No Sats...and pupils and teachers are happier for it

Chris Dyson has noticed something unusual among staff and Year 6 pupils since Sats were cancelled – they're having fun

Chris Dyson

Covid and schools: Everyone's happier without key stage 2 sats, says this primary school headteacher

When I said goodbye to my Year 6 teacher at the start of the holidays, I noticed something: she wasn’t stressed.

This year, for the first time, she wasn’t having to cram exam practice in. Our pupils tend to start practising for Sats at the beginning of March. So you’re teaching them exam technique: reading the question, spending about three minutes on each question.

We’re fairly laid back – some schools start practising in September. League tables pit local school against local school, so high-stakes accountability means that you need to play the game. Some schools test and test and test, all through Year 6, robbing children of the rich curriculum they deserve – but they get a high score, because of all that testing.

Yes, some schools go into Sats cold, but then you’re missing the four or five children who might be borderline, and just need to get that test technique in place to do better. Those four or five children can mean about 12 to 15 per cent for a school. Just getting that test technique in place can turn a 62 per cent score into 77 per cent.

Key stage 2 Sats: The pressure on the Year 6 teacher

That pressure can come down hard on the Year 6 teacher. Though, actually, they are key stage 2 Sats – so that’s Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 – as Year 6 teacher, you always feel the pressure. You feel you’re the one who’s got to get the extra marks out of them.

But this year, teachers don’t have that pressure. And they have time to enjoy their learning more. Just before the end of term, Year 6 were doing a science experiment: what happens to biscuits when you dunk them in tea? Yes, they usually do a bit of that sort of thing in Year 6 – but then it’s back to test practice.

They’re currently studying the Second World War, and they’re able to write diary extracts, and edit and adapt their work, rather than thinking about what’s needed in a test. They have the freedom to enjoy it.

Similarly, in maths, they don’t have to rush through, just following the maths scheme.

They’ll still be doing the school play and the art projects, but it will be part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

The biggest winners will be the high schools. Usually, we have to cram all those subjects in before May, because you can’t answer a question on something if you haven’t studied it yet. But, this year, they’ll be working on the curriculum through to 26 July. Then they can hit the ground running after five weeks off in the summer.

The biggest loser, meanwhile, will be my rounders team. Usually, Year 6 have three months of rounders, art, school plays – lots of fun things to celebrate their time in primary school.

This year, because they’ll be working up to the end of term, they’ll have three extra months to make up all the learning lost in lockdown.

Staff and pupils are usually shattered

By May, the children are shattered, usually. It’s no surprise: they’re studying an entire year’s curriculum between September and March. And the staff are absolutely shattered, too.

The anxiety of children, who think they’ll either pass or fail or be super-bright, is enormous. There can be real stigma on a child if they don’t do well. I really struggled at primary, but flourished at high school. I’d have been put down as a failure in key stage 2 Sats, and could have suffered at high school as a result.

Nick Gibb himself said Sats are a measure of schools, but don’t bear any resemblance to how a child ends up at GCSE level – which I find quite astonishing.

If these Sats hadn’t been cancelled, we would have come back on 8 March, and there would have been nothing but cramming, adding pressure to teachers. Then the teachers start getting snappy, and that creates added pressure on the children.

Now, we have for months a lovely run of the curriculum. There are smiles of happiness. When there’s beautiful bright sunshine, we go into the forest or the school garden, and have lessons outdoors. Last year, there would have been no chance: they’d have been doing quadratic equations.

It’ll be the second year without Sats – and, look! We’ve survived. Would it be too much to hope that we keep surviving, just like this, every year?

Chris Dyson is headteacher at Parklands Primary School in Leeds. He tweets @chrisdysonHT

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