SATs: Testing for testing’s sake

Written by: Helen Osgood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

This year’s SATs will be a pointless exercise, only adding pressure and stress for pupils and teachers when the burden of the pandemic is already heavy enough, says Helen Osgood

The exams and testing season is upon us. This year, despite on-going concerns and warnings and clear evidence of Covid disruption, the government is charging full steam ahead with a return to formal examinations.

Just a few weeks ago, schools minister Robin Walker instructed teachers to “be focusing as much as possible on the exam preparation, the revision and perhaps the tuition as well that goes along with that to make sure pupils are as well placed as possible to take those exams”.

Many national commentators seem focused on GCSEs and A levels, but we in the primary phase are already immersed with the return of SATs. And while students need their grades from GCSEs et al, the purpose of SATs, as you well know, is very different.

We noted in our report The future of education (2021) that many of our members are concerned at the focus on assessment and accountability – which is of course the main purpose of SATs.

And according to research by YouGov, commissioned by the More than a score campaign (2020), the majority of parents disagree with SATs and the other formal tests used to judge us:

  • 73% of parents agree that SATs and other standardised tests put too much pressure on children.
  • 81% feel that their children’s happiness is more important than test results.
  • Only 16% believe it is fair to use the data to measure schools.

And it is not just about parents and children. Staff too are hugely concerned about this year’s exams and what they might mean for them and their school.

In a letter to schools, Mr Walker said: “I fully understand that there will be concerns around use of the data. As primary school tests and assessments will be returning for the first time since 2019, without any adaptations, the results will not be published in 2021/22 key stage 2 performance tables.”

So, it is clear that key stage 2 performance tables will not be published, but the results from 2021/22 will be used to calculate Progress 8 baselines. The results will be available to schools, multi-academy trusts (MATs), local authorities, and Ofsted – which raises the spectre of inspection and accountability.

And all of this must always be understood in the current context. This year, some pupils will be sitting A level exams having never sat their GCSEs, and for many preparing for key stage 1 SATs, this is their first full year in education – the risk of misinterpreting and misusing the data is very great.


Across the country, only 10% of school leaders think that the 2022 SATs data will be a reliable indicator of children’s attainment or progress and only 8% agree that the results will provide meaningful data about their school’s performance (see Headteacher Update, 2022a).

Ofsted’s reports into education recovery (2022) suggest that a focus on testing and examination risks narrowing the curriculum, especially for SEND pupils who may be withdrawn from foundation subjects in order to focus on core subjects.

And, anecdotally, we know that this happens in year 6 as schools focus on preparation for SATs. Why? Because of accountability.

Accountability is a strange thing. On the one hand it is right and proper that teachers and schools are held accountable, but when it is deployed unfairly, when it becomes a stick, then schools feel there is no choice but to focus on it and staff choose to walk. This is only going to exacerbate recruitment and retention issues.

Teachers have had a tough couple of years – standing on the front-line, delivering lessons in-person, online, synchronously and pre-recorded, and striving to meet the needs of the children while juggling high levels of sickness absence.

Increasing pressure has been brought to bear on existing staff who are already bruised and beaten by their experiences over the last two years and feel kicked when down by the lack of government support.

So why are we acceding to the reintroduction of something that is widely regarded this year – by parents, leaders and teachers – as unnecessary and unreliable? And what are the alternatives?

Back in 2019, the Labour Party promised to abolish SATs if it was elected, reporting that “SATs do not tell teachers or parents anything they didn’t already know about their child or school but have the negative unintended consequences of distracting from teaching and learning”.

The introduction of the Reception Baseline Assessment will remove the need to formally assess pupils at the end of key stage 1, but at what cost? Those involved in the initial trials and throughout this year have reported that the new tests have not told them anything they didn’t already know, and it took them away from the class during the valuable first few weeks in school (Headteacher Update, 2022b).

But here’s the thing. Schools can only do so much on their own. They can try to maintain a broad and balanced curriculum throughout year 6 and avoid coaching pupils for the tests, but if every other school is doing this then there is little alternative than to play the game.

We need government to treat the school workforce with respect, holding them in high regard as the professionals they are. We need funding from government to support learners with SEND and additional needs to be able to achieve. And we need our schools to be freed from the burden of endless testing.

  • Helen Osgood is national officer at Community, the union for education and early years professionals.

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