What would a world without Sats look like?

There's been a lot of talk recently about scrapping Sats – so it's time those in education made a case for something better, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

boy sitting test

We’ve heard a lot about scrapping Sats tests, so let’s think about what that might look like.

After all, many people in education and politics – other than those working in government, of course – believe the tests at the end of key stage 2 to be fundamentally flawed. The case has been made strongly and persuasively. 

But, as ever, there’s a catch. If we ditch Sats, do we replace them with something else and, if so, what? How will we make sure that any new system is better than what we’ve currently got?

Too many purposes

In other words, if we’re truly living in a school-led system, then it’s up to us to paint the picture of what the education landscape will look like without Sats and with something different. Without doing that, we stand little chance of persuading the current government, or the taxpayers who fund education, to ditch them.

So, let’s begin with where we find ourselves. 

The biggest problem with Sats is that they are used for far too many purposes. They are deployed, first, as a school-performance measure; secondly, as a way of seeing how well children are doing in English and maths; thirdly, as a starting point for trying to measure pupils’ progress at secondary school; and finally, at least in theory, as an indicator of a child’s ability when she enters secondary education in Year 7.

Few of us would argue that there aren’t legitimate aims behind all this. The problem is that, by trying to get a small battery of tests to do quite so much, they get distorted under a crushing weight of assessment and accountability.

Teaching to the test

For example, the use of Sats as a school-performance measure, and a very sharp one at that, puts pressure on schools to teach to the test, potentially at the expense of the wider curriculum, and to encourage their pupils to do well in those tests, with the potential for stress and anxiety. 

And the stakes are very high. If your pupils do consistently well in these tests then, under the current inspection regime, you’ll be deemed an "outstanding" school, with the spectre of further inspection lifted. 

Policymakers often tell us that “the best schools” resist the temptation to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test. But surely it would be better to have a system that supports schools in doing the right thing, rather than expecting them to do so in spite of an accountability system that pushes in the opposite direction.

In order to have consistency across nearly 17,000 primary schools, this surely seems obvious and essential.


So, to solutions. 

The first thing we should do is to stop using tests as the headline measure in school performance tables. At a stroke, this would remove many problems. We would then have a system in which national, standardised test results were more reliable because there would no longer be the same pressure to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at ensuring children performed to the maximum. Tests would become proportionate to learning stuff, as they ought to be.

We would then have a more accurate way of seeing where children are in their English and maths and of their starting point in secondary education.

This could be improved further if we looked also at how we improve the transition from primary to secondary in general, so that the curriculum is a continuum through the phases.

However, we are still left with the issue of how we hold schools accountable and what information we provide to parents and the wider public.


The first of these is easier to answer than the second. We already have a system for holding schools accountable through inspections, so it really shouldn’t be necessary to have performance tables as well, at least not in their current form. 

Of course, many in education have problems with Ofsted, too. But the inspectorate is already moving to focus more on the quality of the curriculum and less on data. There is more work to be done, but this is a liberating step in the right direction.

The business of what information we provide to parents is harder. It wouldn’t be right or tenable to suggest that test results should be withheld from the public. And if we publish this information, isn’t that then just a performance table by another name?


However, when we actually look at the existing performance tables, it is quickly clear that the information they contain is not particularly helpful. The main headline measures are progress in reading, writing and maths. They contain scores like -1.2, which is then followed by a descriptor of “average” because the figure is so obviously abstract and incomprehensible. 

There are then some bar charts about the percentage of pupils who meet the “expected” and “higher” standards. But what is the “expected” standard, and “expected” by whom? And how does it make a child feel to be told aged 10 that they have not met the “expected” standard? 

We simply must stop labelling young people in this way – at key stage 2 and then, again, at key stage 4, when the student getting a grade 3 GCSE misses out on a “standard pass”.

The fact is that these are complex measures that are only rendered vaguely understandable by the use of blunt labels around whether schools are average, below or above. Worse still, they tend to be reflections of local demographics. Thus, schools in areas of high disadvantage often fare the worst. These are the schools that we need to support rather than to demoralise. They’re the ones we need our best teachers and leaders to commit to on a longer-term basis, rather than feeling that they put their careers at risk because of punitive accountability measures.

A broader dashboard

So, the answer is to provide parents with better information – a broader dashboard that includes things like how well a school supports the wellbeing of its pupils and their engagement and enjoyment of the curriculum, and perhaps more enlightened tables that show collaborative impact across schools and alternative provision, demonstrating how, in education, partnership trumps competition. 

I accept these are hard things to measure, but it cannot be impossible to do so. And it would provide much more useful information to the public.

Yes, tests results could be part of that dashboard, but only one part, and not the headline measure. And they could be presented in a different and more helpful way, which provides a little more context and understanding. Something a bit less stark, and a bit more helpful.

These thoughts are a starting point for a new system, at the end of another long school year. They aren’t a new model. 

But in the week after children, teachers and leaders have received their Sats results, it’s a good time to do a little bold, creative thinking. So, yes, let’s rethink Sats.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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