Paul Bew is used to grappling with difficult issues. The professor tasked by the Government with reviewing primary Sats advised the politicians hammering out Ireland's Good Friday Agreement. Testing children at 11 isn't quite in the same league, but the topic was sufficiently controversial to induce last year's boycott by headteachers opposed to it. That action was not a success. Only a quarter of schools took part and the issue quickly became about the rights and wrongs of boycotts rather than the advisability of Sats. However, it did lead to the Bew review, which allowed both sides to cool off while the professor considered the options.
There was never much likelihood that his review would completely satisfy diehard opponents of Sats, given that its remit acknowledged "that external accountability is a key driver of improvement". Nor was there any chance that this government, like its predecessor, was ever going to ditch external testing completely, particularly as research suggests that wholesale abandonment in Wales has led to a decline in performance. Nevertheless, Professor Bew has skilfully navigated a course between Sats opponents and supporters to deliver a report that the majority on both sides should be able to accept.
The biggest win for Sats critics is his recommendation that external testing of writing should be scrapped. Many heads regard this as the least reliable and most stressful of all the tests and they will welcome his suggestion to replace it with teacher assessment. Sats supporters should be mollified by the retention of the two papers on maths and the addition of a brief assessment on punctuation to the reading paper. And everyone should be pleased with Professor Bew's proposals not to include children who have been at the school for less than six months in any assessment and to allow absent pupils to re-sit. Under the current unfair system, every missing pupil lowers the score of the average class by 4 per cent.
If opposition to Sats were solely based on an objection to testing overload, the fight would largely be over. Professor Bew's proposal to scrap external assessment of writing at KS2 follows that of science last year and the abolition of compulsory KS3 tests the year before. The testing load has been considerably lightened. The other bugbear, however, is the use to which Sats are put - the construction of league tables. These are not about to disappear any time soon. But the review's recommendations that they should include a rolling three-year average and, more importantly, mark progress as well as attainment should do a lot to ameliorate their worst defects. All in all, Professor Bew has gone a long way to answer the concerns of Sats opponents. It would be an irony if the Government felt he had gone too far ...