Protecting children from primary school tests

The damage caused by primary school testing to children’s education and wellbeing is now very clear. Among other effects, it has helped to create a crisis in children’s mental health.

As we know, large numbers of children are now suffering serious levels of anxiety because of test pressures, or for other reasons such as family poverty or family breakdown. The Child Law advice page reminds heads that:

Every school teacher owes a pupil a duty of care.

The school has to do what is reasonably practical to ensure they care for their pupils, as any reasonable parent would do.

It lists among possible danger signs:

  • anxiety
  • low mood
  • panic attacks
  • phobias
  • eating disorders
  • some self-harming behaviour.

A recent survey shows an increase in mental health issues around the time of the SATs and children’s increasing fear of failure.

In April last year the House of Commons Select Committee on Primary Assessment  reached very critical conclusions about SATs and other primary school tests. They declared that

“The high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.”

The Government has ignored these conclusions. It set up a phoney survey with questions limited to peripheral issues. The new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, has now blocked any reduction in testing. His statement that there would be no more changes means no hope of any reduction, and in fact he is continuing to implement three extra tests: multiplication tables, Baseline for four year olds, and what has been called ‘Baby PISA’ for children in nurseries.

This puts the ball back in the court of schools and parents to protect children’s interests and wellbeing. But what can they do?

Reclaiming Schools researchers have been asked by parents to look at official documents to find an answer. These are the implications for heads and for parents. 

Official advice to heads

In fact, heads already have a duty of care for children, and to work in dialogue with parents. The annual instructions sent out by the Standards and Testing Agency to heads, known as the Assessment and Reporting Arrangements,  says that some children should not take the tests, including ‘pupils who are experiencing, or have recently experienced, severe emotional problems‘ (page 18).

Heads are clearly expected to work in cooperation with parents and teachers.

As part of the decision-making process, headteachers should discuss the pupil’s circumstances and needs with their parents and teachers“. (page 17)

The document also reminds heads that “some parents may ask a headteacher not to enter their child for the tests.” (page 16) However it stops short of respecting parents’ rights by adding that “the headteacher’s decision regarding participation is final.” (page 17)

What can parents do?

This raises a further issue. Many headteachers will value and respect the parents’ views. Others might try to push on regardless, valuing the school’s data above the children’s wellbeing.

In the end, there is nothing in law to force a parent to submit their child to these tests. In fact, in her answer to a parliamentary question, Anne Milton, Minister of State for Education, stated:

“Children attending school are not legally required to sit the national key stage tests, although most children in state-funded schools and some independent schools do take them.”

In other words, there is no statutory obligation on parents to get their children to turn up to tests.

Many parents fear they might be fined for ‘unauthorised absence’ but that is improbable.

Penalties can only be applied as a sanction against ‘irregular attendance’, so unless there is a pattern of truancy or term-time holidays, absence for the three and a half KS2 test days is hardly likely to lead to a penalty payment. (Even the local authority which has the toughest record on penalties says that parents should be given a formal warning after five days unauthorised absence in any year.)

And when the child returns to school?

It is very difficult for a child to be entered late for the tests. According to the same Standards and Testing Agency instructions, if a child returns with a sick note the head can apply for permission for a late entry, but only within 5 days of the original test… and only if the parent can guarantee that the pupil:

  • was kept apart from other pupils taking, or who have taken, the test
  • hasn’t had access to the test content through using the internet, a mobile or any other means during the test period. (page 24)

How many parents could provide such a guarantee, even if they wanted to?

If the child doesn’t have a sick note, it will count as ‘unauthorised absence’. In that case, it is impossible to be entered late. As the instructions say:

“STA will not approve applications for timetable variations for unauthorised absences”. (page 24)

So that’s that.

What if the child is at school for some tests but not all?

In this case, the pupils receive a score for the tests they have taken but not a ‘scaled score’ for the tests overall (page 24). This means there is little point in a head making a child take the remaining tests. That suggests that, if a child returns on the Thursday, having missed part of Mathematics, there is no point in making them sit Paper 3.

This doesn’t mean that the child’s achievement at primary school goes unrecognised. The school will still submit results from teachers’ assessments – a much more sensitive and rounded evaluation based on their work during the year.

This is important because some parents worry that their child might be placed in a low set in secondary school if they don’t take the SATs. In reality, many secondary schools no longer seem to trust the SATs at all, because of the excessive pressure and preparation. If they divide Year 7 pupils into different sets for a particular subject, they do so on the basis of their own assessments.

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