Wednesday, 8 April 2015

SATS - a sandwich, not a hot potato.

Yesterday Nicky Morgan announced that the Conservative Party would introduce SATS re-sits for children who perform badly in their Year 6 primary school tests. In the short time since many have already written of their strong anti-SATS feelings, compounded by anger and frustration that children will be seen to fail in this way. Having written myself against Gove's extreme passion for measuring and testing previously, you would be forgiven for thinking that I would be equally against this new suggestion. However, I don't think the situation is as simple as that, and - as ever, we are missing the elephant in the room.

The question is not "Should we have SATS, and are they good for our children?"
"What is it about them that upsets parents, teachers and possibly children?"

Is testing wrong?

Testing isn't wrong per se, it's a natural human response to the environment in its broadest sense. We see, challenge, enquire, test and evaluate. Indeed it's how human beings learn. But formal testing in the classroom is clearly something different. Testing implies a requirement to meet a set standard, which in itself implies a pass mark - and those achieving below that mark are seen to have failed. It's actually this implication of failure at so young an age that concerns professionals, parents and critics. It's precisely this implication of dividing children into successes and failures - and at such a young age - that is so objectionable.

Teachers and Testing

Good teachers - who we should remember are professionals, like consultants, lawyers etc with a wealth of experience and knowledge - measure and test their pupils all the time. Teachers need to test and assess, because how else would they know which level each child has reached, adequately inform future lesson planning, provide additional support for those who need it and, fundamentally, to know they are doing a good job? But unlike consultants, lawyers and other professionals teachers are unfortunate enough to be the never-ending political football, constantly scrutinised, tweaked, justified. When was the last time a surgeon paused during an operation to photograph each stage - not just the unusual - and leave post it notes all over his handiwork with links to NICE guidelines? Do we really respect our classroom professionals so little that once bestowing a qualification upon them we seek to persistently undermine and challenge them on a daily basis?

But formalised, national testing also creates additional work for teachers who need to mark everything to national standards, putting additional strain on schools to ensure their students perform. It's asking them to step back from their own class, their own pupils and from their professional role and take on something which only has value in the school it is administered in - but is somehow "converted" into national data and used as a stick with which to beat them later.

Where governments have gone wrong is making a mountain out of a molehill. Or a national issue out of a uniquely individual one. 

Although it's incredibly useful to have an end of Key Stage bench mark, and as part of a transition document for High Schools SATS scores have real individual value along side other important information, that's about it. The Education Department's obsession with measuring everything helps no one. It's as if they honestly believe quantifying something uniquely precipitates an answer- or even the best way forward. But statistics are an extremely blunt instrument- never more so than in education. For starters to compare anything objectively you need to be comparing the same things. You can measure all you like, but if you then attempt a comparison between, say apples and oranges, or inner city schools and free schools, or comprehensives and private schools, pre schools and nurseries and even one nursery and another you will only ever obtain highly subjective results. SATS were a great idea as informal benchmarks, but results should never have been given relevance beyond the school setting.

Students and Testing

Going through life illiterate and lacking in basic numeracy is a bit of a handicap, let's be honest. And few parents would disagree that educational standards have fallen. Whilst it might not make the most scintillating dinner party conversation there is simply no getting away from the fact that I completed O Level AND GCSE papers at 16 - and the O Level ones were in a different league. AS levels followed by A2 are so much easier than the two year course in many respects, if you cannot marshal and learn effectively two years of advanced level work then you won't stand much chance in Law or Medicine either....

But whilst academic success is valuable, testing can only inform on individual progress.

You see, I had a dyslexic four year old who knew the alphabet, could read and write several words from memory and who would have scored highly in pre school assessments. Yet two years later he was struggling and only internal professional observation would have picked up his difficulties. Then there was my autistic four year old who would have failed every test under the sun but developed his own written language despite not reading until age seven. By age nine he had the reading age of a thirteen year old. Neither fit the mould, and in that, neither are unusual. Children are individuals and none come to school without years of unique life experiences.

Then there is the ridiculous situation where the first half of Year 6 is intensive coaching to ensure maximum SATS scores, followed by months of doing very little.  It doesn't take a genius to see this is not good preparation for High School, and it doesn't really measure progress either. Formal exam-type testing is incredibly stressful - as my seventeen year old will tell you. Forcing youngsters to sit such tests and telling them how much they matter creates an artificially stressful environment which helps no one. There are easier, better ways to assess progress, which are every bit as relevant to those taking the tests, and even when you use testing, it doesn't have to be stressful. If you remove the formality, the national comparison of results and the burden of expectation on schools and pupils you also eradicate much of the stress.

Government v Teachers

It's a two-way thing though, this whipping up of the concept of testing into a tornado-like reality that was neither intended, nor needed. When SATS were introduced, teachers were so fundamentally opposed to Testing with the capital "T" that they omitted to remember that testing is a normal part of their job. The anti-government sentiment is understandable, and following decades of slipping standards and reduced demands on students it was a bit of a shock perhaps, but opposing SATS rather than working to ensure teachers had a voice in making them work was perhaps not very constructive. Yes the government interferes far too much in schools but some schools do need to move on from a "them and us" attitude and stop seeing achievement and qualification as a threat. There are a lot of things wrong with our education system but raising aspirations and expectations is not one of them.

