In his defence of the primary assessment system, the chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, extols the virtues of Sats and the forthcoming baseline tests. They are reliable, he writes. They tell us about pupil progress. They offer a helping hand to the disadvantaged, by highlighting their needs. They have nothing to do with selection. Removing them would leave children exposed to the unconscious bias of teachers, and leave the whole English primary system at risk of a decline in standards.
It’s always a sign of the strength or weakness of an argument that it engages with criticisms of the position it’s defending. Mr Halfon’s argument doesn’t match up to this test. He shows no sign of having listened to what researchers and teachers have been saying for many years. It was in 2011 that Dylan Wiliam concluded that “in every single instance in which high-stakes accountability systems have been implemented, adverse unintended consequences have significantly reduced, and in many cases have completely negated, the positive benefits.” Since then, the force of his conclusion has been recognised by national governments and by the OECD. It’s a commonplace of educational thinking, which hasn’t yet reached the Department for Education.
Every year since Michael Gove’s more ‘rigorous’ Sats were inflicted on schools teachers have made the same points: high-stakes testing – exemplified by Sats – distorts the work of schools. It narrows the curriculum, increases stress on pupils, adds to teachers’ workload, and impacts most severely on those who are most in need.
Overlooking this record of experience, Mr Halfon relies instead on claims that have been refuted many times.
Reliability? “There is no way to test a 4-year-old and get a reliable result" was the verdict of the British Education Research Association (BERA) expert panel on Baseline. “Short, one-hour tests,” writes Professor Becky Allen, “are rarely reliable enough to tell us anything interesting about whether or not a student has made sufficient progress over the course of a year.”
Nothing to do with pupil grouping and selection? Research from Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts-Holmes at UCL identifies the effect of the phonics check and key stage 1 Sats on pupil grouping. By Year 2, two-thirds of their sample schools were grouping for phonics, literacy and maths – despite teachers’ misgivings about the effects on children.
A vehicle for social justice? Teachers would prefer the government to ensure that pupils came to school well-fed and well-clothed, free from the stresses of poverty, rather than to claim that the mountain of social disadvantage can be levelled by a focus on teaching to the test. And teachers note too that despite the continuing claims of government about the success of its programme, ‘below expected standard’ at key stage 2 continues to correlate too closely for comfort to ‘free school meals’.
Mr Halfon would like us to believe that there is no alternative to Sats. This is not the case. In many countries, there is a consensus that a focus on assessment for learning, linked to light-touch testing related to the varied learning needs of individuals, provides reliability and encourages a better pedagogy. In many schools in this country, there is already an interest in exploring what kinds of assessment best support learning and behaviour. In this context, Sats are not a useful resource, but an impediment. This is something recognised by Layla Moran, and Jeremy Corbyn, but not, sadly, by Mr Halfon’s own party.
Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union