SATs are having damaging consequences for both children and schools, the results of a major teacher survey have revealed.
The national curriculum tests, undertaken by thousands of primary school children across the country each year, are producing “unreliable data”, the new report warns, causing some pupils to be incorrectly labelled as low ability, and others to go on to secondary school with “unrealistically” high grades.
The concerns follow caution from the House of Commons Education Committee in April that the “high-stakes system” of standard assessment tests does not improve teaching and learning in primary schools.
In their report on primary assessment practices, the cross-party board of MPs found young children were at risk of developing mental health problems as a result of the pressure placed on them to pass the tests.
Publishing the results of its latest survey, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found as many as 94 per cent of the 2,300 teachers who responded agreed with the Committee board.
The vast majority (84 per cent) also agreed the national curriculum tests had a particularly negative impact on children with special educational needs and disabilities, and 58 per cent suggested the exams were somewhat discriminatory against children whose first language was not English.
Summer born children also tended to be at an unfair disadvantage according to teachers’ personal experiences, and a third (33 per cent) said that children eligible for free school meals – a common indicator of disadvantage – were particularly adversely affected.
A majority of 96 per cent of teachers from the union agreed that SATs preparation did not support children’s access to a broad and balanced curriculum, as laid out by the Department for Education.
Union members also gave evidence to suggest pressure on schools to perform well was leading some children to be removed from learning where they posed a risk to overall attainment levels.
“The children who have a very low chance of passing the tests are withdrawn from interventions as the year goes on so that the focus is on borderline children,” one teacher said. “Absolutely disgraceful but senior management are under immense pressure to get the highest percentage of pass rate.”
“Children are viewed as data,” said another. “Children not capable of 'making it' are discounted so that resources can be focused on cusp children. Children assessed as 'safe' aren't always given the support to make progress they deserve.”
Both Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs exams have become the subject of much criticism in recent years, with many parents and school leaders of the opinion that they put children under too much pressure at too young an age.
Pressure on schools to compete in national league tables has led to pupils being taught a narrower curriculum, the Education Committee heard earlier this year, with staff neglecting arts and humanities in order to focus more attention on the maths, English and science topics covered in SATs.
Last year, parents across the country took their children out of school for a day’s protest over the exams to demonstrate the benefits of creative learning away from rigorous testing.
The Government has since agreed to scrap SATs for six and seven-year olds starting next year, but concerns have been raised this may only increase the burden for children facing the Year 6 assessments.
A new Keystage 2 curriculum brought in last year was said to have made the end of year tests especially tough, resulting in several teachers and parents complaining of children left in tears and having panic attacks.
Responding to the NUT survey, teachers said the current assessment system “does not enable schools, teachers, children and their families to celebrate the success of children who do not reach the expected standard”.
This lack of recognition could be seen to have a “damaging impact” on many children’s self-esteem, negatively impacting on their willingness to learn in later years.
“Children who know they are not on track to achieve the national standard feel anxious,” one teacher said. ”They should be able to feel proud of how much they have progressed rather than being given a result that shows they have failed.”
At the other end of the scale, the most able children were too often limited in their learning due to the parameters of key stage testing – with schools having little choice but to concentrate resources on teaching test skills rather than expanding on subject topics.
“Schools teach to the tests because there is such a lot at risk.”
“Subjects like art and music end up being squeezed out. We are pressured into showing examples of writing across the curriculum and therefore lessons like science and history end up having more of an English focus.”
As a result of the concentrated pressure around the end of Key Stage tests, many schools reported suffering recruitment issues for Years 2 and 6 teachers.
“The pressure on Year 6 teachers is horrendous. Recruitment of experienced upper KS2 teachers is a challenge. Teachers do not want to teach in Year 6 because of the work overload and ridiculous expectations,” a primary school leader confessed.
Calls have been made for the current system to be reviewed – something backed by the Education Committee as well as teaching bodies.
NUT general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “The Government will be left in no doubt from this survey that teachers believe the current assessment and accountability of England’s primary school children is not fit for purpose.
“There is widespread interest among parents, teachers and educationalists about creating a new assessment system which supports pupils’ learning rather than serving as a blunt instrument of school accountability.
It was “regrettable” that this interest is only palely reflected in recent DfE consultations, he added.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want a stable primary assessment system that supports the stretching national curriculum, freeing up teachers to do what they do best and providing every child with the opportunity to go as far as their talents will allow.
“We want to work constructively with teachers to do this and have this week finished a consultation on proposals developed with and supported by the profession. We will now consider the next steps to ensure children are taught the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in later life.”
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