Sats abolition: 'It's time teachers believed another system is possible'

Labour's pledge to abolish Sats is a start, but first, teachers need to think hard about which alternative they are happiest with

sats stress

Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish Sats earlier this month clearly had widespread support among the teaching profession, and even those who did not agree entirely mostly advocated a "remain and reform" approach to Sats instead. Yet, one of the more common concerns raised about abolishing Sats, even by supporters of the policy, has been what Labour would put in their place.

An exclusive report by Tes last week has now shed a little more light on what Labour’s plans might be. The report detailed a number of initiatives that Labour was considering, including national sample testing, teacher assessment (perhaps using comparative judgement) and tests sat at the beginning of secondary rather than primary school.

The latter of these will most likely be the least controversial; secondary schools already design their own tests to gauge the knowledge and skills of new Year 7 cohorts, particularly given the often unreliable Sats data that accompanies students from their primary schools.

Similarly, sample testing as used by the influential Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment] could ascertain a snapshot of national trends in achievement, rather than looking at anomalies in individual school or student performance. With the "high stakes" removed for individual schools and tests randomly allocated, we would be far less likely to see the teaching to the test, gaming, cramming and cheating that the Sats have become associated with.

Of the options currently on the table, teacher assessment has faced the most ire from Labour’s critics. Some of these arguments are more disingenuous than others; some have quite rightly pointed to research showing that teacher assessment is prone to unconscious bias, but these same critics also often ignore the evidence that their zero-tolerance exclusion policies disproportionately impact BAME boys in particular.

We must not be selective when we assess how school policies either alleviate or exacerbate the racial inequalities we see in wider society nor use this for political point-scoring. More needs to be done across the board to address the disparities in the educational experience of working class, BAME and vulnerable students in particular.

However, one of the more convincing concerns raised is that very few educators working in schools today have known anything different from externally set and measured assessment systems, and therefore would struggle to imagine and design any possible alternatives.

My personal experience of teaching certainly reflects this. I completed my School Direct training with a well-known multi-academy trust provider, and taught in the academy school I trained in for five years after I qualified. During this time, not only did I never design my own summative assessments, I was also told exactly what and when to mark for formative assessments as well. Even when I led the Year 9 English team as a lead practitioner, I had no power to make these decisions either; the curriculum and assessment had been designed and disseminated by the MAT head office, and my role was just to ensure it was followed to the letter. 

Fortunately, I now work in a school that prides itself on teacher autonomy. But when I first started teaching at my current school, this freedom was terrifying: my limited teacher education meant that I initially felt totally unprepared to decide both what to teach and how to assess my students. Teachers should unquestionably be trusted more than they currently are, but we must also recognise the restrictive thinking and practice imposed on many teachers by our low-autonomy, high-stakes accountability school cultures.

Labour must recognise these challenges in designing both the assessment and accountability mechanisms that are going to replace Sats. Labour has insisted it does not have a preferred alternative, and that its consultation is going to be “genuine”, as opposed to merely a “confirmationary vote” on a set of policies it has already decided behind closed doors. Labour has made it very clear that it wants to work closely with teachers, parents, trade unions and all those committed to designing a high-quality system for our schools of the future.

But Labour must ensure that in doing so it draws on the expertise of a wide range of educators, and not be seen to be "cherry-picking" those that agree with them, as the current government clearly does. If comparative judgement is a serious option on the table, for example, why not draw on Daisy Christodoulou's work on assessment, including the innovative No More Marking programme?

Christodoulou may not appear to be a natural ally to the Corbyn education project, and there would certainly be disagreements about what should be assessed and why, but including a broad range of expertise (and critique!) in its consultation would undoubtedly only strengthen the system Labour finally designs to replace Sats.

Most importantly, nobody will thank Labour for system-level change imposed with the rapidity that teachers had to suffer under Michael Gove. It is likely that we won’t see a general election until 2022 (I can’t see the Tories voting to lose their jobs anytime soon), which means that Labour should take time to work on its policy details. Teachers will thank Labour for a carefully considered plan in the long run, even if the uncertainty of more change feels unsettling now.

Labour’s pledge to abolish Sats is important because it has begun to challenge the idea that high-stakes accountability as measured by student test data simply isn’t working. It’s now time that teachers started to believe that another system is possible.

Holly Rigby is a teacher, and researches the National Education Service at King’s College London

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