The Conservatives will force year 7 pupils to resit their SAT exams if they don’t achieve a level 4 while at primary school. Is it a good idea? The answer isn’t as black and white as we may initially believe.
Things that are true
– Children who don’t get a level 4 in English and maths at key stage two are much less likely to go on and get 5 GCSE passes including English and maths. (Only 5.3% of them do).
– Secondary schools often focus their interventions on ‘the exam years’, i.e. years 10 – 12. Not because school leaders are heartless gaming thugs, but because those exams determine what pupils do next and so they deploy resources to help them.
– There is a ‘transition shock’ between primary and secondary. Many pupils’ results dip while they recover from this.
– There is no formal testing between the ages of 11 and 16
– The stress of examinations for pupils can be huge, and lead to perceptions of being a ‘failure’.
What does this mean? Arguably, it means there are children starting in year 7 and 8 who we know are not likely to meet the threshold for starting a level 3 course at 16 (i.e. A levels or an advanced BTEC). So what do we do about that? Given the focus on exams for 16 and 18 year olds, these younger students can get ‘lost in the system’. A dip in performance can be waved off as ‘part of the transition’ and an assumption made that the dip will be recovered ‘in time’. For children securely at level 4 or above when they are 11, this appears to be true. For children with a level 3 or below, the recovery rarely gets them to the threshold needed to access many later parts of the education system. But relentless examinations can stress out pupils and affect self-perception, which might be part of the problem.
Things that aren’t true
– The Conservatives have used words such as ‘failing’ or ‘doing poorly’ for students receiving a level 3 or below at key stage two. At best, this is unfair. Often it’s untrue. If you only started learning English a year ago, a level 3 would signify you are doing very well.
– Nicky Morgan hinted on Radio 4 that continuing the phonics check throughout a child’s infant years is why children are getting better at reading. That’s also not true. The test is not what makes children get better. It is the fact that they are (a) getting older and more experienced, and (b) are receiving support from schools and parents. That distinction is vital.
What does this mean? Going around and yelling about failure of test when children are 11 is unhelpful. This policy should be about supporting children to learn the sort of basics that make a difference to future learning. The support is the vital thing, not the tests.
Things we don’t yet know
1. Do secondary schools have magical capacities for teaching English and maths to year 7s and 8s that haven’t thus far been unlocked but now will be because of these tests?
2. Will schools ‘stream’ pupils into ‘below level 4’ and ‘above level 4’ sets? And is this damaging? (I would argue it is. Morgan – who appears to be a lover of setting – would probably say it isn’t).
3. Will year 7s and 8s with level 3s or below need to do more hours in English and maths? And if they subsequently lose out on subjects they adore could they end up hating school? (I would argue this is a serious problem. There are leaders out there, running schools with excellent results, who would say I am wrong).
Major sticking points
1. The new ‘more rigorous’ key stage 2 results will likely lead to fewer children receiving level 4s, more re-testing, and more anxiety. Schools will be bashed right at the point they are trying to achieve a harder thing which could undermined confidence.
2. It will encourage schools to game who they intake. I fear we will see more of this.
3. If the exams are externally marked, that’s costly. If they’re internally marked, that’s increased workload. Money and time are already in short supply.
4. Conservatives have said that pupils with special needs wouldn’t re-sit. By my calculation, 73,305 of the ~100,000 pupils who didn’t reach level 4 in reading, writing and maths last year were on the school SEN register. 14,709 of those had a formal statement of their need. Limit the re-sit opt-out to the latter group and you will likely see more of the remaining 43,335 pupils seeking to get one (which is costly to the state).
Is something better than nothing?
Last month I wrote an article arguing that we need policies focused on struggling pupils. An overwhelming number of people got in touch and said they agree. It would be ridiculous to knock the Conservatives for at least trying to do that.
The question is whether test resits will help.
In 2010, I wrote this:
It’s still true. If all resits do is provide governments with stats and bash schools over the head for having students who are still in the process of learning, then it’s pointless – damaging, even.
If, however, the end-of-year-7 ‘checks’ come with ideas and resources for support; if it means that struggling year 7s and 8s are taken seriously, are brought out from the invisible shadows and given help – as they are in many schools, but not all – then it could be a good thing.
Tests don’t solve things on their own, but there is a seed of an idea here that could be nurtured. We must not be afraid of asking how we can best help pupils entering secondary school still struggling to read and do sums.
Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week