SATs – The Dark Spider

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Can the SATs survive another year?

Once upon a time, teaching Year 6 was an absolute pleasure. So full of life, intelligence, wit, creativity and warmth, this vibrant year group would remind me every single day why teaching Upper Key Stage 2 and ‘top of the school’ was the best. Then along came a spider.

Seemingly out of nowhere the SATs appeared and teaching Year 6 went from beauty to beast overnight with its top-down forces, accountability, excessive pressure and ‘revision’ starting in January or in some cases September! It became a high-stakes data machine that coughed out successes and failures, bred competition and ruined children’s innocence.

Initially we enjoyed ‘doing SATs’ especially the Science tests (Rest In Peace). We didn’t attach too much weight to them and we just got on with being Y6 and all the fun of the fair. Within a few years though I witnessed a change in everyone. Year by year the SATs became more and more intense with schools, teachers, children, the media and everyone else feeding each other’s hysteria and league tables became ‘God’.

Children went from relatively carefree and innocent blithe spirits and turned into damaged goods with low self-confidence, broken self-esteem and mental health issues. Not all but lots. Children started worrying. Primary school years shouldn’t ever be about worry but ‘stressed-out’, ‘nervous’ and ‘sleepless nights’ entered the vernacular. The pressure was ramped up and being a Year 6 teacher became a job no one in their right mind wanted because all it involved was ‘teaching to the test’ and mountains of marking. Year 6 had a factory-feel to it and a broad and balanced curriculum was told “we’re not playing today” – eventually the broad and balanced curriculum stopped knocking on the door to play and children became ‘stressed’.

Toxic Tests

We know we have ‘got it all wrong’ when we start seeing ‘wellbeing guides’ for Year 6 and ‘How to survive SATs’.

This isn’t what Year 6 should be about.

It has spawned not only a testing industry for publishers but also a profoundly damaging exam survival guide culture normally associated with GCSE. We shouldn’t have to be ‘calming down’ children and parents and ‘getting them ready’ for the SATs storm. And what about the after-effects? We shouldn’t be counselling children for post-traumatic SATs disorder when they receive their results.

Wellbeing in Year 6 used to be worrying whether wet play would interfere with a three-day old game of football that half the class lived for at breaks. It used to be a case of enjoying a story at the end of the school day and looking forward to what happened next. This isn’t rose-tinted because there were still plenty of challenges but as Hollie Anderton recently pointed out in her blog, we need to “let them be children because once your chance has gone, it’s gone.”

Now, Year 6 is all about pressure, ridiculous pressure born out of a perhaps well-meaning system but one that soon became ugly and twisted.

Michael Morpurgo recently likened the SATs tests to a “dark spider” spreading terror in the primary classroom. Bang on MM. Perhaps we could add to that ‘a seething pit of snakes’ strangling the creativity out of the curriculum. The SATs have become as toxic as the fear of an Ofsted visit. Schools used to be happy places didn’t they?

Looking at Michael Rosen’s Twitterfeed recently I came across a letter from the Head (Mrs Debra Carr) to her ‘sparky’ Year 6s at Walmsley C.E. Primary School in Bolton. It’s a letter that oozes reassurance and gives children the bigger picture that SATs are not a reflection of who they are. You can read the letter here. Well done Mrs Carr for reminding the children they are children.

Seeing Sense

The House of Commons Education Committee recently published its Primary assessment report and it noted the importance of holding schools to account but recognised that a high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school. It makes a number of significant recommendations including:

  • Ofsted should ensure that it reports on a broad and balanced curriculum in every primary school report. Every report should specifically include science as a core subject alongside English and maths, as well as a range of other areas of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities. (Paragraph 59)
  • School leaders and governors should support a culture of wellbeing amongst staff and pupils and ensure that external assessment does not result in unnecessary stress for pupils. The Government should assess the impact of changes to curriculum and standards on teacher and pupil wellbeing before they are introduced and publish plans to avoid such negative consequences. (Paragraph 60)
  • The Government should change what is reported in performance tables to help lower the stakes associated with them and reduce issues of using data from a small number of pupils. We recommend publishing a rolling three year average of Key Stage 2 results instead of results from a single cohort. Yearly cohort level data should still be available for schools for use in their own internal monitoring. (Paragraph 67)
  • We recommend a thorough review of how Ofsted inspectors use Key Stage 2 data to inform their judgements and whether inspectors rely too heavily on data over observation. This could include a pilot of inspections where data is only considered following the inspection. (Paragraph 85)

A low stakes culture is what we can all hope for and Ofsted can play a very significant role here so that its inspection model and process shifts away from the deep-pit of dreary data and moves towards more qualitative judgements such as teaching and learning. Assessing fun and enjoyment should be on there too.

Believe it or not, many children actually like tests (low stakes) and we need tests – just not with two red horns attached and all the hell that surrounds them.

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