Primary chaos: 12 reasons why the teaching unions want tests to be suspended

Teaching unions will gather tomorrow to discuss what action can be taken about what they are calling the “mess” of primary assessment.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has called for the SATs to be suspended this year and tomorrow afternoon they will meet with other unions to organise a joint response.

The main protaganists in this story are the NUT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), who are leading the charge ahead of tomorrow’s meeting.

NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “The government’s badly thought-out and damaging process must be halted immediately. If KS1 and KS2 assessments go ahead this year, they will lack all credibility.”

And speaking to Schools Week, ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said: “Primary teachers are extremely angry and are looking to their unions to co-ordinate a response.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said the union was in discussions with the government about possible solutions to the “significant concerns” raised by teachers and leaders. The NAHT has launched a pledge to gauge the strength of feeling among its members.

The Association of School and College Leaders will not be involved in tomorrow’s discussions. Julie McCulloch primary leadership specialist for the union said it did not support suggestions to withdraw the tests.

She said: “I think there is a recognition [from the government] that the situation isn’t perfect and we are trying to work with the department and civil servants around the issues.”

Schools Week recaps on our stories that lead the way in unravelling the mess:


1. This is the first year after the removal of “levels”


A Commission on Assessment Without Levels was ordered by the government last year in response to concerns that teachers were struggling to prepare for the abolition of levels.

But that was published seven weeks later than expected.



2. The teacher-marked part of this year’s key stage 2 assessments is based on an “interim” framework. Next year will bring about more change


The Department for Education (DfE) notes in its guidance on the interim frameworks (published in September) that: “Following the removal of teacher assessment levels, these interim frameworks are to support teachers in making robust and accurate judgements for pupils at the end of key stage 2 in 2016.

“The interim teacher assessment frameworks are for 2015 to 2016 only. The Department for Education is evaluating options for future years.”


3. Primary schools were not being offered much support from their local authorities in transitioning to life after levels


The majority of primary schools are still local authority-maintained. Yet, Schools Week discovered only a quarter of local authorities were offering suggested frameworks to their schools.

This had left many trying to navigate the new world alone.


4. Continuing with levels, the changes have also resulted in complications around measuring the ability of children working below the expected standard


In December, the government published the Rochford Review. This was meant to explain assessment methods for those children.

But it was hard to access. So, one school leader created this table in a bid to help other primary teachers understand what it meant.


5.  Writing assessments have been brought forward by a month


It means teachers have to finalise the teacher assessments much sooner than expected.

(UPDATE: the government has now u-turned and restored the original date).


6. In two weeks alone, more than 30 amendments were made to primary assessment documentation


The majority of these were very minor – typo and formatting changes – but each change came with an alert to anyone signed up to receive alerts from the DfE.

This caused the changes to be described as a “dog’s breakfast”.


7. At the same time, schools were informed all pupils would be expected to use a comma as a thousand separator


In an email sent to schools last month, the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) said key stage 2 pupils should use it when writing numbers higher than a thousand (i.e. 12,345 rather than 12345).

Schools minister Nick Gibb said (two weeks later) that schools were informed of this change last summer. But admitted that it had to make this change clear to schools after “a number of calls to its [the STA’s] helpline”.

Professionals were more concerned, though, about the impact on pupils with English as an additional language (EAL). No other European country uses a comma in this way and international recommendations are that a space is used rather than a comma for consistency across the world.

Mr Gibb said: “Our schools should prepare children for life in the Britain that does exist, not what Britain has been advised to become.”


8. Changes in the written assessment are also adding to teachers’ burdens


Schools Week reported yesterday that teacher’s were angry about what they say is a change to what was published in the interim frameworks.

Writing for the paper, Ben Fuller, lead assessment adviser at Herts for Learning Ltd, explained what this meant for pupils, and teachers, and described it as “farcical” and said the style was like going back to the 19th Century.


9. Nick Gibb has made his views on the subject clear


Writing in Schools Week, the schools minister said: “I am entirely aware that in the short term changes to the national curriculum and testing arrangements are disruptive for teachers, but in the long term we will have a far more sophisticated system for reporting assessment results that will allow for year-on-year consistency.”


10. A boycott hasn’t specifically been mentioned, yet, but teachers took action in 2010 in response to concerns about the SATs


Twenty-five per cent of pupils were affected and Schools Week has reported concerns about the impact this decision had on this year’s GCSE results.

Ofsted inspectors have been told to take this into account during inspections of secondary schools, and this year’s performance data included extra information about progress measures.

It might be worth remembering the implications further down the line for those pupils and their schools.


11. And while not specifically related to KS1 and KS2 tests, primary schools are also dealing with the introduction of baseline assessments


Introduced in September, these tests are designed to “improve” how primary schools assess progression.

Unions aren’t happy about them, either. Last week, NUT and ATL said they were “inaccurate, invalid and unreliable”.


12. The DfE believes the unions’ approach thus far is “disappointing”


A spokesperson said: “It is disappointing to see that the NUT and ATL are taking this approach, which would disrupt children’s education, rather than working with us constructively as other unions have.

“The assessment framework for Key Stage 2 was published in September 2015 – the beginning of the academic year in which these assessments are due to be made. We have been clear that the exemplification materials published recently are intended to be a guide against which to assess a pupil’s standard.”



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  1. This is a perfect storm, a car crash waiting to happen. The timetable is insane and can only lead to further uncertainty and chaos once all the flaws are revealed. There is no support, no training and no time to reflect and prepare. And what about the children? Apart from teachers, nobody seems to be paying them much attention, yet it’s their future and their well-being that this government is gambling with.. A national scandal, thanks to the 24% of the eligible electorate who voted this shambolic excuse for a government into power. Be careful what you wish for.

