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Sats: 'The pressure on schools and heads feels higher than ever – here's why...'

Whether it be a narrowing of the curriculum, holiday revision classes or endless hours spent 'practising' for the tests, the impact of Sats is hard to overestimate

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Whether it be a narrowing of the curriculum, holiday revision classes or endless hours spent 'practising' for the tests, the impact of Sats is hard to overestimate

Tonight, a large proportion of primary school leaders will not sleep soundly.

"Term-time insomnia" is a condition that many school leaders (and indeed teachers) will be familiar with.

It's not unusual to wake up in the early hours fretting about a safeguarding issue, worrying about a "tricky" parent who has requested a meeting the following day or, in more recent times, trying to work out how to make the budget add up for the following year.

However, tonight is a little different. Why? For the simple reason that tomorrow this year’s key stage 2 Sats results will become available.

There will be plenty of school leaders who will not be able to resist repeatedly checking the results website in the early hours of the morning to see whether this year’s data has appeared.

If they are anything like me, they will have the added challenge of trying to navigate a website, while at the same time having their fingers – and toes – firmly crossed.

It’s not just leaders working in schools that have been historically struggling with their data who will worry about the results. There will be plenty of headteachers in "good" and "outstanding" schools who are just as concerned.

While the pressure for them is perhaps not quite so immediate, they know that under current arrangements, one year’s dodgy data can make you suddenly feel very vulnerable. A system built on this sort of fear is not a healthy one, nor is it particularly conducive to high performance.

While Sats results have always carried a high level of importance, over time the pressure surrounding them has increased.

High-stakes system

As the Education Select Committee report from earlier this year identified: “The close link between primary assessment and school accountability creates a high-stakes system that can negatively impact children’s teaching and learning.”

Whether it be a narrowing of the curriculum, holiday revision classes or endless hours spent "practising" for the tests, the impact of Sats in their current format on schools – as well as the teachers and children within them – is hard to overestimate. 

Schools aren’t doing these things because they particularly want to – in a world where everyone must be "above the national average" (the statisticians among you will notice a bit of an issue here), schools have little choice but to do all they can to maximise the results or face the inevitable consequences.

So why does the pressure created by Sats results feel higher than ever?

There are multiple explanations, but it is certainly the case that successive governments have raised the stakes when it comes to these statutory assessments.

First, we had floor standards, which meant that, based on data alone, a school could face sudden and dramatic intervention.

The pressure was then further increased with the introduction of "coasting targets", which for many just felt like another way to label schools as failing based on data alone – only this time the arbitrary bar was set a little higher.

Many heads could be forgiven for wondering what might come next: "cruising targets", perhaps? "Drifting standards"? Just add 10 per cent and you’ve got a new accountability measure and another way to prove to the public how tough you’re being when it comes to schools. 

I’m not someone who would argue that there is no place at all for data within school accountability, rather that it needs to be seen for what it is and only taken to be one small part of a much bigger picture when it comes to judging school effectiveness.

Fundamental shift

Sats results might act as a catalyst for further discussions and questions with school leaders, but they should not be taken in isolation nor should they be treated as a simplistic proxy for how well a school is performing.  

Equally, I’m not convinced the tests are robust enough for such weight to be attached to them.

I agree with Dr Becky Allen, who said in a Tes article earlier this year that “the data is too fragile to make high-stakes judgements on schools.”

Many have fallen into the trap of accepting the validity of the data just because it’s printed in black and white (and sometimes decorated with other colours, too) and put in an official-looking government document.

In the short-term, a move to a three-year average would be a step in the right direction – no school should face intervention based on one year’s data alone.

Scrapping floor and coasting standards would also help. These are accountability measures (or traps) based purely on data alone.

However, we also need a more fundamental cultural shift in the system.

We need to get to the stage where those who seek to hold schools to account recognise that Sats data will never tell you the whole story and be prepared to question and look beyond the raw data when evaluating school performance.

If we could get to this stage, Sats would not become irrelevant, but they would be far less significant – and we might all be able to sleep a little bit easier.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen 

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