Without SATs the sky won’t fall in!

The National Education Union’s first conference in April voted to ballot on boycotting SATs. The next day, Jeremy Corbyn promised that a future Labour government would abolish them along with the proposed baseline test. This has caused excitement but also some anxiety.

It is hardly surprising that the prospect of ending SATs has worried some parents and teachers. After all, younger teachers, and almost all parents, have always lived under the SATs regime. SATs are part of the landscape – it’s like looking out of your window at a rubbish tip. It’s hard to imagine what schools will be like without them.

Communicating with parents

Parents are entitled to good information on their children’s progress, but SATs don’t provide it. The scores depend on how intensively children have been drilled – and how much curriculum they have missed by practising for them. The time pressure is so great that more depends on the children’s speed than how much they know.

Parents certainly don’t learn much from a SAT score. The teacher who has been with a child all year can give parents a richer sense of their strengths and challenges than the SATs. They can talk to parents about a wide range of work and their observations.

Naturally, when SATs go, some teachers will feel insecure about whether their expectations are high enough. There are easy solutions:

1) Moderation

Teachers from different schools can get together to look at a sample of children’s work. They will discuss what to expect at age 11, what are the signs of a good performance in reading or maths, how much they need worry about particular misunderstandings.

2) Sample tests

A variety of tests and assessments are available, and can be used flexibly as required. A teacher who needs to check that her expectations are reasonable can get four or five children in the class to do a maths test and a few more to do a reading test.

Tests which are flexible and fit for purpose

Dozens of tests are available from publishers and research units. Unfortunately much of their current use is driven by headteachers’ SATs anxiety: they are used indiscriminately on all children once a term. But these tests can be used very flexibly, according to circumstances and children’s needs:

  • Some cover a range of topics and align with national standards.
  • Some are designed to identify gaps in the children’s knowledge at the end of a unit of work, for example on decimals or geometry.
  • Many are diagnostic, to show teachers which children need extra help in a specific skill.
  • Some are marked automatically by computer to save teachers time.
  • Some computer-based tests are adaptive: the difficulty of the next question is adjusted if a child gets too many wrong or is finding them too easy.
  • There are even tests for parents to use at home if they are particularly worried about their child’s progress.

One of the most experienced publishers provides an assessment bank so that a teacher can make up her own test to focus on a particular part of the curriculum: 7500 different questions, each providing feedback on a child’s strengths and difficulties.

Without SATs, teachers will be able to use these assessments flexibly and purposefully to help shape their future teaching.

Assessment is more than a score

We must also remember that assessment is not just about scores or grades. Other kinds of assessment can provide richer feedback on a child’s learning.

One proven method is the portfolio. They are used all over the world with children of all ages.

  • With the teacher’s help, children choose five or six pieces of work they are proud of.
  • The portfolio forms the basis of a conversation between the teacher, pupil and parents. Samples from the previous year can be used to show the progress made.
  • The portfolio can then be handed to the next year’s class teacher, or Year 7 teachers.

Portfolios don’t mean filling wheelbarrows with work. They needn’t increase teachers’ workload. They do provide much richer information to parents and boost children’s morale.

When SATs go, the sky won’t fall in.

Posted in Accountability | Tagged ,

Demoralisation and failure: what are we doing to children?

In the open letter which a hundred education professors and lecturers wrote to Michael Gove in 2013, and which hit the front pages of national newspapers, the government was clearly warned about what the new curriculum would do.

The lists of spellings, facts and rules will not develop children’s ability to think or encourage critical understanding and creativity. It takes no account of children’s age and will place pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation.

All this has proved true. In fact, Gove’s supporters even pretend that’s a good thing. What’s wrong with rote learning? Who needs critical thinking or creativity? Government ministers preach that stressing children out is character-building.

Not surprisingly, when the SATs were changed to match the new curriculum, the result was disastrous. Only 53% of children reached the ‘expected standard’ in reading, writing and maths in 2016 – compared with 80% the year before. A third of children were failed in reading – three times more than the previous year.

The tests have since become a little easier, and teachers have put increasing pressure on children, so the failure rates are less dramatic now but still bad. Roughly 1 in 3 children are being sent to secondary school with a failure label in one or more of Reading, Writing and Maths. The failure rate is even worse for some groups: 2 out of every 5 boys, 2 out of every 5 August-born children.

Gove insisted that his mission was to help disadvantaged children. In fact, the tests are failing more than half of children with a free school meal entitlement. No one in government has stopped to think about these children’s feelings.

Now at last the government’s Social Mobility Commission has spoken out. It has warned that nearly 166,000 disadvantaged children could be starting secondary school ‘disenchanted’. The word ‘disenchanted’ is mealy-mouthed (not surprising, given who makes up the Commission) but it shows that they are worried. What must it feel like, at age 11, to be told you are just not ‘ready’ for secondary school? What must it be like to learn that, after seven years in school, you are a failed reader?

