Will we ever reach a time when every child passes their Sats?
Children in tears. Teachers in tears. Parents in tears. You can't really overstate the emotional charge that now accompanies the national curriculum tests sat by 7- and 11-year-olds each year.
And so when, in the midst of this emotion, a teacher threw down a gauntlet suggesting that too many children are being failed, it's unsurprising that a visceral reaction arose.
Last night, a secondary teacher responded to the national figures of only 71 per cent meeting the expected standard in reading by lamenting “So we’re only failing 30 per cent of the country. Brilliant”.
You can imagine the outrage from primary teachers, who have spent the last year busting a gut to prepare children for seemingly impossible tests, which have been plagued by flaws since their introduction.
It's worth remembering, though, that the secondary teacher was also speaking with outrage; outrage that so many children arrive at secondary school without a fighting chance of gaining the qualifications that will lead to improved life chances. Children so woefully ill-equipped to meet the demands of secondary education that their destiny is etched on their planners and their souls from the moment they step foot in 'big school'.
The diminished chances of children who fail to meet the expected standard at primary school (or the old level 4, as current students are anointed with) are well documented. And it is also irrefutable that children from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds remain, stubbornly, most unlikely to achieve the GCSEs and A levels that allow a life of choice and opportunity.
Cut through all the emotion, though, and we are left with an intriguing question. Could it be possible for every child to leave primary school having met the expected standard? This would mean that all children receive a standardised score of 100 or greater in their reading, grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS), and maths Sats.
In principle, it's possible. The way that the Sats work means that a particular test score is deemed to indicate that the child is at the expected standard. This year, it was 26 out of 50 for reading, 36 out of 70 for GPS, and 57 out of 110 for maths. There will be schools across the country in which every child met that benchmark. There isn't any reason, in principle, why every child couldn't have.
A Sats outcry
But just imagination for a moment if they had. It would have been a national scandal. If the government set a test that every single child passed, it would indicate a huge flaw in the design of that test, not a miracle composed by teachers in classrooms. Tests are designed to discriminate. Fail to do so and they fail in their core purpose.
To delve a bit deeper into how this could not be so, it's worth revising how the pass mark for the Sats is determined.
According to the ATL teaching union, a panel of teachers and headteachers are gathered by the Department for Education to undertake a process known as ‘bookmarking’. It works like this: you take a test booklet and sort the questions from easiest to hardest. You then take a bookmark, and read a list of performance indicators that together represent the agreed upon expected standard. You imagine a child who meets those indicators, and place the bookmark at the point in the test where you think that child would begin to struggle.
The department then gives the teachers some important information. They tell them the impact data – the percentage of children nationally who would meet the expected standard based on where the teachers plopped the bookmark. The department know this information because they have already trialled the questions with groups of real children. The teachers can then adjust the bookmark based on this information to set the final expected standard.
Once the process is understood, it would be nonsensical for the expected standard mark to be set at a point in which 100 per cent of children would meet it. Otherwise why reveal the impact data? An uncharitable conclusion to draw from this would be that a certain number of children are, in fact, being set up to fail from the start. Indeed the system necessitates that they do.
But it's also worth bearing in mind two things. One, that it was still technically possible for all children to have been at the expected standard this year. It is not statistically fixed post hoc in the same way that GCSEs are, and so if teachers had pulled off some madsick instruction they could have got all children there.
The second point is to think about the implications of this fictional scenario. If all children were genuinely at that ambitious and aspirational standard, their life chances would be immeasurably improved. Secondary teachers would be stripped of their common excuse of "they came up low to begin with" and would instead delight in a cohort who are ready to hit the ground running and engage with the KS3 curriculum at a level of depth and sophistication.
Whether or not it's possible, that's what we should strive for.
And it's important to remember that we all are.
Jon Brunskill teaches at Reach Academy Feltham