a Freedom of Information request.

Maintained schools are told that their writing assessments must be moderated by their own local authority but academies are able to pick and choose which authority carries out the moderation.

While there may be many reasons why academies choose to switch local authorities, including a perception that some are more “lenient” or provide a better service, it appears that a hidden market in Sats moderation is in operation – one that is only open to academies.

The situation has been described as deeply unfair by critics. “There should not be one rule for some schools and another rule for others,” said Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union.

“The focus should be on making sure there is consistent, valid and reliable moderation of KS2 writing and that should require every school within an area to go through the same moderation process because, if there were inconsistencies, they would show up much more clearly,” she said.

The Tes investigation revealed that half of Swindon’s academies have decided not to have writing tests moderated by their local authority. They may have chosen neighbouring Wiltshire, where 16 academies from other areas have “opted in”.

Meanwhile, 14 of Bromley’s academies have selected a different local authority for their moderation; 22 academies have chosen to be moderated in Devon – even though it is not their local authority; and Kent has 11 academies “opting in” to its moderation system, of which nine have KS2 pupils.

The Tes investigation follows two years of uncertainty over the reliability of the writing results following the introduction of a new framework in 2016.

Last year, an Ofqual investigation revealed that, in 2017, differences in the way local authorities approached moderation led to judgements that were “more inconsistent than they could have been”. It found that visits to look at the work of the same number of children could take twice as long in some authorities as others, which “suggested variations in thoroughness between LAs”. 

James Pembroke, Tes’ “Data Doctor”, said he thought that the variations could lead to frustrations. He said: “I reckon the key reasons for switching moderation provider are a poor relationship with the old local authority since conversion, a better package of support offered by the other LA and a moderation process perceived as too harsh.” He added that it is the latter that may often prove to be the tipping point.

“I think, post-2016, there is a lot of anger. Local authority schools didn’t have the choice to move, but MATs [multi-academy trusts] and other academies did,” he added.

Margo Barraclough, Kent’s school improvement adviser, says that schools are opting into its moderation system, because they consider its process to be robust and supportive. “Kent is a large local authority, so moderators and schools see a wide range of evidence and are thus able to arrive at secure judgements.”

James Bowen, director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge, thinks that if maintained schools had the same freedom, it is fair to assume they would act the same way as academies – with most staying put, but some moving.

He said: “It seems unfair that local authority schools don’t have that option. That being said, it would become a pretty chaotic system if every school in the country could choose who moderates them; it is hard to see how that would work logistically.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Local authorities have a duty to externally moderate the KS2 teacher assessments of academies and, in 2018, 96 per cent of academies chose their geographical local authority to conduct their moderation.

“We are not aware of any local authorities that make a profit from moderation and in most cases they charge the minimum cost to cover their resources.”

This is an edited article from the 1 June edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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