This poses a question: did Gove and Gibb and the rest not understand, or did they really not care? The tests were deliberately made much harder. Children have to read three difficult texts and answer 40 questions in an hour. In arithmetic, they have to answer 36 questions in 30 minutes. Many children can get questions right but not at this speed. To be cynical, maybe Conservative ministers wanted children growing up in poverty to feel personally inadequate. After all, that is what has happened to many parents hammered by benefit cuts.

As yet we don’t have any research to show how these children are feeling when they start secondary school. We do know there is a growing crisis to which some schools have responded with isolation punishments and offrolling. It is time for secondary teachers to speak out on this.

Despite ministers claims, the new curriculum is not closing the attainment gap. Although Department for Education statisticians have produced a new formula to show a slight improvement, the actual gap is just as wide as in 2011. There is a 22 percentage point gap between children getting free school meals and the rest. This is a criminal situation which must be stopped. It is time to end child poverty and it is time to stop tests which simply reinforce a sense of failure.

Posted in Accountability, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

Academies and local authorities: what a Labour government should do

by Richard Hatcher, Birmingham City University

We know that the policy of academies been a disaster for education. The question is what should be done about them? Angela Rayner’s speech at Labour Party Conference in September was mainly about academies. She listed a number of ‘interim measures’ that a new Labour government would take. They include no new free schools, and local authorities to be responsible for admissions and able to open new schools.

That begs the question what will happen to academies after the ‘interim measures’? In her Conference speech Rayner said ‘we will use our time in government to bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control’. But she didn’t explain what she meant by ‘the mainstream public sector’, ‘a common rulebook’ and ‘under local democratic control’. You might think it means that schools would all be integrated into the local authority maintained schools system. In fact she made no mention of the future role of local authorities.

Following the Labour Party conference the Labour Party’s Shadow Education Team has produced an internal document titled ‘Implementation Plan: Structural Reform of the School System’. It says

In the longer term, bring all schools under a ‘common rulebook’, set by statute, so that schools are all treated in the same way legally, with consistent regulation. This will, over time, end the legal distinction between different types of schools and simply leave “schools”, without the excessive fragmentation, in a unified system;

This certainly seems to imply the abolition of academy status and with it the powers of academy trustees, though it doesn’t specify how long the ‘longer term’ might be: by the end of a Labour government’s first term of office? But it still doesn’t say what this ‘unified system’ would be. Continue reading

Posted in Governance | Tagged , , , , ,

Education minister fails the test

Damian Hinds has never been known for logical coherence, but his latest Telegraph article fails the test completely. Jumping to the defence of the SATs, he shows a fragile hold on reality and a threadbare logic.

Firstly we are told that children’s learning is assessed through national standardised tests ‘all over the world, from France to Finland and America to Australia’. This is not exactly a lie, just ‘economical with the truth’. Finland, as is well known, does not use national tests till age 18. France has recently introduced some national tests, but very light touch (20 minutes in length). ‘In most US States,  they happen annually.’ True, but anyone who thinks they raise achievement should look at the international PISA assessment where the USA, like England, bounces along the bottom.

Hinds goes on to argue that ‘these assessments do not exist to check up on our children’ but ‘to keep account of the system, and those responsible for delivering it’. If SATs are there to check the system is working, PISA does that already – and shows that it is working poorly. The second argument is different: to check on the ‘deliverers’, the teachers. Is this supposed to reassure the parents of overstressed children?

England is a laboratory for control and surveillance. Here standardised tests link to league tables, link to Ofsted, link to performance pay, link to academisation, link to market competition… to create a total system of stress and suspicion.

It is no use Hinds arguing that ‘all over the world, schools guide children through tests without them feeling pressured.’ He presides over a nightmare system which leads headteachers to pass the pressure down the line to teachers who pass it on to pupils – a system held together by fear and stress. It is disingenuous to pretend it’s just an attitude problem.

Hinds continues: ‘Imagine if the government announced that it was going to ban dental exams or stop opticians measuring our eyesight. People would be rightly horrified’. Indeed, but surely dental exams and eye tests are for the individual’s good, not to question the professionalism of dentists and opticians.

There are  two obvious conclusions from Hinds’ dishonest article:

i) If the education secretary wants to know how well the system works, use sample tests as England used to do. (But he does know, from PISA… the English school system performs badly!)

ii) if he doesn’t trust teachers’ judgment, give them better professional development, and find some light-touch means of verifying and moderating it.

Teachers could use a wider range of evidence than the SATs, without any of the stress, without cramming children or narrowing the curriculum.

  • It would be very easy to provide some samples to illustrate a satisfactory or good standard of reading comprehension or maths problem solving.
  • A bank of sample assessment tasks could be made available so that a teacher could check his or her own judgement.
  • Year 6 teachers from different schools could meet up to discuss a sample of pupils’ work. After all, university degrees are moderated by a teacher from another university.

