You’ve got so much choice!

Whether a parent, a pupil or a teacher, we’re continually told that choice is good, and that a deregulated system allows us greater choice. More competition, more choice, a rising tide lifts all boats etc etc.

But, what if your choices lead to perverse incentives? What if the choices available to you are all bad ones?

Because this is what it must feel like if you’re a pupil with learning difficulties in Year 6, and this is what it definitely feels like if you’re the headteacher of a school with a high proportion of pupils with special educational needs.

I’m talking SATs of course. And here’s what choices mean for me.

Firstly, the choice of curriculum. So many schools accept the overwhelming pressure of league tables and, sadly, it leads them to narrow the curriculum, possibly as early as Year 4. So if you’re a child with learning difficulties, you might be deprived of many learning opportunities – let’s say music, dance, drama – which could unlock potential, confidence and talent. Instead, you are told to do more of the same in areas where you already struggle. Not a great choice.

But it doesn’t stop there. If you have very severe learning difficulties, you will be almost certainly be taken out of most lessons in Year 6, and probably Year 5. The constant cycle of exam preparation means that it would be almost abusive to put the child into that environment, even with support.

The critic might counter this with, ‘Ah, but if you had included these children earlier on in their education, and your mastery teaching was good enough, these pupils would now be able to work alongside their peers!’

To which I would reply, ‘On what planet are you living?’ Those who pontificate from the sidelines have no idea of just how severe some of the children’s learning difficulties are, neither have they any idea just how many mainstream primary schools are trying to address this with pitiful resources. Just come and visit!

Which provides a neat link to my second point. This surrounds the choices made by schools regarding pupil admissions.

I would argue that because of SATs, many schools actively push against the admission of pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disability), knowing the impact it will have on overall results. In 2019, we took a pupil into our Enhanced Provision, a child who had missed his entire Reception year because the school said they could not meet his needs. The pupil is now in Year 2, and is integrated into his mainstream class for the full curriculum. Admittedly, even with fabulous progress, he is unlikely to hit his standardised score measures (and will therefore be deemed a failure by ignorant journalists) but the fact he was out of the school system for a whole year didn’t exactly help. I’m convinced that the school’s cry of ‘we can’t meet his needs’ is driven by a desire to achieve high SATs indicators.

This is not a one-off. And I have some sympathy with fellow headteachers. Their reputation, and possibly career, relies on good test data. The current system takes no account of the proportion of pupils with significant learning difficulties. I also think that there is an institutional scepticism as to whether some of these learning difficulties exist, that they are in some way exaggerated to provide a convenient excuse for poorer test performance.

Well, look, I have a sceptical disposition and I would be the first to call out schools who are labelling pupils as SEND incorrectly. I really would.

No, come to my school and you’ll see children whose needs are incredibly acute, and I’m in awe of the staff who educate them every day. Yet these same children will be given a score of zero in the SATs, and this zero will bring down the cumulative score of the year group. What message does this send out?

And what of the choice of accountability?

As with so much of life, the pandemic has taught us an awful lot about the future. For parents of pupils with SEND, they will have seen how technology can shape the relationship between school, pupil and home. To varying degrees of success, a more personalised curriculum for pupils can now be almost shared in real-time with parents, through the technology available to schools.

This is the front line of accountability – direct to the parents themselves. There is a real opportunity to strengthen this partnership. We don’t need to wait for SATs to tell us this.

The second line of accountability is to the taxpayer. I accept that considerable sums of extra funding support many pupils with SEND, and therefore it is understandable that schools should be held account for the way the money is spent. Well, firstly we have local authorities who still have statutory responsibility for this, secondly we have Ofsted who inspect schools on precisely this prospectus, and thirdly, it’s back to the parents again who have a central say in the allocation of funding.

So anyone who tells you that SATs play a major role in the accountability for SEND spending and/or pupil progress is talking hogwash.

To summarise, I can see no purpose for SATs in the education of pupils with special educational needs, especially those with learning difficulties. Worse than that, they can have damaging perverse consequences; in narrowing the curriculum, in dissuading schools from being truly inclusive, and in pulling us away from better methods of accountability for spending decisions.

The tests themselves are fine. Schools should be able to use them for their own internal assessments, for those pupils able to access the tests. But the use of SATs as an accountability yardstick, as an indicator of school quality, as a way of collecting meaningful data, is flawed and corrosive.

And what really brings me out in a rash is when journalists use the data to compile ‘100 Best Schools in England’ tables. Local papers do this too.

More bad choices.


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