No future in Sats? Tory plans spell the end

19th June 2009 at 01:00
But Michael Gove's proposal to move key stage 2 Sats to the beginning of Year 7 hasn't found favour with all the teaching unions. Richard Vaughan reports

The Conservatives plan to scrap Sats "as quickly as possible" should they come to power after the next general election, following an announcement on Sunday. Although the party introduced the tests in the mid-1990s, the new proposals, put forward by Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, would mean key stage 2 national curriculum tests would no longer be taken by pupils at the end of Year 6. Instead, the Tories would move the exams to the beginning of Year 7, when 11-year-olds start secondary school.

The rationale behind the move, say the Conservatives, is that many secondaries do not trust the Sats results that come out of primary schools and tend to hold their own tests to check the aptitude levels of their new intake.

The move, say the Tories, would abolish unnecessary duplication while giving Year 6 pupils a chance to enjoy a more rounded final year in primary education.

According to the party, it would also remove the notion of "teaching to the test", which is one of the major criticisms of KS2 tests and a main reason for two teachers' unions calling for a boycott of the tests earlier this year.

Speaking of the reforms, Mr Gove said: "We'd have a better way of knowing how children had done at primary school because we'd free the final year for teaching in the broadest sense, in order to ensure that children had access to the most broad curriculum possible; and then when they arrive at secondary school, we find out genuinely how well they've been taught, how effectively they can read, how gifted they are at mathematics.

"And then, using those statistics and using the way in which the teachers have assessed the pupils at secondary school, we can work out which primary schools are doing brilliantly and which are doing less well."

To ensure accountability still remains for primary schools, the Tories plan to use the results collected in Year 7 and trace them back to pupils' previous schools.

The decision to move the tests came after last year's Sats "meltdown", as Mr Gove called it, when more than a million test results were delayed for nearly a year.

However, the proposals have already divided the education community, with the unions split over whether the would be for the better. The National Association for Headteachers welcomed the move, calling it a piece of "innovative thinking" on the Conservatives' part. The association said it fulfilled one of its objectives that children in Year 6 should enjoy their best primary year.

"It also recognises that parents are already informed about their child's progress, in the annual report, by the teacher's assessment of their achievements," said Mick Brookes, the association's general secretary. "The Sat results arrive too late to be of use for this purpose, and they are not sufficiently accurate at school and pupil level."

The move was greeted with more scepticism from the NUT and the Association for School and College Leaders, both of which gave the plans tentative praise but wanted to see more details. John Dunford, the ASCL's general secretary, said: "The Conservative idea has merit in removing some of the problems from Year 6 of primary school and may make the transition to secondary school smoother. However, the administration and marking of the tests would produce considerable additional workload for secondary schools, which are already feeling burdened by the weight of other initiatives."

But the strongest criticism came from the NASUWT, which described the move as being the "worst of all worlds". Chris Keates, the union's general secretary, said: "A significant flaw in the Conservative's proposal is that the evaluation of the performance of primary schools will be in the hands of secondary schools. Judgements of secondary school performance are based on the value-added they provide on the primary school Sats results. Who, therefore, could blame them if they were to mark and assess the tests with far less impartiality than external markers? All the hard work primary schools invest in their pupils would then be for nothing.

"What confidence could anyone, including parents, have in such a system?"

This fear was echoed by Andrew Carter, headteacher of South Farnham Junior School in Surrey, who believes the new system could see a lowering of standards.

"There has to be a level playing field and there doesn't seem to be a more level playing field than externally examined tests for KS2," he said. "There is a question that secondary teachers would mark the children down as that would give them better value added scores.

"What they might find is that the children are actually clever and that they will have to work harder to improve them. So, this new system could see a lowering of standards so teachers can show they are improving their pupils."

Mr Carter said that, in reality, the new system would be unlikely to remove the duplication that it was intended to prevent. "Primary schools would invariably want their own results to be able to show parents at the end of the year rather than having to wait until the autumn," he said. "So it would be unlikely that it would remove the duplication of tests.

