Editorial - Will England dare to follow in Wales' wake on Sats?

21st May 2010 at 01:00
The decision to scrap the tests back in 2004 was bold and still worthy of admiration

It does not take much to generate public outrage these days. An accidental remark, a poor-taste joke, a BBC ident interrupting an episode of Doctor Who - all these can generate thousands of complaints, accelerated by the power of Twitter and Facebook.

So where is the outrage, over the border in England, about the decision of thousands of schools there to boycott this year's national tests? As yet, there appear to be no hordes of parents picking up pitchforks because their 11-year-old has not sat the Sats. Social networking sites are not full of families complaining that their child missed a chance to write an essay, under exam conditions, about a fictional pet.

The lack of outrage may be linked to the paucity of publicity for last week's boycott. By an accident of timetabling, the boycott started when the UK was still in a rare state of political limbo. There was no government in charge to take the blame for letting all those rebel headteachers disrupt the sacred national tests.

The fact the nation's attentions were fixed on Downing Street also denied the boycott the publicity its organisers had expected. It must have been galling for them that the action by schools - which lasted more than a week - received vastly less coverage than a British Airways strike that was blocked before it had even started. So the decision of thousands of schools to drop Sats was greeted with indifference rather than outrage.

Teachers in Wales would have predicted that parents would not be upset. When Wales took its bold stance of scrapping the tests and league tables in 2004, there was little resistance from families. Indeed, many parents spoke of their relief that the country was breaking away from England's test-obssessed culture. The results since then have, admittedly, been mixed. In a recent article attacking the NAHT and NUT's boycott, The Guardian columnist Peter Preston wrote that "we ought to know that standards in Scotland and Wales have slipped since testing there stopped".

While some evidence for this may be found in international league tables, the Campaign for State Education is right to argue that it is too early to be certain if any deterioration relates directly to the ending of national tests. More light will be shed on this question when the next round of Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tables are published this December.

In the meantime, schools should take heart from other research, such as the findings of the Institute of Education in London, which suggested that teachers in Wales were confident standards in science had improved since the end of Sats. Of course, constant comparisons with England do not benefit Wales' education system.

Chris Tweedale, the Assembly government's director of the Children, Young People and School Effectiveness Group, is right to say that: "We need to be comparing ourselves against the best in the world, not just looking the other side of Offa's Dyke" (page 4). But as England continues to struggle with arguments over Sats and key stage 2 league tables, Wales should feel proud of disposing of them first.

Michael Shaw, Opinion editor, E michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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