Time to trust the teachers, Mr Hinds.

Posted in Uncategorized

Ofsted: notoriously unreliable

Ofsted judgments have never been trustworthy. There have been problems from the start. It should come as no surprise that none of the 46 schools wearing an Outstanding label which were inspected this January retained that label: 37 became Good, 8 Requires Improvement and 1 Inadequate.

Many had flown the Outstanding banner for years without review and were only re-inspected because of pressure from outside. The National Audit Office in 2018 discovered that 1620 schools had not been inspected for six or more years, and 296 of them had flown the Outstanding banner for over 10 years without reinspection. The most recent Chief Inspector’s report admits that 17% of schools badged Outstanding had not had a full inspection in the last 10 academic years.


This is not, of course, an attack on teachers who are genuinely excellent, but there are also many outstanding teachers in wonderful schools in more challenging areas – schools which Ofsted stigmatises. Ofsted inspections and labels simply provide misleading information to teachers and parents.

Ofsted carefully maintain the illusion of infallibility. There have been hundreds of complaints from schools (5% of all inspections) but Ofsted has not changed a single grade in three years. A survey by the National Audit Office showed that most dissatisfied heads didn’t bother to complain because they didn’t trust the process.

In truth however, Ofsted headquarters have never trusted its inspectors’ competence to base judgments on what they actually see in the school. From the start of Ofsted, their judgments have been checked against test data; in case of doubt, the data rules.

Ofsted was initially set up as a privatised organisation on a contracting out basis. Responsibility for individual inspections was contracted to hundreds of different companies, who in turn sub-contracted to thousands of individual inspectors for a duration of 2-5 days. Because there was no sick pay, holiday pay, pensions or employment rights, the quality of inspectors was extremely variable. The contracting process was eventually concentrated into three main regional contractors CfBT, Serco and Tribal, who employed individual inspectors directly as Additional Inspectors. In 2012 Ofsted was forced to admit it had carried out no checks on their suitability.

Finally in 2015 Ofsted brought everything in-house. 2800 of the 3000 Additional Inspectors applied to work directly for Ofsted but 1200 were rejected as inadequate. Ofsted however has made no attempt to review these inadequate inspectors’ judgments. Indeed, its spokesperson declared: “We stand by the inspections that we have done in the last few years.”

There is no reason to think Ofsted inspectors are any more reliable now. Continue reading

Posted in Accountability, Social Justice | Tagged , ,

How teaching can be different

by Valerie Coultas

Cultures of performativity must go if collaboration and creativity is to survive in teaching

This article takes issue with the dominant managerial view that teaching is improved by close supervision and imposed lesson observations. Instead, I argue for collaborative teaching approaches to re-establish the principle that teachers and lecturers are able and willing to reflect on their practice without contemporary punitive approaches.

I will argue that collaborative planning, team teaching and reciprocal approaches to evaluation have a far more profound and empowering effect on teachers and are far more likely to spread good practice than the present dominant top-down approaches.

The crisis in teacher recruitment and retention demands that schools, colleges, universities and politicians make some radical changes that allow for teacher creativity and agency to re-emerge.

The wider policy context – the rise of a quasi-market Continue reading

Posted in Accountability, Teachers | Tagged , , ,

Urgent action on Ofsted

Ofsted are desperately trying to rebrand themselves, including the claim that they will rely less on test data and more on intelligent engagement with the school’s curriculum. There are good reasons to be sceptical about this, given the hit-and-run nature of inspections: just 2 days in a school to make a final and public high-stakes judgement.

The Chief Inspector has launched a ‘consultation’ on Ofsted’s problematic view of the curriculum, but ruled out any rethinking about the four grades: Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement, Inadequate.

This is the most offensive part of the Ofsted system: the power of three or four strangers to make a judgement which can demoralise good teachers and even destroy a school. This is no exaggeration: there is recent evidence of comprehensive schools condemned as Inadequate on the basis of observations of just 20 part lessons.

The situation isn’t even helpful for schools which get a Good grading. When they are revisited three years later, a single inspector arrives for just one day, pops into three or four lessons and decides whether the school is ‘still Good’.

In a recent post, we showed the extremity of social bias. Schools in more affluent areas almost invariably get the top grades, whilst the majority of schools serving the poorest communities are publicly condemned as failures.

If there is a role for any kind of external inspection, it is to identify what might help a school to improve its students’ education – not to give the school a marketing banner or a death sentence.

The one change which would most reduce the damage Ofsted causes, and the fear it loads onto teachers, would be to stop the grading. 

Professor Frank Coffield, a member of the Reclaiming Schools research network, has just launched a petition which we urge everybody to sign. Please circulate this to all your colleagues.

Posted in Accountability, Uncategorized | Tagged ,