SATs: The aftermath

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The 2016 SATs might be behind us, but headteachers are still angry about what the majority see as having been a testing fiasco. With a new school year beginning, heads reflect and speculate about what should happen in 2017

SATs season seemed to lurch from one headline disaster to another. Headteachers and their schools had been warned for some time that there would be a hike in standards but they were still taken by surprise at just how difficult their pupils would find the tests.

“What misguided soul thinks that by putting year 7 (and year 8) objectives into year 6, that standards will rise?” asks Paul Wyllie, headteacher at Radford Semele Primary School in Leamington Spa.

“The results have been an insult to both pupils and staff who have grafted all year,” added Diane Compton, headteacher at Michael Drayton Junior School in Nuneaton. “They have proved nothing to us other than the system is working against us and not with us.”

Worst fears confirmed

In Headteacher Update in May (Summer 1, 2016), Evelyn Davies, headteacher at Coldfall Primary School in north London, shared the letter she and nine other local heads had written to the then education secretary Nicky Morgan. They expressed their concerns about the increased expectations of the SATs for both year 2 and year 6.

Following the SATs, Ms Davies found their worries confirmed: “The facts are that the tests were more difficult and too much was demanded within the timescales set. Many adults would have struggled with the year 6 tests, and the writing expectations are now close to what were recently GCSE expectations.”

Roddy Fairclough, headteacher at Newbury Park Primary School in Ilford, had raised the issue that there was a general gap in understanding of what to expect and that the timeframe was difficult. Following the tests themselves, his opinion has not changed: “There was a lack of time and preparation, constant amendments and streams of information to deal with.”

What the headteachers hadn’t anticipated was the additional confusion caused by a number of errors in the run-up to the tests.

A catalogue of errors

Preparation for the SATs was blighted with a succession of administrative errors that brought even further disrepute to these tests. In April came the announcement from schools minister Nick Gibb that the Department for Education (DfE) would remove the requirement to administer the key stage 1 grammar, punctuation and spelling test following the accidental publication of a live key stage 1 test.

In May, controversy continued as an issue with the key stage 2 grammar, punctuation and spelling tests unfolded. The test was mistakenly uploaded a day early onto a secure website by Pearson. Although the test papers were not published by the journalist who received them, the breach seriously undermined confidence in the tests and the processes surrounding them.

Following the release of the test results, Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), expressed many educators’ outrage.

“We are appalled by the shambles of (the) key stage 2 SATs results which just compounds the total chaos the government has made of this year’s SATs. Teachers have been left exhausted, disillusioned and in despair by their experiences this year.”

Mr Gibb admitted errors had been made but was keen to retain the key message that the mistakes “should not detract from the central importance of testing in the life of a school”. The reference to “central importance” is perhaps where primary headteachers and the DfE beg to differ.

Not in pupils’ interests

What comes out strongly from the unions and from headteachers is that the hike in standards in the new curriculum and assessment system is not in children’s best interests. Schools see their place as delivering a broad curriculum that educates the whole child rather than pushing them in one direction only.

Ms Morgan announced after the release of the results: “Nothing is more important than ensuring that young people master the basics of reading, writing and mathematics early on.” Headteachers agree that these are important but not at any cost.

“There is nothing wrong with wanting children to reach and achieve high academic standards,” continued Ms Davies, “but is this more important, valuable and worthwhile than wanting education that is all about quality?

“In my school education is about breadth and depth of learning; about creativity, joy, awe and wonder and enabling children to excel in a wide range of fields from singing, music and performance through to sports, humanities, arts and science.”

Mr Wyllie feels that although the SATs have taken the brunt of the criticism it is the new curriculum itself that is ultimately to blame.

He told Headteacher Update: “I know that testing receives the most press but that is the symptom – the bit that most see, the bit that is on the surface and appears to be the easiest to cure. It disguises the menace below, the curriculum.”

The self-esteem of the children

Preparing children for SATs is nothing new for schools. However, headteachers felt that in 2016, they were operating in something of a fog; one that showed little sign of clearing, before, during or after the tests.

Ms Davies explained: “The tests and their accompanying mark schemes were largely an unknown quantity and the DfE missives around assessment were like moving goalposts which were almost impossible to keep up with.”

Schools, however, did their best. Following announcements of results they were left to try and protect the self-esteem of their children.

“The government seems to be at pains to point out that the results do not mean children this year have performed less well than in previous years,” Ms Davies added. “But for those of us in schools, having to tell 47 per cent of our children that they have not reached the expected standard in order to be secondary-ready, this is of little comfort. These children are in danger now of being labelled as failures.”

The self-esteem of the heads

Following the SATs, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) reported a rise in the number of headteachers considering resigning. General secretary Russell Hobby said: “A lot of people are saying they have failed and might as well write their resignations now.”

The NAHT is leading calls for the government to abandon the floor standards for this year. In February, it was announced that schools will be above the floor standards if 65 per cent or more of their pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths or if the school has a sufficient progress score in all three subjects.

It was also announced that no more than one percentage point more primary schools will fall below the minimum standards for school performance in 2016.

However, this is of little consolation to those faced with explaining the results to their children, parents and governors. Or those trying to understand, without the help of historical comparison, exactly what the results mean for them.

The DfE has been keen to publicise its advice to the Regional Schools Commissioners – that these are new arrangements and that the issuing of warning notices following the results should be done with this fact firmly in mind.

Ofsted inspectors have also been asked to take into account that this is the first year of schools working with the new interim assessment framework. But these protestations will not allay the worries of many headteachers.

Ms Compton recently had an Ofsted inspection: “Ofsted judged us good in April, they commented on progress and if our books were anything to go by then we should have been on track for good results – and then the tests came and our pupils’ confidence left!”

What next?

The unions have made it clear that they will take issue with the government over the SATs next year. The National Union of Teachers, ATL and NAHT have all indicated the possibility of boycotts and that they wish the concerns of schools to be addressed in the next round of tests.

The DfE, on the other hand, does not look ready to make an about-turn. An official DfE statement on the tests said: “The content or structure of the tests was made very clear last year and will not be changed again, so to suggest the system is in chaos, or to threaten to boycott these tests, is to undermine these important reforms.”

Mr Fairclough, meanwhile, would like to see an assessment review as part of a wide professional debate: “What’s needed is a much clearer programme. And we need guidance to develop a better understanding of what working at greater depth looks like within a programme of study.”

Ms Davies calls for headteachers to stick by their principles: “Let’s not compromise on quality, or relationships, on values or our core aims. Let’s not set up training camps to drill our children, but let us build capacity in our youngsters through the belief and expectations our teachers have.”

For Mr Wyllie, it is about getting to the source of the problem, the curriculum: “You raise standards by having a curriculum designed for the needs of children by those who know about children’s learning.”

With feeling so high we can expect more conflict in the coming academic year both from the unions and the DfE in response.

However, there is no indication that the new secretary of state for education will reverse the decisions of her predecessors.

The outlook is that summer 2017 will see another round of SATs-linked headlines, disillusioned heads and uncompromising ministers.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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