Let's scrap Sats and focus on real skills

5th September 2008 at 01:00
KS3 tests have faced more icebergs than the Titanic. Abolish them when functional skills tests are launched in 2010

This year's standard assessment tests marking crisis has been upsetting for thousands of children and immensely frustrating for schools. But it will have been worth the pain if it leads to a major rethink of the testing regime, with the abolition of key stage 3 Sats and a different approach to Sats for 11-year-olds.

The publicity given to the crisis in a slow news month brought two hitherto hidden issues to public attention: the unsustainability of a testing system of this size, and the cost. Were taxpayers really contracted to pay Pounds 156 million over five years for these tests?

Parallels between the key stage testing system and the Titanic come to mind, with so many icebergs above and below the surface that even the Government must now recognise the risks of persevering with the status quo.

To continue the Titanic analogy, Lord Sutherland has been asked to report to Ofqual on how the deckchairs might be rearranged. But what is really needed is an investigation into the seaworthiness of the entire ship.

A thorough review of Sats cannot be carried out in isolation from other tests and aspects of assessment. For KS3 tests, this means asking the following question: in relation to other examinations in the 14 to 19 phase, do we really need national tests for 14-year-olds?

The new kids swaggering on to the block are the functional skills tests. When they are introduced in 2010, they will tell us all we need to know about how well young people can read, write, do maths and use computers. That is what employers have been asking for.

So 2010 is the year when KS3 tests should be abolished. We cannot have both. We do not need both.

English and maths will be a vital part of the functional skills tests. Pupils will need to pass them in order to gain a grade C or better at GCSE. They will be a core part of the assessment for all diplomas; and every student will need to take them to demonstrate to employers and universities their basic language and number abilities.

Employers will soon begin to demand a pass in functional skills tests as a sine qua non. No employer ever asked a potential employee: "What level did you reach in your KS3 tests?"

The Government values the views of employers on diplomas and A-levels. It should listen to the hidden message from them on KS3 tests: they are not worth a hill of beans. No one - apart from the compilers of league tables - will mourn their loss.

Few, if any, pupils benefit from a national test at 14. Internal school tests would provide all the information they and their parents need to assess their progress.

Nor are KS3 tests needed for accountability. Schools can report their own progress through self-evaluation, and external accountability can rest, as it should, on the students' performance at 16 and 18.

Functional skills tests, on the other hand, have the potential to become a practical, sensible qualification, giving a guarantee of essential achievement and helping to reduce future adult basic skills problems.

Once established, functional skills will influence the curriculum and help to focus work-related learning. Canny schools will look to all subjects to emphasise applications of this new core of learning.

But, useful as they will be, tests for functional skills cannot be added to the existing testing system which, if it were a human being, would already have been diagnosed as dangerously obese. On the grounds of both volume and cost, something has to give when functional skills tests are introduced. Key stage 3 tests are the obvious target for abolition.

As stand-alone tests - not incorporated into GCSE or diploma examinations - functional skills tests could be available to all, online, at any time, to be taken when the candidate is ready. Some pupils would take some or all of them at 14, some at 15 or 16 or 17 or later. And they could be taken at any time of year.

Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, said to Parliament in July that "we must not return to the past situation where school accountability was weak, parents lacked good information about their child's progress". He hinted that he is prepared to consider change if the Making Good Progress pilot of single level tests, which runs until next July, proves a success.

No one is suggesting a return to an unaccountable past. But there are other options that do not involve preserving KS3 tests or adopting the potentially disastrous single level tests, which will undo much of the flexibility so recently introduced into the KS3 curriculum.

The chief inspector of schools told the children, schools and families select committee in July of the extent to which the curriculum is already constrained by "teaching to the test". Single level testing is likely to make this much worse.

Instead, let us take a look at the way in which external testing supports the education of young people and devise a system that can best complement assessment for learning.

Key stage 3 tests would be unlikely to have a place in such a system. We must look for all-party support to abolish them as functional skills tests are introduced.

Then the 2008 marking crisis will have led to something significant. It will have introduced testing that will inform teachers, employers and parents; freed teachers to focus on students' learning, instead of training them to jump through hoop after hoop; and rationalised the assessment system so that the Pounds 156 million can be spent on something of greater educational benefit.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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