Who benefits from primary SATs? Not English children

Janet Downs's picture

This year nearly 40% of children in their last year at primary school have been told they did not reach the ‘expected standard’ in Key Stage 2 SATs.   Last year it was nearly 50%.

Schools Week quotes Schools Minister Nick Gibb.  He says the improved results were ‘testament to the hard work of teachers and pupils across England’ who had showed commitment to the ‘new knowledge rich curriculum’.

But SATs don’t test the wider curriculum, knowledge rich or otherwise.  They focus on reading, writing, maths and SPAG: spelling, punctuation and (pedantic) rules of grammar.  This risks ‘teaching to the test’.  The Education Select Committee in April 2017 received evidence that KS2 SATs led to curriculum narrowing.

Children in Year 6 do not benefit when other subjects are squeezed or marginalised.

And 40% of children at the end of Year 6 do not benefit from being told they have ‘failed’ to reach the expected standard and aren’t ‘secondary ready’.

The only purpose of SATs is to rank schools in league tables.  The Education Select Committee recognised that the accountability system is responsible for ‘many of the negative effects’ listed in its report:  England’s ‘high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school alone.’

We are now in the ridiculous position where a system mandated by the government actually reduces the quality of education at the end of primary school.  This is unacceptable.  Mandatory KS2 tests should be scrapped.  They have no educational value.

That’s not to say that schools shouldn’t be held accountable but accountability should be based on education quality not test-measured quantity

If governments want to discover whether the national education system in England is delivering then this can be done by sampling and by Ofsted concentrating more on what actually happens in schools and less on data.  Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, said inspectors would be concentrating on the curriculum offered by schools in future inspections.  This is a step in the right direction.

The English education system can cope without SATs.  Assessment of children is ‘More than a Score’.  And assessment of children should serve the interests of children not the interests of politicians.


POST SCRIPT   One headteacher, Jill Wood, refused to allow her Y6 pupils to take this year’s SAT papers.  She took them on a day trip to Whitby instead.  A day at the seaside instead of sitting SATs.  Jill explains why she boycotted the tests here.



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Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 05/07/2017 - 15:05

The fundamental flaw at the heart of the government's education policy has always been the failure to recognise the reality of continuous variation in everything that anybody seeks to measure about individual human beings.

I was a July born child in my selective technical secondary school that went out of its way to 'out-grammar' the grammars in everything from prefects with tassels on their caps to 'house-based' physical competition to 'toughen up' us boys. The annual inter-house 'athletics' competition was decided on the gaining of 'standards' by all the boys in the house, to be combined with the annual athletics competition day held at the prestigious Birmingham University athletics stadium from where many of us escaped by 'bunking over a boundary wall and catching the corporation bus home.

I especially remember the 'shot put' standard in Y7. I was a puny runt whose physical development was no-where near average for the year group. I could barely pick up the shot, let alone 'put' the damn thing. We were threatened with public corporal punishment by the 'Head of House for not achieving at least one 'standard'.

The point is that the distribution of athletic ability followed the expected continuous 'bell curve' variation, the main factor being the stage of physical development during puberty and whether your birthday was in September or August.

There was no rational basis for deciding the threshold level of performance for the acceptable 'expected' standard.

KS2 SATs provide an exact parallel. Performance is continuously variable according the 'bell curve' (or should be if the tests are any good) and the developmental level of the child is the crucial factor. All the children in Y6 could receive the same high standard of teaching but it would make no difference to the shape of the distribution and the fact that not only would half the population be 'less than average', but that there would always be children whose scores were more than +/- 1SD from the mean.

When you add in the fact that children's cognition develops at different rates, what possible validity could attach to the arbitrary designation of an 'expected score' at a particular point on the distribution? As every teacher knows the answer is, 'NONE WHATSOEVER'.

Good for Jill Wood, and a pity that so few of her headteacher colleagues have been willing to follow here example.

Also shame on all the media commentators that persist in commenting on the 'proportion of pupils meeting the expected standard' as if it meant anything.

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