Whispers from Westminster: My U-turn on plan for Sats resits in secondary

10th June 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons writes weekly about policy and education

“If children do not reach the required standards in their exams at the end of primary school, they will resit them at the start of secondary…to make sure no pupil is left behind.”

After a period of silence on this manifesto commitment, during which crueller people than me hoped it had been dropped in the deep freeze, the government has announced a consultation, with resits due to start in December next year.

At the time that this was announced, I remember being pretty much the only person in favour. And if the numbers signing a Parliamentary petition are any guide (clue: they never are), it’s still very unpopular. What’s odd is how many opponents seem to have missed the policy intention. It’s simply to ensure that children who don’t make the mark at 11 can catch up, access the secondary curriculum and ultimately get good GCSEs and life outcomes.

It’s the latest addition to a suite of checkpoints and catch-ups: reading tests for six-year-old pupils, the new multiplication test in primary, summer schools during transition, English and maths catch-up via pupil premium, and a requirement for those below grade C to resit English and maths GCSE post-16.

This, in other words, is the core education that you are entitled to, and the state will do its damnedest to get you there. This policy also recognises that at present, in most schools, accountability incentives mean that key stage 4 is where more money and better teachers are often put. You need an equivalent lever to reset the balance.

It’s also naive for opponents not to recognise its political appeal. It’s simple: “Your kids won’t fail.” In government, Labour was constantly debating similar proposals designed to appeal to these emotions.

All that said, I must admit that I’ve fallen out of love with the idea (as I suspect some at Department for Education have). My main worry relates to the (almost inevitable) accountability metrics that will be put alongside it. Are we really going to rank secondaries by how many of their new kids pass? And can we really blame secondaries (at least by implication) for not doing in a term or two what a primary hasn’t done in seven years?

It also risks leading to a division in Year 7 between kids who have passed, and those who haven’t, with a narrowed curriculum for the latter. This argument can be overstated – many brilliant secondaries do “depth before breadth” already.

And, as ever, the risk is that those schools that would catch-up will probably do it anyway, and those that don’t are not likely to do these resits well.

It’s likely that Progress 8 will already act to reset the balance in secondaries. There is a case for walking the walk on school autonomy here, and slinging this policy back in the freezer.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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