Research: Is a return to normality what Year 6 pupils need?

22 Mar 2021, 5:00

New research reveals that potentially damaging ‘dividing practices’ are a normal consequence of the pressure of SATs, writes Alice Bradbury

While the reopening of schools is a welcome return to normality for parents, it is also a welcome return to some kind of normality for most teachers. The exception are Year 6 teachers, who are returning to a spring and summer term like no other – one without the pressure of SATs.

As a former Year 6 teacher, I know from experience that this is the time of year when panic can set in, and every strategy gets deployed to help improve overall scores. But this year their cancellation presents a one-off chance to do something different, and to learn from this exceptional circumstance.

A key difference is the opportunity to avoid the dividing practices encouraged by SATs. A paper published with my colleagues Annette Braun and Laura Quick this week uses the term ‘dividing practices’ to discuss grouping by attainment and setting, groups for cusp or borderline children, and interventions, all done in preparation for these tests.

Based on extensive interviews with headteachers and a survey of 288 heads (pre-Covid), the paper examines how SATs encourage various grouping systems, despite the concerns raised by school leaders that these practices may be otherwise damaging to children’s self-esteem. In other words, they don’t want to do it, but they feel they have to because the tests are so important.

SATs encourage various grouping systems despite school leaders’ concerns

Headteachers told us about three particular practices that are of interest. First, the use of forms of grouping on a regular, organised basis, directly related to SATs. For example, many schools divided children into sets for English and Maths in the spring term of Year 6. Some also used sets throughout the school or even streamed pupils into permanent class groups based on attainment. The survey data showed that 35 per cent of heads agreed with the statement “SATs mean we have to group pupils by ability in English”, and 47 per cent agreed for Maths.

We also found complex versions of ‘educational triage’, a system of prioritisation where children are organised according to their potential to get ‘age-related expectations’ (ARE) or ‘greater depth’ (GD). Unlike previous versions of triage where there was only one set of borderline children, those on the cusp of ARE and GD were both the focus of booster groups. This ‘double triage’ system appeared to be a direct result of the inclusion of GD percentages in league tables.

Our research also revealed extensive use of interventions, whereby small groups of children were removed from assembly time, lunchtime or afternoon lessons in order to ‘plug gaps’ in their learning, based on SATs requirements. This ‘intervention culture’ only applies to some children, but we argue it should be seen as another form of grouping, and as an additional dividing practice.

These practices may seem very normal, but they are forms of classifying children, and organising them in a space or in a hierarchy, in ways research tells us can be damaging. Practices such as interventions are forms of exclusion – from assembly, or from non-core subjects – which have effects on children.

There was evident awareness of the problems associated with grouping, but these headteachers felt it was (as previously found in relation to younger children) a necessary evil. As one head explained: “On a sort of moral level, I’m opposed to setting. Although that’s exactly what I have in Year 6.”

The question for this phase of recovery is whether the system has changed enough to shift the balance away from prioritising test results. We know that school leaders have prioritised children’s welfare during the pandemic.

In this pre-pandemic research, one headteacher told us, “I’m only as good as the last set of my results.” Now, headteachers have far more to worry about, not least the welfare and safety of their pupils and staff.

The prioritisation of care and wellbeing apparent during Covid times should be carried through to the post-pandemic period. This should include taking steps to reduce the use of dividing practices when SATs return.

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