  2. It should be all about the children.

    Didn’t a recent report state that extra teachers had to be employed to teach while the class teachers carried out the one-to-one assessments on each pupil? That surely can’t work with budgetary restraints

    Ideally teachers & the government should work together to get this right and not cause any disruption.

  3. Justin Kelly

    The interim assessment arrangements, which have trickled out as the year has unfolded, must be challenged.

    The flaws of the current regime are many but to highlight just a few…

    1.The having to have evidence of meeting all of the statements to be teacher assessed to be working at any of the given ‘levels’ recorded in the interim descriptors sits totally out of kilter with the fact that in the tests a child will be ‘allowed’ to get any of the questions wrong – provided they get an overall standardised score of 100. The descriptors for teacher assessment should, therefore, be best fit or at the very least include only a very limited number of ‘must have’ statements.

    2. Including spelling ‘most of’ the words on the Year 5 and 6 list with the descriptors for being ‘at expected’ in writing is discriminatory. A child with dyslexia can be an excellent writer. They can be imaginative, creative and communicate meaning effectively, engaging their audience with the written word. They know that they find spelling difficult and will probably go on to use spell checking devices to help overcome this barrier. By all means assess and report on their ability to spell, possibly more in line with the expectations on reporting on the dreaded (and extremely narrow) phonics screen by merely stating that they have/have not met the expected standard in spelling. (Probably assessed by a cold spelling test of 20 words with a ‘pass mark’ announced after the event – so teachers can have fun guessing what the pass mark will be this year).

    3. Much has been written about the raised expectations of the new curriculum and the fact that the writing exemplification materials suggest that ‘at expected’ is, what was Level 5, but in a strange way, the interim system appears, on some levels to dumb down, what some children can do. In some areas, children can’t achieve better than being ‘at expected’ with the pinnacle of achievement in other areas being at a ‘greater depth’. In mid-January, we received the descriptors for children not yet reaching the ‘working towards standard’ but when are we going to receive guidance on those at the upper end – or have I missed it?!? We currently have a boy in Year 5 working on GCSE level Maths. If these descriptors don’t change we will be reporting to his parents next year using the terminology ‘at the expected standard’ or maybe by then Maths will have extended generously to the same as writing, ‘working at a greater depth’ within.

    4. Which leads nicely into the pre-key stage standards – ‘foundations for’, ‘early development’ of and ‘growing development of…’ what on earth will this mean to parents?!?

    And I could go on…

    I haven’t even touched on workload and the ‘what is the point in so much of it’ arguments…reminding children to use fronted adverbials, dashes, hyphens, colons, semi-colons…re-teaching connectives as conjunctions and personal pronouns as determiners – because after all, these make us all better writers. And don’t forget the commas in big numbers (I don’t want Maths to dip out). And there was me thinking, when I read last Summer the rather romantic, ‘Commission on Life without Levels’ that school’s would ‘have the freedom to develop their own approaches to in-school assessment.’ How can we possibly do this with what we are being told we have to do now?

  4. Tracey Cunningham

    Its all been a shambles. With reference to point 3, this is absolutely true. I was at a meeting in Leeds where the question was raised “why aren’t we having LA support” and the consultant replied “thats not in our remit”!! We have been left to flounder. Levels should never have been abandoned. I have yet to meet one teacher who thought it was a good idea. And I have met plenty of teachers who are asking what are the unions doing about this. They seem to be very silent. No wonder there is a teacher shortage.!

  5. Ted Douglas

    We had the briefing on this shambles last week at our primary school, and the teachers and head teacher looked shell shocked, but resigned to their doom and frankly I don’t blame them. As a parent of child who’s about to endure these assessments, I can tell you how I feel in one word – terrified. At the end of our meeting I asked for all those who voted Conservative to analyse their conscience and see if they still thought it was a good idea. Unfair perhaps, but any more unfair than forcing these tests on 11/12 year olds who have no say in the matter?

    The changes have been detailed in such a way as to set our children up for failure, even those who achieve reasonable marks will be hamstrung by the arbitrary pass/fail mark – all of which is entirely the opposite of what we should be doing at Key Stage 2. Looking further into the future, the benchmark levels will be altered for next years assessments; they’ll have to be as this years tests have been initiated at such a late date the schools won’t be able to tell what he actual levels should be for the pupil base they have.

    Who in their right mind enables a national project with a deadline of 12 weeks (or less if you deduct holidays etc)? It’s an absolute disgrace – if you’d have suggested this as a national infrastructure project you’d be laughed at and possibly removed from the team, yet the government seem to think it’s acceptable to interrupt children’s lives at short notice.

    Our children rely on us as adults to make decisions in their best interests, and the Department for Education have failed them miserably, not to mention putting the already heavily overworked and under-resourced teachers under incredible duress. Teaching staff have had the rug pulled out from under their feet by having the previous five months of teaching time effectively thrown out of the window, and the targets refocused.

    Change is always difficult both to manage and accept. The job of the Government is to manage the changes in a timely effective manner. These changes need to be brought, I have no doubt about that because I feel UK schools are in need of improvement in a whole host of areas. I do no agree with the timing or commissioning of these changes – they would benefit from being brought in for September 2016, and I will be going back to the school and asking how we go about halting these tests for this year.

  6. If there was a parent campaign to boycott the SATS I certainly would be inclined to keep my son at home on the day of the test.

    Parents taking action rather than teachers is certainly a stronger message and doing it on the day of the exams would be of greater impact.

    Anyone know of one?