Spring has sprung, and it’s a great time of year. The weather is changing and the sun is starting to shine after what feels like an eternity. It’s quite possibly my favourite time of year.
But it also brings some frustrations. Like clockwork, every spring, we hear the same arguments about the horrors exams inflict on children, and how they must be abolished – 2019 has been no different.
Yesterday, at the NEU teaching union conference in Liverpool, Jeremy Corbyn came out in favour of scrapping Sats in Year 2 and 6 (the former is already being phased out), and also the incoming Reception baseline assessment. Labour would instead consult on a replacement that would be “tailored to individual pupils” and prepare children “for life, not just for exams”. The announcement was thin on detail about the replacement, but reading between the lines, I think some form of teacher assessment would be proposed.
Make no mistake: this would be a backwards step.
The argument for scrapping Sats: ‘I'm the teacher I never wanted to be’
Sats are far more maligned than they should be. They are not perfect, but implemented correctly they provide valuable data without stressing anyone out or detracting from a broad and balanced curriculum.
The data is valuable for primaries, because it is the most accurate way of showing the progress that pupils have made (and the incoming Reception baseline would improve this further by including a pupil’s whole primary career, rather than from Year 2 with key stage 1 Sats). It is important that these tests are standardised – if they are not, it simply isn’t fair on anyone. How can you tell how a pupil is doing if there isn’t a benchmark to compare them to? How can you target support that can help them achieve what they are capable of? The idea of individually tailored assessments falls down the moment you take it seriously.
The Sats data is also valuable for parents, as one of several resources they can draw on when choosing a school for their child. It is valuable for secondaries because it means that they can target support much more accurately from the moment pupils join. And that support is valuable to pupils – particularly disadvantaged ones, who, the evidence suggests, are less likely to be ready for secondary school when they join.
The assessments shouldn’t stress pupils out, because there are no consequences for pupils (and in younger years they shouldn’t even know they are being assessed). Where they are, it is because teachers are passing that stress on, likely because headteachers – the only people who would have any reason to be stressed about them – pass it on themselves. The best primary headteachers don’t pass that pressure on to their teachers or pupils, freeing them to do their best without any burden, and that is how it should be.
It is true that Sats have led to the curriculum being narrowed in several primaries. “English and maths in the morning, other stuff in the afternoon” is still too common, and assessments focused on the former do drive that. I am seeing more and more schools shun this approach, realising that pupils are entitled to a broad curriculum and when done right it will naturally feed back into the competencies required for Sats anyway. And with Ofsted’s new curriculum focus, hopefully this trend will continue.
Nor, in my opinion, are Sats part of a broader culture of overtesting – another common criticism that Labour has attached itself to. There are few formal tests for pupils mandated by government – far less than in some other countries. And the assessments in primary are important both for the reasons above, but also because these pupils are going to face assessments in secondary school and also later in life. Sats, in my experience, are a good way of preparing pupils for further assessment later on, and allowing them to show what they have learned over time (giving them a chance to shine) without giving them the pressure and stress that something like GCSEs can involve.
As for Labour’s alternative – as I said before, there isn’t much in the way of detail, but I can't envisage a genuinely fairer option other than externally marked assessment. Teacher assessment, perhaps similar to the early years framework, is a popular alternative, but this would make things worse. The research shows that teacher assessment is worse for disadvantaged pupils, because teachers unconsciously show bias against them. The teachers I know are some of the fairest, most caring people around, but they are ultimately human, and we are all prone to mistakes. A test, externally marked, is fairer because it is inhuman – it is equal for all, and therefore our best chance of truly seeing how a pupil is doing.
It is the very pupils Corbyn seeks to care for the most who are likely to be harmed by the removal of Sats, particularly if they are replaced by internal teacher assessment. This would be a regressive move, particularly for the most vulnerable children in our society. Sats help everyone involved, the Reception baseline will too, and our sector should be supported in implementing them, rather than being forced to get to grips with yet another monumental change.
Sadly, it looks like the same tired debates will continue for the foreseeable future. Maybe I’ll copy and paste this article next spring – see you then.
Chris Wilkins is an executive headteacher at the St Ninian Catholic Federation, Carlisle