In a break from writing mostly positive things about education, I am now going to be resoundingly negative.
Primary SATs, which start tomorrow, are, to misquote Zaphod Beeblebrox, ‘appallingly appalling’ and need to be couriered to Ursa Minor on a Vogon destroyer at the earliest opportunity. Here are five reasons why.
- Dubious Data
Firstly, they are now stained by maladministration and fraud. It’s difficult to believe in the veracity of the examination data. Admittedly, it’s not fault of policy-makers that, during their lifetime, the world has gradually become at ease with lying and fake news, but we’re talking kids’ education here for goodness sake. The pressure on schools, and headteachers in particular, leads to people behaving out of character. Maladministration of the actual tests is the most obvious transgression, but there are whole host of smaller, nuanced and exploitable opportunities that are used to gain an advantage.
One of these is a policy of ‘getting shut’ of pupils who are most likely to fail the test, the sooner the better. This is entirely within the law. For those cases against the law, prosecutions have rocketed over the past five years. One can only imagine the number of cases that go undetected.
Worse still, it encourages a demeaning culture of competition in our school system which, like a rabid dog snapping at our ankles, holds back any school-to-school collaboration in a most aggressive way.
2. Dull Curriculum
Secondly, the curriculum. I personally have a whole range of evidence that suggests schools are reducing the Y6 curriculum (and indeed parts of the Y5 one) to nothing more than revision classes and ‘how to pass the test’ tutorials. This is unfair to children, depriving them of a rich, cultural education at an age when their curiosity is at its most active. Evidence from KS3 is that it hardly improves there either, with subjects being jettisoned before the child has even become a teenager. The narrowing of the curriculum has a direct root in the soil of standardised testing.
A couple of years ago, I took a group of Year 6 pupils to Belgium for a week of outdoor activity with a partner school. They developed their French, visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo, participated in several outdoor pursuits and learnt about a different culture. We got back the week before SATs. And they did OK.
3. Assessing children the wrong way round.
The tests themselves are badly thought out. Many questions are multiple choice, giving them the feel of a lottery. Some of the reading questions would confuse successful authors and journalists. For the past three years, progress measures are based on how children have developed from the old curriculum to the new, making the resulting data rather spurious.
Why can’t teachers set the tests? They know their children best. Tests set by external authorities are unsuitable for the majority of children; children are not robots who all progress in the same way and at the same rate. And if we don’t trust teachers to do this, why is that? Because they themselves have become dull factory fodder, frightened to death by this all-encompassing surveillance?
Let teachers take back control, and allow experienced inspectors to check that school-led assessments are meeting pupils’ needs.
4. Lack of Meaning
SATs have ‘naff all’ importance to the very children they purport to serve. Assessment is partly about checking what a child can do, but also setting in place new content to assist them with their future learning.
As soon as the Y6 tests come back in July, there will be some school analysis to assist them in next year’s ‘how to pass the test’ lessons. However, there will be pitifully little communication with Year 7 staff in the children’s new school on what the tests tell the teachers about the child’s future learning. By September, they are forgotten, consigned to history. If you are in your twenties, do you go around talking about how your SATs results made a difference to your education? No, thought not.
Finally, the topic of SATs examinations is now a toxic issue in popular culture. This is just what happens now in 21st Century UK PLC. An issue gets into the zeitgeist, and we now have multiple stories about how children are being traumatised by exams at a young age. Much of this is inflated and rather typical of the ‘outrage’ culture we have created, but when schools are now putting together ‘kits’ and ‘therapy’ and ‘mindfulness’ strategies to assist them through this stressful time, surely the game is up.
Parents don’t help either, many paying for ‘tutors’ to try and transform their bemused child into a world-beater. Some of these poor kids are doing more revision for these tests than I did for my ‘A’ levels.
SATs started out as a good idea back in the early 1990s but have run their course. These exams are symptomatic of an outdated target-culture and the competitive hyberbole of our changing times.
They serve no purpose but to poison a system that is in need of a period of recuperation.
Their time is surely up.
Right, time to be positive again.