"And if you follow this logic, maybe primary schools should administer KS1 tests, and universities should do A-levels. If you were a company, you wouldn't want someone else to be controlling your finances - you want to be in charge of your own business."

Walsall Wood Primary School in the Midlands was the most improved primary school in country following last year's KS2 results. Robert Trawford, the headteacher, said he would be "very unhappy" if the fate of Walsall Wood lay in another school's hands.

"I'm not sure I would want them (secondary school teachers) to validate my school's progress," he said. "Who would set the test? What would the questions be?

"Whether you like the existing system or not, at least the tests are valid. How will you be able to compare my school from the one down the road?"

Ofsted inspections were equally a cause for concern, he said. "Ofsted plans to use raw test data as a basis for its inspections but I would be very unhappy if this data relied on another school," he added.

Mr Trawford also pointed to the time between finishing primary school and taking the test as being a worry.

"For most schools at the end of year, the last two weeks are taken up by school plays or sports, so taking that into account as well as a six to eight week break for the summer, it could be 10 or 12 weeks since the children were in contact with the curriculum when they take the test."

Sir Jim Rose, author of the primary curriculum review and member of the expert group on assessment set up last October to advise the Government after it decided to abolish KS3 tests, also raised concerns about a test at the start of secondary school.

"The move from primary to secondary school can be exciting but also challenging for pupils," Sir Jim said. "An important test at the beginning of secondary school could make this transition more difficult. There are other transition issues that need to be considered, including vulnerable pupils whose achievement may fall back over the summer holidays."

Vernon Coaker, the new schools minister, attacked Mr Gove's idea calling it "half baked" and warned that it would lead to a "huge step backwards for school accountability".

However, the Conservatives themselves have admitted the idea is just that, an idea, and the party says it is looking forward to consulting all interested parties and having a "mature debate" on the subject.

One obvious result of moving Sats into secondaries is savings. By dropping the need for external markers and making secondary schoolteachers assess the tests, the Tories would be able to save millions of pounds in what will be a very stretched budget should they come to power.

But for Sir Tim Brighouse, former commissioner for London schools and another member of the expert group on assessment, any of the benefits the Tories trumpet by moving tests will be greatly outweighed by the disadvantages. He reiterated all the concerns such as the long summer break, the lack of a comparative guide for primary schools, and the fact there will be no starting point for value-added analysis. The Conservatives, he said, were missing the point.

"What we really need," said Sir Tim, "is to get on with strengthening teacher assessment, externally moderated and authenticated just as they have in universities - through the introduction of chartered assessors and licences to assess and the staff development that goes with it - and making that the main method of assessment with random sampling."

"The expert group thought that we should review the position in a couple of years to see if we had reached the point where that would be possible.

"The proposals now being made are long on seductive promise but short on practicality."


What we know:

Scrap primary Sats tests and move them into first term of secondary school.

Secondary school teachers carry out the assessment of the "simple, unified system of testing".

Pupils' results are traced back to their primary school.

Primary school league tables to rely on results of tests.

What we don't know:

If primary schools will be held to any external account for their academic progress.

When exactly pupils will sit the tests.

Who will set the tests.

How the test results will link to Ofsted inspections.


Should Sats be moved to Y7?

This was a hot subject for discussion this week following the Tory announcement


Oh goody! Tests after a six week holiday at a time when most children are nervous about a new school anyway. How does this help to show how good primary schools are? Worse than current regime!


I hope they offer the secondary teachers plenty of training because in my marking team three failed standardisation (all secondary teachers). Assessments marked by teachers are never trusted. The temptation to give them what you were expected to achieve will be immense ... Typical Conservatives, soundbite, soundbite, soundbite. The Tories came up with this idea of Sats and now it is a bad idea. Good to see political expediency is still alive and well.


When I first heard this I did think 'Oh, how great for primary teachers' ... closely followed by 'Not so great for secondary teachers!' ... It's just shifting the problem.


Great idea (only joking!). Teachers will mark the tests for no money, and will save on paying external markers. I assume NUT members will be first in line to do the marking. I also assume somebody will come here to tell us that the marking will be good for career development.

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