Why did truth about Sats take so long to dawn?

7th November 2008 at 00:00

If I had not switched on the news, I would not have known about the seismic shift in the world. Well, not everyone's world, but certainly that of English teachers. The mandatory Sats for 14-year-olds abolished. Gone. Stunned silence.

I had always imagined this day. Dancing in the streets, jubilation, flag-waving. Yet the earth did not shudder, there were no bolts of lightning, and everything appeared to carry on as normal. Frankly, it was a damp squib of a moment.

So what do I do now with all the clippings, articles, surveys, statistics, pamphlets and research papers I collected that supported what we knew all along - that there was no purpose to English Sats, no benefits for either pupils or teachers? I find myself momentarily a rebel without a cause.

I did try to like Sats. I trained as an examiner, but resigned, unable to carry through the odious task of marking in a manner that did not accord insight, imagination and understanding, and that clearly disadvantaged the most able pupils. I listened to the endless nonsense spouted by the local authority's literacy co-ordinators, who took up permanent roost at the back of my classroom. I tried not to get cross when told to move the Tolkien display and put the literacy ladder poster back at the front of the class. I hid my horror every time we were inspected and handed identical lesson plans to adhere to without deviation, even though the pupil cohort per class was wildly different. I scoured books for interesting passages and tried not to give up the hope that one day I would actually be allowed to teach a whole novel, and not have to label every single constituent part. When the literacy co-ordinator - who was not an English teacher and was unable to recognise the past tense in a sentence - told me how to deliver my lessons, I didn't betray a flicker.

I never told the pupils the truth that no one - no employer, university or college - would ever want to know what they had achieved in their Sats. GCSEs yes. A-levels yes. Sats? Nope. It was only the careers of government ministers that would be affected by the results. Because we knew that this was a political case of the emperor's new clothes and that the minister was afraid to be the one to say, "Actually, I'm naked."

It was the weather that did for me in the end. One glorious, bright, cold winter's day it snowed. Huge flurries of enormous snowflakes silently drifted past the windows of my classroom. Two pupils, recent arrivals from Ethiopia, had never seen snow and stood in awe at the panes. So, in a rash moment of creativity, we pulled on our coats and went outside. We touched the flakes and watched them melt on our fingers; we stuck out our tongues and tasted them, chased them and felt them land on our faces. Then we went back inside and wrote haikus about snow.

The Ethiopian pupils spoke English for the first time in months and put pen to paper. In fact, the whole class became absorbed in their imaginations, trying to capture in words what we had experienced.

At break, I was called to the head's office and formally reprimanded for "going off plan", "not achieving the literacy objective" and losing "the pace" of my lesson. I broke. I quit. I put my politics aside and went independent. And you know what? I loved it. I was free to do what I had been trained to do: teach a love of English language and literature, rather than pander to some meaningless tests.

I experienced what Sartre said about freedom being what you do with what has been done to you: the joy of teaching whole novels; the sheer pleasure of reading Shakespeare plays and not having to panic about what ridiculously unconnected writing task would be required; the thrill of seeing creativity and imagination roam freely around the classroom. Best of all, I had the pleasure of having my professionalism and judgment as a teacher accepted and acknowledged. I could even take the class out into the snow, the wind, the rain, the sunshine. And no one minded.

We knew that the much-publicised figures of 85 per cent achieving level 5 would not happen and had plateaued. We knew there wasn't room - despite Jim Knight, the schools minister, telling us otherwise - for "significant improvement", regardless of how much money or how many initiatives the Government came up with. We teachers knew a lot of things. But no one listened.

Have they listened now? Or is this simply an enforced response to ETS Europe's marking fiasco? I listened, however, for the Government to acclaim teachers for our ability to assess and monitor our pupils, and for ministers to give that as the reason for scrapping the Sats. They did not.

All truth apparently passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Then it is opposed. Finally, it is accepted as self-evident. What a pity it took ministers so long - so very, very long - to see, finally, the self-evident truth, the naked truth about Sats.

Julie Greenhough, Teacher of English at a London independent school.

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