'The solution to the mess of Sats is to make them compulsory for every year group'

11th May 2016 at 12:01
A primary teacher explains that the reason national tests at primary are so stressful is because schools only have two sets of externally moderated ‘proper’ scores to call upon. His solution is to increase the number of tests.

Sats have never been popular among teachers, but this year has seen near unanimous disdain for, and protest against, the national tests.

The obstacles to teachers and children have been well documented: the children in key stage two have not sat the whole curriculum; the rationale for the disproportionately heavy emphasis on grammar has not been communicated (probably because it doesn’t exist); exemplification materials did not arrive until much too late in the day; guidance was confusing, and had to be clarified, then re-clarified, several times; and most troublesome of all, the tests are simply too hard.

So, throw them out!

This is the position of the NUT, who called for the test to be suspended back in February. Parents, too, have voiced their opposition and some even went so far as to remove their children from school in protest. They are under too much pressure, they argue.

And perhaps they are. Reports emerged from headteachers this week of children crying while sitting a reading paper.

Tests that were originally designed to check that schools were providing an adequate education for all of their children have become so high stakes that children, despite adults’ best efforts, are feeling the burn of ‘failure’, of having let themselves and others down.

Scrapping Sats is not the only answer

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. However, it is regrettable that ‘throw the tests out’ seems to be the only game in town if you find the current situation unacceptable and damaging, not to mention straightforwardly poor educational practice. The profession, if is to retain any shred of professional credibility, must not spit in the face of accountability from an elected government who both fund state education and have a mandate to do so.

Perhaps you don’t agree with government policy, but the majority of the population did, and said so with their 'X' last May. That’s democracy, folks.

And given the megabucks spent on education, and the government's obvious responsibility to ensure children are well educated, it would be reckless to the point of neglect for the DfE to simply cross their fingers and stick them in their ears, hoping for the best. Schools have an awkward record in providing children from poorer backgrounds with outcomes that will enable lives of success and opportunity; monitoring and challenging this is a necessary duty of government.

And testing can be a 'Good Thing'. Really. The cognitive benefits of frequently retrieving information learnt have been robustly shown to hugely increase long-term retention.

More, not less, testing

The trouble with the Sats is not that they exist at all, it is that they are administered too irregularly. In Year 2, children are still emerging in all foundational skills, and the next time that they are checked is in Year 6. This means that primary schools only get one throw of the dice, in an all-or-nothing exam.

Here’s an alternative solution: compulsory Sats for every year group.

Stop shaking your head and give me a chance to explain.

The reason that the national tests are so stressful is because you only have two sets of externally moderated ‘proper’ scores to call upon. If children sat Sats tests every year, the stakes would be organically lowered. If a child underperforms in Year 3, it would be possible to monitor their performance more closely across Year 4, and start to worry if results were still low in Year 5. We know from research by the Education Datalab that progress isn’t linear, and annual tests would allow schools to demonstrate this more authoritatively.

Content would also be more evenly distributed across primary school. Currently, there is far more pressure on Year 2 and Year 6 teachers in schools, and resources tend to be kicked up the towards children about to leave, when the evidence suggests that investing in superb early years provision would be a more effective use of resources.

There will always be a tension between testing for formative means and testing as an accountability measure, but more regular national, standardised testing would create a calmer system that is better for everyone. 

Jon Brunskill teaches at Reach Academy Feltham



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