But what will come after Sats?

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

So, do I join the Sats boycott? Frankly, there isn't much of an argument for keeping them, even though the Government has worked hard persuading parents that Sats, league tables and Ofsted reports are the only way to judge whether a school is effective.

To politicians, rising Sats results tell the electorate that educational standards are going up, so please vote for us again. And if they aren't rising, it's relatively easy to throw money at the problem and cause them to do so: target the borderline children, instigate pockets of individual tuition, change the tests in subtle ways and arrange additional training for teachers so that they can ease their children through the necessary hoops.

Schools have long recognised the importance of the Sats. Not for the children, of course - they have no relevance for them at all. But if your results are down and Ofsted is coming - never mind that this year's cohort is less able than the previous one - you can expect to be hammered. The local authority won't be happy with you either, and the school improvement partner will unpick your data with even greater determination than usual.

So teachers have found ways round this little problem, too. Many have abandoned the arts in Year 6 and concentrated on training children to answer expected test questions. Past test papers have been handed out each week, just as they were in the days of the 11+, with children being asked to plough through the monotony until they're in sight of stumbling though that essential level 4. In desperation, and because so much rests on these tests, a few teachers have even resorted to manipulating the conditions under which the tests are taken. Do the tests in a classroom instead of a hall, sit a bright child next to a less able child, and then let events take their course.

This obsession with test results also creates bizarre situations. One year, we were appalled to find that a boy who had written a stunning piece of prose, eventually published in a magazine, was awarded with a grudging level 3, while his friend who had written a rambling, tedious story with better punctuation had been given a level 5. The following year, the teacher carefully studied what the examiner would be looking for, and ensured his children added lots of big words, punctuation marks, and paragraphs. Virtually all of them got at least level 4.

And since the same English test is taken by children right across the country, what might appeal to the rural Oxfordshire lad doesn't necessarily resonate with the inner-city immigrant child cooped up in a high-rise flat. Last year, the comprehension test sported a silly piece of writing about a boy who drags a television set into a tree house at the back of his large garden. Garden? Tree house? Many of my children might not be certain what a tree actually is.

But there are positive sides to the Sats, and if they weren't used as a rod to beat schools with, I suspect teachers might be more supportive. Of course children need to be tested - how else are we to know about their skills and knowledge level? Sats are relatively easy to administer, and results are easy to collate.

But - and here's the rub - if we throw them out, what will replace them? Teacher assessment? Fine by me if it's simple and straightforward, but governments don't trust teachers, and something like the appallingly complex Assessing Pupils' Progress system could be thrust upon us.

On balance, though, I think we'll have to take that chance. But we can't allow ourselves to be battered with an alternative, aggressive set of demands from people who haven't a clue what primary education is supposed to be about.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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