Teachers and pupils should not have any reason to be stressed about SATs, and it is up to headteachers to ensure that is the case, says Cassie Young
Exam season is upon us, and that brings with it the inevitable calls for the end of tests.
Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to eliminate SATs in year six (the government are already phasing them out in year two, because they’ve brought in a reception baseline assessment to replace them – which he would also scrap). I think this is a bad idea, because SATs help schools, parents and children.
SATs help primary and secondary schools. For primaries, they are, along with the incoming reception baseline, the fairest way to judge how they are helping their pupils progress, and they ensure consistency between schools.
They focus on a few key competencies, but they shouldn’t lead to those areas dominating the curriculum. If they have at some schools, it is because of poor leadership, not the tests themselves; there is plenty of time for Maths and English as well as the arts, sciences and humanities. Now that Ofsted are set to develop a much stronger focus on curriculum, hopefully these days are behind us.
They’re important for secondaries too. SATs data helps them understand the pupils comprising their intake, meaning they can provide the right support from the start. It is the most disadvantaged pupils who are disproportionately not ready to make the step up, meaning they have the most to gain from such early targeted support, but all pupils benefit from getting it.
Removing formal assessments would make it harder to spot issues
The data also helps parents as one of several indicators to the work of a school and how their child may fit in. I would never say a parent should base their decision solely on SATs results (and the progress measures that come from them), but they are a helpful indicator to be used alongside things such as a school visit and an Ofsted grade.
The main counter-argument against these assessments is that they put too much pressure and stress on pupils, but that need not be the case. In younger years pupils should not realise they are even taking a test, and whilst this may not work with eleven-year-olds, there is certainly no reason why they should be worried about them.
SATs are about assessing the work of a school, and have no consequences whatsoever for pupils; if they are worried, it’s probably because stressed teachers have placed that pressure upon them, usually because they themselves are under pressure from demanding senior leaders. This is something that we have to work to stop in schools (and, thankfully, I think it is only a minority of primaries where this is the case); teachers and pupils should not have any reason to be stressed about SATs, and it is up to headteachers to ensure that is the case.
The other key criticism over-testing, but this is nonsense. Pupils going forward will be assessed formally in their school careers by the baseline, the phonics and times tables checks, SATs and GCSEs. That’s five times across twelve years; hardly a tsunami of exams, particularly when you consider how short the first few are, and that pupils shouldn’t even know they are being assessed in the first three.
I don’t see any fairer option
Removing such formal assessments would make it harder to spot issues for schools and children. Pupils would potentially be able to drift through nearly their whole school career without problems being identified, and this would disproportionately effect those who need the support the most.
As for an alternative, I don’t see any fairer option. If we accept that schools need to be held accountable for the service they provide the public – already debatable in certain corners – then we need to see how the children are doing. The main alternative is teacher assessment, and judging by Jeremy Corbyn’s language, this is the route that Labour would go down.
But the research suggests that this is unfair to disadvantaged pupils due to unconscious bias creeping in. Teachers aren’t deliberately marking down the disadvantaged pupils in their class, and they’d probably be horrified at suggestions that they are, but the data shows that is what happens. External moderation of a formal assessment is the best way to ensure that all pupils get a fair hearing, regardless of their background.
Abolishing SATs is not as black and white as it seems. The main issues people have with them tend to be more down to schools than the tests themselves, and the benefits they provide are often forgotten or ignored. Maybe, with a bit of luck, next year people will remember that before launching into the same arguments.
Cassie Young is head of school at Brenzett CofE Primary School, part of the Aquila multi-academy trust