When Jeremy Corbyn announced he would scrap SATs for primary school pupils, the backlash was swift and loud.
It will cause “severe damage” to the “life chances” of pupils, said Katharine Birbalsingh – headteacher of the controversial Michaela School – writing in the Daily Mail. “Poorer pupils will suffer” read a letter from Parents and Teachers for Excellence published by The Times.
Though given a prominent platform, these voices belong to a particular group on the right of the education community. My own experience teaching in primary schools with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils tell me these arguments are wrong. Far from benefiting disadvantaged pupils, it is precisely these students who lose out most from our current high-stakes assessment system.
The negative effects of SATs are now widely recognised, with Ofsted recently sharing its concerns that they lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. Birbalsingh herself admits “there are problems” including “teaching to the test”. Not to mention widespread concerns about pupil and teacher wellbeing.
Less discussed, is the extent to which socioeconomic background plays a significant role in determining children’s performance in SATs. Wealthier children have a head start. Their parents are more likely to have money to buy them books and time to help them with their homework. They start school “ahead” in language and communication skills. They are less likely to arrive in the morning having not had breakfast or dressed in clothes that no longer fit them.
These advantages are reflected in national assessment data. Last year only 46 per cent of pupils on free school meals passed year six SATs compared to 68 per cent of other students. The 54 per cent of free school meal pupils who started year seven having failed were labelled “not secondary ready”. This demoralising categorisation leaves a lasting trace: many secondary schools use SATs data to place children in ability groups, and to set targets for their GCSEs.
As well as negatively impacting individuals, there is a systemic effect. With disadvantaged pupils consistently performing less well, it is harder for schools with higher numbers of these students to reach “floor standards” – the percentage pass rate required to avoid the school being flagged for low performance.
As a result, it is these schools who are under the most pressure to teach to the test. This might involve cutting humanities and arts lessons for extra maths and English, or drilling pupils in how to score easy points on exam papers instead of developing long-term understanding.
Many existing problems with SATs were amplified by the more difficult version of them introduced by Michael Gove during his time as education secretary. While Gove claimed his more challenging curriculum would improve educational equality by having “high expectations” for all, his approach was flawed.
Supporting disadvantaged students requires more than simply raising the bar and telling them to jump higher. If we care about these pupils then we must offer them the support and nourishment needed to overcome their disadvantage. Failure to do so amounts to setting them up to fail.
Some arguments in favour of SATs state it is fairer than teacher assessment which has previously been linked to the marking down of working class and BME pupils due to unconscious bias. Such findings are disconcerting and any new assessment system must ensure biases do not occur. At the same time, we must also address the underlying problem of unconscious bias in the teaching profession – this requires far more than blind-marking exam papers.
Other arguments insist that if we scrap SATs, independent schools will continue to test their pupils and state school students will miss out. This is dubious. As one primary teacher who has moved from state to independent sector told me, there is “less teaching to the test for sure” and “more time devoted to sports and the arts”.
If we are serious about helping poorer pupils overcome educational disadvantage, then it is no small task. As a society we must reduce material inequality. And as schools, we must offer disadvantaged children a rich education which allows them to flourish.
At the centre of this should be a system to hold teachers accountable without negatively impacting on our students. A reformed approach to primary assessment, free from a punishing high-stakes struggle, would be an excellent start.
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