Sats are a symptom of the surveillance culture that envelops schools

The Sats testing regime is just the tip of the accountability iceberg, warns one secondary teacher

Caiti Walter

Culture of surveillance: Sats regime is tip of the iceberg of accountability

Accountability. It’s a loaded word in education. And within the Sats debate, it seems to have become conflated with what schools are doing on behalf of Ofsted/the Department for education, rather than for the greater good of the children and the communities within which they function.

But even in 2008, Mary Bousted, general secretary of what was then the ATL teaching union (now part of the NEU), pointed out that teachers don’t actually mind being held accountable; it was over-regulation that had led to the demise of key stage 3 Sats.

It was even acknowledged within the political sphere – the Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee published a report which explicitly stated that “school accountability should be separated from this system of pupil testing”.

Clearly, this kind of high-stakes accountability regarding Sats (or indeed any exam results that are published and utilised as a measure of a school’s "success") has been brewing for some time.  

Gove's reforms

When then education secretary Michael Gove introduced his rushed reforms in 2010 (GCSE and A-level courses were being delivered before the textbooks had actually been printed), thousands of teachers struggled to keep up.

Gove’s intentions to provide schools with greater autonomy and raise standards were, on paper at least, admirable. But the reality was a piecemeal approach that was too underfunded and too data-focused.

Many schools began a rigmarole of self-administered teacher scrutiny initiatives and teacher-training programmes that encouraged more paperwork rather than less. Meanwhile, the underlying Dickensian assertion that facts alone are wanted in life led, in extreme cases, to the entire loss of timetable allocation for the arts. The message to all stakeholders was clear: exam results are our priority now.

However, much of this history is inextricably linked to a single classification structure that’s nearly 20 years old: league tables.

As if the aforementioned pressures weren’t enough, the underlying knowledge that schools are pitted against one another on an annual basis has led to an unhealthy belief among some school leaders that teachers themselves ought to be competing with one another. Cue instances of teachers creating password-protected resources, so that even staff within their own departments are unable to access their learning materials, let alone those from other schools. It is doubtful that there are swathes of teachers doing this because they are mean-spirited. Far more likely is that such lack of collaboration with one’s colleagues is symptomatic of the systemic competition that a small minority of school leaders, Ofsted and the DfE simply took too long to challenge and eradicate.

Finally, in 2017, even Nick Gibb was forced to acknowledge that there was a less than fruitful football-manager-style pressure on schools and headteachers. Labour’s recent talk of increasing teacher autonomy and reverting to actually trusting teachers is a promising starting point, but there will be those who simply fail to envisage how such a system could work in practice.

'Sats-related poison' 

Holly Rigby wrote for Tes about how many teachers, including myself, have only ever known an intensive level of accountability. Indeed, the word “accountability” insufficiently describes what is, in my view, nothing short of surveillance. Since I began teaching in 2013, I have become accustomed to being monitored under the assumption that I am doing something wrong. Is it any wonder that the pressure and stress that teachers have felt about Sats results has permeated through to children?

And what of Amanda Spielman's announcement of a new Ofsted framework, which promises to “downgrade exam results as a measure of quality” and “reward schools which provide a broad and balanced education”? About time – damage limitation is well overdue. Clouding this announcement is the suggestion of Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman that it was the way schools handled tests, rather than the tests themselves, which fostered increased levels of anxiety in children. While schools are not blameless, anything short of an apology for the instrumental role that Ofsted played in harbouring some of the Sats-related poison feels disingenuous at best and insulting at worst.

More positively, it is reassuring that there is finally acknowledgement that the existing system is not fit for purpose. Just because the next steps may seem impossible for some doesn’t mean that we mustn’t at least try to explore them in a meaningful, holistic way.

One possible way forward, as outlined by David Didau, is to use intelligent sampling “to hold schools to account in a way that doesn’t adversely affect children’s education”. It does feel as if the wind is changing. Conversations about how to improve schools seem at last to be focusing not on accountability to central government but on pupils, parents and local communities.

By all means, please hold me accountable. But please let it be to the right people.

Caiti Walter is the secondary teacher and deputy head of department in a large inner-London state school

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