'Jeremy Corbyn's Sats plan is wrong-headed'

Challenging conventional wisdom is not the same as revolutionary change for the sake of it – the Labour leader would do well to learn the difference, writes Conservative MP Robert Halfon

Robert Halfon

Robert Halfon Sats

I have not been afraid to ask questions on conventional wisdom during my time as chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, whether it be on school funding, exclusions, the value of GCSEs, or value for money in our universities. I am far from being a die-hard traditionalist and have been clear that addressing social injustice in education is my primary ambition.

But challenging conventional wisdom does not mean revolutionary change for the sake of it, especially when it would mean going backwards rather than forwards.

This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to abolish Sats, while sounding popular in some quarters, is so wrongheaded and would have far-reaching consequences for a generation of youngsters and their teachers.

News: Corbyn says Labour would abolish Sats

Information: When are the 2019 Sats tests?

Opinion: Corbyn's pledge to scrap Sats is a glimmer of hope

First, unconscious bias/lack of reliability would be a big problem in alternative teacher assessment models.  This is a key point and could seriously undermine disadvantaged children's prospects.

Second, Sats aren't a vehicle for selection; they are a tool to measure progress, to hold schools accountable and to get the right support to children who may be falling behind (a position disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be in).

Third, we absolutely must have a benchmark/rigorous way of gauging progress – how else do we know whether what we are doing is working? It is disadvantaged pupils who have the most to lose from their removal, as it is they who gain the most from the targeted support that the Sats data can provide. They also tend to be the ones who are most likely to not be school-ready, and therefore the focus on core competencies that Sats provide is crucial to their development, as well as to ensuring that the next generation have the skills required to become functioning members of society.  

Fourth, the alternative to Sats is not pretty. You only need to look at Scotland, which got rid of the tests the first chance they could, to see that the grass is not always greener. Falling educational standards have left the Scottish government facing difficult questions, and a lack of accountability is a key reason for that. Tests aren’t perfect but they tend to be more reliable than teacher observation, which is the main alternative. It is no accident that both Scotland and Wales, having abolished their assessments, are now bringing them back in some form.

Fifth, the idea that our pupils are overtested, falls down as soon as you compare us to other countries. Singapore and the US both have more tests than us. Even Finland does – they aren’t centrally designed, but the average Finnish pupil is tested by their teachers more often in primary school than the average English one.

It is precisely because I want to see social justice that I support Sats. The ladder of opportunity requires all pupils being given the chance to reach their potential and show what they can do, and Sats are one method of doing so.

This does not mean we cannot fine-tune them, though. And the government recognises this. It has worked on improving the flaws of these assessments in recent years, particularly with the introduction of the Reception baseline assessment to replace key stage 1 Sats, which will give a more accurate measure of the progress pupils make thanks to the excellent work of primary teachers.

The key stage 2 Sats were reformed in 2016 to make them tougher and more focused on the key skills necessary, resulting in (for example) a 9 percentage point rise in the number of pupils meeting the expected standard in reading between 2016 and 2018. Standards are rising because these tests are helping pupils push their boundaries, and making sure that schools get to grips with the key competencies assessed. And that doesn’t mean they are restricting the curriculum to just English and maths; the trend is going the opposite way. Ofsted’s new framework is another clear signal that the inspectorate is looking to reduce pressures on schools, and is encouraging them to ensure they have a broad and balanced curriculum, which can only be a good thing.

Of course, reform is still needed. Sats could do more on recognising progression, as Lord Bew recommended. But the results do help to inform parents and Ofsted, and are important indicators for providing support to both individual pupils and schools as soon as possible.

The teaching profession has been clear that things such as workload and the stress that comes with it are hurting education in this country, and the government must take steps to do something about this.

The Department for Education needs to work with headteachers to ensure they feel supported in these situations, and with everyone involved to make clear that Sats have no consequences for the children taking them or their teachers.

It may be worth considering more radical proposals, such as introducing comparative judgement for marking writing Sats and other assessments. Championed by the organisation No More Marking, the idea is that teachers or examiners look at two separate answers to subjective questions and simply decide which is better. No red pen or deep marking.

By doing this over and over with different answers, a clear ranking becomes established, and then benchmarks are set to work out where grade boundaries are. Studies suggest that it is even more reliable than the current form of moderation, the feedback provided is no less helpful, and it is definitely less work than going through every piece line by line with corrections. 

It is precisely this sort of 21st-century innovation that education reformers should look towards to better the system rather than abolish Sats that the previous Labour government supported. So Mr Corbyn, please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Robert Halfon is chair of the Commons Education Select Committee

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