What's good for the league tables is bad for our children

Schools all over England are holding Easter revision classes for 11-year-olds to ensure they do well in SATs. Hilary Wilce asks, will this turn our children into unhappy bunnies?
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The Independent Online

This Easter thousands of children are spending part of their holidays back at school being crammed for an important exam. Are they high-fliers aiming for Winchester? Or eggheads striving for a grammar-school place?

This Easter thousands of children are spending part of their holidays back at school being crammed for an important exam. Are they high-fliers aiming for Winchester? Or eggheads striving for a grammar-school place?

No, they are struggling primary-school children being pushed and shoved up a rung of the Key Stage 2 SATs tests, which measure how the country's 11-year-olds are doing in English, maths and science.

Because this year is the big one. David Blunkett, when he was Education Secretary, famously said he would resign if too few children reached a certain level by 2002. Blunkett then moved on, but the Government knows that everyone will still be looking to see how its progress in education measures up against this bald promise. And it also knows that, like many borderline children, it very likely won't make the grade.

Primary pupils have made good progress over the last four years, with the proportion reaching the benchmark Level Four in literacy going up from 63 per cent to 75 per cent, and in maths from 62 per cent to 71 per cent, but they are still falling significantly short of this year's targets – 80 per cent in English and 75 per cent in maths. As a result, the Government has urged schools to pull out all the stops to help the country's marginal 11-year-olds.

Since January 1999, schools have been told to set up in-school and after-school booster classes, and homework and revision clubs, for those children who look unlikely to be able to make Level Four. The classes are free to parents. DfES has issued precise guidelines on how teachers should go about organising booster programmes, and £42m a year has been set aside to finance them. But this year it has gone even further, and added an extra £10m to the booster budget for teacher training to ensure the best results.

The measures are claimed to work. KS2 results have gone up by 10 per cent in English and 12 per cent in maths since the booster programme was introduced, and 90 per cent of heads reported that they thought it was helping to raise standards.

But increasingly, teachers are asking what exactly this means. While they welcome the opportunity to give children extra time and attention, they question the value of what they are being told to do. A Kent teacher, Sue Foster, has been teaching a weekly after-school English booster class to five of her 20 11-year-olds since the autumn half-term, and is angry about the thinking behind it.

"What we're supposed to be teaching them is how to gain an extra mark here and there in the test. It's just strategy. It's no good for their general education, and no use to them in the long run. Apart from anything else, it's dropped in May, the minute the SATs are over. It's not about the children at all. It's all done so the school can put the results in their league tables, and the Government can look good."

It can also send a depressing message to the pupils singled out, she says. The children in her group have made fantastic progress since they were seven, when many couldn't read, but instead of having their achievements praised, the booster classes tell them they still haven't made the grade.

In practice, she simply ignores the guidelines, and instead uses the precious hour of small-group teaching "to help them in any way I can – any good teacher would."

Many agree, saying that the booster programme is simply the absurd end of the league-table system, which places huge pressure on schools to maximise their SATs scores, while things like art, music, technological, PE and religious education are pushed aside.

Chris Davis, of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, says there is anecdotal evidence of schools devoting so much of the last year of primary school to SATs revision that things such as school choirs are being cancelled. In some areas, too, the pool of available supply teachers is being drained, because schools are using their booster budget to teach Year Six classes in smaller groups in school time, which means that other age groups suffer as a result.

His school, Queniborough School, in Leicestershire, which has "middle-of-the-road" SATs results but a strong reputation for drama, technology and international links, plays down the tests and won't run Easter classes. "Holidays are there for a reason. Children need time to recharge their batteries. Also, there is evidence that they do better after a holiday than before it. We stop our booster classes a week before the SATs, but some schools go on right over the weekend before they take them."

In addition, he says, it's well known there are "101 ways" schools can cheat, whether it is via the raised eyebrow of an invigilating teacher, or by giving pupils more than the stipulated time, and there are also questions over how well the tests are marked.

However, others see booster classes as a useful focus for raising standards, and believe that they can help weaker pupils. Paul Larkey, head of Wandle Primary School, a hugely improved south London school, which last year ran Easter revision sessions (and was, at the time of writing, still deciding whether to do them again this year) says, "The tests in themselves are irrelevant to my children, but they need a set of basic skills to get them through secondary school, and if they can't get to Level Four in the test, they haven't got those." His children also enjoyed coming in on some mornings over the Easter holidays, he said. They come from a less advantaged part of the city, "and don't necessarily have a busy and interesting life in the holidays".

But there is growing evidence that elbowing their way up to Level Four does not seem to offer children much in the long run. Many fall back during the first year of secondary school, indicating either that SATs results give a false picture of pupils' abilities, or that burned-out and over-tested children are no longer trying. Some secondary schools that were assigning children to maths and English sets on the basis of their SATs results have gone back to testing them themselves at the end of Year Seven in order to get a more accurate picture of their abilities, while Ofsted has warned that the poor transfer between primary and secondary schools "has a significant implications for the continuity of pupils' learning".

"There's no doubt that the real issue is the KS2-KS3 continuum," says Peter Smith, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "We haven't cracked that one yet."

"The target year from the start was 2002," says Chris Davies. "It was always set in concrete." But once it's over, Government should start to trust the teachers more, and look to sounder ways of assessing progress.

But it looks unlikely that it will. Although last year's results showed no gains (English stayed the same, while maths fell by 1 per cent) and although schools have warned that progress is bound to slow down now the initial slack of under-achievement has been taken up, it is still hell-bent on racking up the figures. By 2004, Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, has said she wants to see 85 per cent of pupils reaching Level Four in English and maths. Booster class, anyone?