However if I as a parent cannot abide all the centralised measuring and tinkering, goodness knows what life must be like "at the coal face". Those involved in education must be heartily sick of it - education is a long term process, yet results are repeatedly and inappropriately used to make all kinds of political points, usually over a single parliament. To often they are used to compare completely incomparable schools in utterly different environments and a great deal of money - tax payer money - is wasted in the process.

So what's the way forward?

So test children yes, and re-test them. To facilitate learning you need to know your children to meet their needs. But good teachers do this regularly and in ways the children barely notice, since it's essential to internally measure and assess where your pupils are. But instead of leaving the professionals to administer these assessments instead SATS have become a ridiculous politicised hot potato when they should have been desirable, expected, appropriate - just the norm.

Stop making testing into headline news. Testing is necessary, desirable and mundane.  It certainly should be with minimal stress for young children. Testing is about as interesting as peer reviewed medical research. Essential, but really not very exciting, and with even less relevance beyond the environment and timescale they take place in.

Leave testing to the professionals, and down regulate it. It's a sandwich - and a boring cheese one at that. And definitely not a hot potato.

Cheese Sandwich by dvs on Flickr


  1. I think that telling the kids its a test etc puts them under stress, yes they need to understand it is part of their school life but should be done in such a way to take away the stress and not put kids off school

  2. There is a world of difference, in my opinion, between the need to measure children to evaluate progress and ensure access to the appropriate level of teaching, and tests where the primary focus seems to be on measuring the 'success' of the school, which is wholly inaccurate, anyway, but does less to to support the students and more to create stress and detract from the purpose of the teaching staff.

  3. I so agree that kids shouldn't be asked to re-sit their SATs. My Granddaughter said to me the other day that she wants to be home schooled because school do stupid tests that are too hard for her. I hated seeing her feel so under pressure at her young age x

  4. Our school has informed us that the grading system next year is changing to either pass or fail, which to me is wrong. A 10 year old is not a failure if they don't achieve a certain grade but the result itself is useful to the teacher to determine what areas need work on. Maybe if school's didn't publish results they wouldn't put so much pressure on the children? My son has got a tremendous amount of homework in the build up to the sats and I wonder if this extra pressure will give an accurate reflection on his ability? A very thought provoking post.

  5. I remember taking my SATS and feeling so stressed and i was too young. I think testing is fine but do it in a natural environment until they are a lot older to have the tools to deal which the pressure and stress. Children are too young and i still remember mine. I am not looking forward to my girls going through all this :(

  6. Don't get me started on standardised testing! Exams and tests are NOT for all kids, and the pressure that comes with them, just isn't right. Being able to judge children's abilities in class and in subjects would be much more effective. My son is in his GCSE year, and whilst he is doing well in classes, he buckles under the exam conditions, and results of that do not indicate what he is capable of. I can't wait for them to be over, and I'm sure, neither can he. xx

  7. I think getting kids used to testing from an early age is important as it helps them in later years. Our school makes the SATS tests fun with special breakfasts and rewards

    1. Sounds like they are doing it right, not stressing the kids out. I agree re testing and getting used to it - but there is a long time for that before GCSEs. My twins take assessments twice a year and have done since aged 5 but actually have no idea they are doing so until Year 6, when it's still downplayed.

    2. A i bet that helped loads????My child's school did the whole pathetic breakfast thing too,they are still lambs to the slaughter just with a full tummy!!!

  8. Don't really see the point of the SATs in the first place and certainly not a resit. I'd rather children learnt for learning's sake at that age and save exam courses for 14+. Standards have risen in some ways I feel: punctuation and grammar seem key now, whereas in my school days things were more relaxed. GCSE and A level seems to be all about learning to pass the exam and it just doesn't work with some subjects e.g. foreign languages.

  9. Im not sure where I stand on this, possibly opposite to you, but given I dont have children that is probably why x

  10. I didn't do well with exams I am much more of a practical person so sitting down and writing stuff down didn't go well for me, so I think that needs taking into account in some ways.

  11. T y sons sats didn't happen it was when they went on strike so they had all the hassle and worry for nothing

  12. The problem I have with children being able to re-sit their SATs is who says that they can? their teacher? the school? the parent?

  13. I think children are way too young for all the tests they have at the moment - I know they happen and are a fact of life but it shouldn't be until they're much older in my opinion.

  14. My oldest two did SATs then they stopped them just before my youngest was due to take them. I always told the kids that they were testing the school to make sure they were teaching them everything they needed to know, I'm not sure if they believed me but anything to take the pressure off at that age.
    I think if schools handle them well, keep it all low key, then testing the little ones is ok, but I have friends who are teaching assistants who tell me about kids who are not academic or with special needs just sitting in tears as the standard test is just so beyond them. One size fits all does not work for these kids at all, they just feel they are being set up to fail which is heartbreaking.
    Interesting topic, thanks for your thoughts.

  15. I hate the pressure which is put upon our children and dread to think how many tests my kids will have to sit when the time comes

  16. W isn't in school yet but SATS seems like to much pressure on kids so young x

  17. Tests should be doing just that, testing ability, not be testing.


Many thanks for taking the time to comment, I really value your responses.

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