If the government is insistent on children sitting Sats, is Year 6 the best time to do them?
I don't think so. While now is not the time to make the change because schools have so much else logistically on our plates with the current crisis - moving more exams would create more upheaval - this shocking hiatus in our lives has forced us to reflect deeply about so much we took for granted. Out of the many ‘what ifs’ it has thrown at the education community, ‘what if we moved the Sats?’ is one that could be worth considering.
If we have to do them at all, it makes much more sense to do them in Year 7. Here's why.
1. Remove curriculum narrowing and teaching to the test
Like it or not, to some degree Year 6 Sats will dominate a child’s experience of their last year of school.
The best schools will bear the brunt of the external pressure for results without passing that pressure onto the students, understanding that Year 6 should be a joyous celebration of what has been learned, a curiosity-enhancing exploration of what is to come and a challenging preparation for the next steps into secondary learning.
However, it will be a rare school that in some way is not explicitly preparing students for the Sats, and many will be tempted into teaching to the test.
In these cases, a reductive, narrowed curriculum with repeated drilling and test papers turns the Year 6 classroom from a place of discovery and introduction to a wider curriculum of the kind pupils may encounter in secondary school, into a place where there is, to borrow a phrase from teacher blogger David Thomas “no room to teach anything except the assessment objectives being examined [which] only measure generic skills".
Moving Sats to the start of Year 7 would get rid of teaching to the test in Year 6 – and indeed any teaching that did not have long-term learning in mind.
2. Accuracy of assessment
Where schools are narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test, the Sats results may be more likely to demonstrate performance rather than learning, as explained by Nicholas Soderstrom and Robert Bjork in their 2015 research paper.
Of course, this is understandable in a system in which schools are judged by their results. As Thomas puts it, “school leaders are under pressure to achieve good exam results, and so orient their schools around exam performance.
"They measure pupils in all year groups against the assessment objectives from exams, and expect teachers to teach to these objectives too.”
However, if we accept Ofsted’s current preferred definition that learning is "an alteration in long-term memory”, then the Year 6 Sats run the risk of measuring performance rather than learning.
Most secondary schools recognise the summer drop and do their own baseline testing in Year 7 anyway to see where the students are really at in September. Why not just have Sats at the start of Year 7 to find out what has really been learned at primary school after the summer break?
3. Purpose of assessment
The Year 6 Sats are primarily used to judge the performance of primary schools in terms of what progress they can make for their students and to form a prediction of GCSE grades to which secondary school teachers are held.
Their function seems therefore primarily to assess schools and hold school leaders to account.
What is the benefit to students? Unlike GCSEs or A-Levels, which are entirely externally marked and have an external shared meaning to further and higher education and to employers, acting as a passport to next stages of education, training or work, Year 6 Sats are not a barrier to accessing the next stage of education so do not serve this purpose for students.
Worse, they can label a student as low prior attainment or ‘LPA’ with a low target grade for their GCSEs, leading to more unconscious bias temptation for teachers; or higher prior attainment 'HPA', which can then put pressure on teachers and pupils alike if these pupils do not achieve the predicted grade 9.
Now is the time for change
Are they manageable in terms of making classroom time valuable for learning or do they skew the curriculum in Year 6 away from learning and towards teaching to the test for teachers under pressure for results?
And motivating…well, how motivating do you think it is for your average ten year old to be constantly being taught to the test? How motivating for their teacher to be tasked to do so?
Moving Year 6 Sats to September of Year 7 would (a) show what students had actually learned in primary school if we accept Ofsted’s preferred definition that "learning is a change in long-term memory”; (b) render useless the practice of Year 6 teachers teaching to the test for a performative outcome to benefit the school’s statistics and thus liberate the Year 6 curriculum; and (c) give more realistic GCSE targets for secondary teachers.
The issue with this plan is that it could negatively affect disadvantaged students without home support in their learning the most. While we are thinking outside the box, my solution to this would be to shorten the summer holidays and lengthen the half terms. But that’s another article for another time.