Jeremy Corbyn was met with several standing ovations during his speech at the NEU teaching union’s conference in Liverpool yesterday. The longest and loudest clap of them all? When he announced Labour would scrap Sats tests and the government’s plans for a baseline assessment.
As a teacher who has spent the past four years working in inner-city primary schools, I joined in the applause. Like thousands of other delegates in the hall, I was genuinely excited.
High-stakes tests have cast a shadow over my time in the classroom. When teaching Year 2 during my NQT year, I reshuffled my long-term maths planning to squeeze objectives in before the Sats test. I spent hours combing through children’s writing books finding evidence that they had achieved objectives. This was required to show who had met "age-related expectations". Often, I stayed at school late into the evenings.
The argument against scrapping Sats: ‘Ditching Sats would be a mistake’
When I moved to teach Year 5 it was worse. Four hours were dedicated to teaching maths and English each morning – my timetable included spelling, grammar and arithmetic on top of reading, writing and maths. Humanities, arts and everything else was squeezed into the afternoons. I didn’t mind teaching fronted adverbials – at least the children found them relatively straightforward. But the topic didn’t light up my class the way a science lesson would.
While some children adapted to the challenge of Michael Gove’s new curriculum, for others, the pressure was too much. Particularly in maths, a number of children struggled with the fast pace that was now required. I found myself taking shortcuts to teach methods when I knew the conceptual understanding was not yet in place. This was not the teacher I wanted to be.
But I was aware the pupils would be in Year 6 next year and sitting Sats. I wanted them to be prepared. That year, only 53 per cent of children passed their maths and English Sats. The 47 per cent that failed were labelled "not secondary ready". No teacher would want that for their pupils. Yet, as those statistics show, for many it was the reality.
An impossible choice
I am not alone in thinking our current assessment system is not fit for purpose. Some 93 per cent of headteachers don’t think this is the best way to test children. But as a class teacher, it’s hard to know what to do about it. You are faced with a problem: either help the children you teach to prepare for the tests as well as possible or risk them being made to feel inadequate.
The NEU teaching union has campaigned for 30 years to reform our primary assessment system, since Sats were first introduced in 1990. This year, at conference, the room buzzed as delegates voted to step up the campaign and organise a boycott of primary tests. But high-stakes testing has become deeply embedded in our education system. Like many other teachers, I worry it will be hard to bring about change.
Thanks to Corbyn’s pledge to scrap the Sats tests, it feels like there’s a real chance this might happen.
Instead of high-stakes tests, we could have a rigorous system of teacher assessment. We would still monitor pupils’ progress carefully, ensuring children and parents knew what they were doing well and how they needed to improve. But it would be done to support learning rather than getting in the way of it. It would reflect a broad, balanced curriculum and would be conducted in a way that did not compromise children’s wellbeing.
Labour has said it will carry out a consultation over the next few months to develop its plan for an alternative system and, unlike the current government, Corbyn’s speech shows he is already listening. He knows our schools can be more than exam factories, and he knows the teaching profession will only thrive when teachers are trusted.
At the moment, people like me are choosing to leave teaching. It doesn’t have to be this way. Replacing Sats with an alternative that supports learning across the curriculum could transform children’s time at primary school and make teachers want to stay in the classroom.
Whether it’s through a Labour government or through teachers joining the NEU’s campaign to boycott Sats in their schools, we need this to happen. Only by removing Sats will our schools become the places of rich learning and flourishing that they have the potential to be.
Chloe Tomlinson is a primary teacher in England