'So much rides on today's Sats results – it threatens my wellbeing as a school leader'

4th July 2017 at 11:10
Sats are a tiny part of running a successful school but they have an unprecedented weight of influence – it's time they lost their monopoly, writes one primary headteacher

I sit and wait for the Sats results. Not daring to type in the username and password for the NCA tools website.

I stayed up late last night because sometimes the results go live earlier than the published date, but I was too tired. Twitter was full of chat and banter but I needed to shut my eyes; I slept badly.

As I gather the courage to log in, I note how fast my heart is racing and consciously take a few steadying deep breaths.

Waiting for Sats results is a tense affair. The uncertainty and weight of expectation hangs heavy over Year 6 teachers and headteachers.

Initially, there is the anxiety building up to the week: have we done enough?

Then there is the week itself: were we good enough?

Finally (for me this is the worst part), we wait for the results.

Sats are one the the biggest factors affecting my wellbeing as a school leader. As accountability for outcomes has focused upon bigger and better results, and expectations have risen, so has the worry and concern regarding the impact they will have on our futures.

Sats are a tiny part of running a successful school community with an unprecedented weight of influence on the measuring of that success.

For Year 6 teachers and headteachers, up and down the country, today feels a little like going to see the doctor. There is the initial hope that the news will be OK, that we live to fight another day. We won't have to worry about our mortgages, professional dignity or job prospects. Families can hopefully stop living with anxious and moody mums, dads, friends and lovers.

So much rides on these results. An unforeseen disaster and the best you can hope for is to be prescribed a consultant; or worse ... told that your days are numbered.

'Assessment sickness'

It seems that there is no cure for the assessment sickness. A sickness that is so virulent, unpredictable and complex that to make it our barometer for successful schools makes a mockery of madness.

The stakes are high. This is the year after the much-criticised 2016 Sats tests – these latest results will form a two-year trend. This is crunch time for so many heads and teachers.

Therefore, the pressure to ensure that the results were as good as they could be was intense. This is why I have seen many heads look towards alternative measures: a dose of hot-housing, narrowing the curriculum, therapy or overstaffing Year 6 syndrome.

These results will define the next 12 months and influence how everyone (except the children and parents) view the school. Judgements will be made, often at a distance.

This year there is the added fear of a new strain of Ofsted that attaches itself to the very heart of your school's purpose. This new contagion will sweep across the land and even great results may not be enough to hold a school together…

Is this just one more thing to worry about? Or is it the cure?

I sit and stare. I look at the names and I slowly begin to count the children with a number over 100:

Yes! No? What? Whoop! Save me!

Twenty-six! Twenty-six! I rage at why the reading score threshold has risen so much and recalculate my score at 24! (Last year's! WHOOP!) Reading used to be 19! If only it was 19. I’d have 100 per cent. How the times have changed.

I start frantically typing numbers into my calculator. Checking and rechecking.

I get my statistic but have to immediately readjust it because I run specialist provision and we had five children with complex SEND who did not sit Sats but will be on our data.

That 7 per cent hurts. It hurts bad and the numbers that looked really good drop.

I begin my script: "The cohort were... (insert 1,001 reasons)."

I feel like I am already making excuses. Every reason will be explored as some careers falter, stall, crash and burn whilst new heroes and heroines are revealed. History becomes irrelevant and the now triumphs. Education has become a fickle thing.

'Cut-throat accountability'

I was on the panel for the Inspire South West conference in Bristol last Saturday and a member of the audience commented on how their school boycotted the Sats in 2010 and it had no impact on their child whatsoever. 

What happened to those thousands who did not sit Sats in 2010? Did the school sit back and regress? Did those children miss out? We all know the answer.

There are no enemies of promise in our schools. We all want the best for our children. We all want people to trust that we, the professionals, know what is best for children in our schools. We do, and the rise in standards is a testament to this. But cut-throat accountability is skewing the picture.

Later this week teachers will sit down with those 10-and 11-year-olds and tell them how they did. They will do it with skill, compassion and professional integrity, but the fact is you either did well or you are not good enough. We define success based on a handful of academic tests.

I remember a colleague telling me how after eight months of focused work they got a child with complex SEND to suck through a straw. This may seem like a simple thing. It was not. It was a complex and difficult thing to do and there is no data for this. 

However, for that family, once their child gained the independence to suck through that straw, their meal times were transformed because their child was no longer dependent on being fed by them. They were free to do other things as a family. These stories, these amazing achievements are lost this week and I feel schools are lesser because of it.

Primary education cannot be measured in Sat scores alone. They are a factor (I believe in testing children to know what they can and cannot do in key areas) but they have to lose their overwhelming monopoly on measuring the success of our schools and comparing them as though this is an even and fair system.

Sats scores need to loose their grip on being a key determiner for our best teachers and leaders.

This mad rush to worship something so false, so open to cheating and that drains children of a broad, rich and balanced curriculum has to stop.

We need to value all that our schools do and give leaders and teachers the freedom to strive without the fear of failure hanging like the Sword of Damocles over our heads.

Brian Walton is a primary head in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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