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Time for a Moratorium on SATs?

Posted on: 17 May 2016
Posted by: Peter Tait

Following the recent fallout over this year’s SATs for 7 and 11 year olds, Peter Tait, former head of Sherborne Preparatory School, questions their impact and need for reform.

Over recent weeks, there has been considerable fallout over this year’s Standard Achievement Tests (SATs) for seven and 11 year olds. We hear of boycotts; of leaked test papers; of the poll undertaken to assess the emotional effect of SATs on children; the ‘Let our Kids be Kids’ campaign; the comments about the negative effect of testing; and the charge that the tests are more about measuring teachers and schools rather than children.


In the last few days, the charge list grew even longer, with suggestions of maladministration and cheating and further criticism of the difficulty and age-appropriateness of test papers before, inevitably, morphing into an argument between the traditionalists, referencing education in South East Asia as the ‘real world’ and the ‘touchy-feely educationalists’ who decry any such external tests.


Undoubtedly, the government is right to want to raise standards, but perhaps with all the public debate going on, it is time to consider whether the concentration of time and resources on SATs is the best way of doing so. After all, Allison Pearson in her attack on the critics of SATs noted that GCSEs are 'killing the love of learning for its own sake’; perhaps she – and we – should be mindful that SATs are quite capable of doing the same.


The minister recently suggested the ‘beautiful command of English’ shouldn’t just be the preserve of the middle class, a popular sentiment, yet surely a more pragmatic approach, that of ensuring all children have a good working knowledge of how to write and communicate accurately, is a better starting point? Reading and, especially, writing, should be the vehicles through which children learn about tenses and agreement, punctuation and grammar (and if we are insisting on a sound knowledge of grammar at this age, let’s include it in national testing later on). Perhaps it’s time to look at the barriers to learning, including the training of teachers, classroom discipline (which is a societal as much as a school problem), government interference and the swathes of time given over to teaching young children how to pass tests.


The obsession for measurement lies at the heart of the issue. The argument runs that if you don’t establish the level a child is at when they enter school, then you won’t be able to measure progress, but when the tests are skewed for a variety of reasons, including differing levels of readiness and the impact of the home, school and amount of tutoring, their findings become unsound, especially when used shape expectations. Tests should motivate and assess learning, but should focus on what is relevant, rather than superfluous points of grammar; after all, they are not just for the child from a good school with supportive parents (and often a tutor), but to those children for whom English is a second language, who may have learning difficulties or unsupportive homes who need more time (the fact that parents are then given their child’s raw score along with the national average is deeply flawed, and will do little other than reinforce parental – and school - expectations, upwards and downwards).


In all the arguments, it is difficult to see clearly what we want? If we want children to read better, are SATs going to help that happen? Do we want national benchmarking? If so, how do we ensure all children are treated the same and factor in problems of different stages of readiness? Do we want them to hold teachers to account? If we want all children to have a sound grasp of English, then let’s concentrate on what matters, not superfluous points of grammar that even confuse ministers and journalists.


It is time for a moratorium: Not for the reasons that columnists who are busily criticising parents and schools are proposing, nor to appease those parents talking about stress and boycotts. The issue should be are SATs the most effective way of ensuring competency in English and are they improving the ability of our children to read and write? Testing is time-intensive (even if schools are told it shouldn’t be) and should not be driving teaching as it clearly is, particularly in Year 6.


Interestingly, fewer than 20% of prep schools now use SATs which begs the question as to what they do besides – which is provide a greater breadth of education, crucial at this formative stage. We need to re-examine the impact of SATs, the process and the industry it has begotten and ask whether these tests are serving our children well and if not, be prepared to change them.


You can read the full article here.

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About Peter Tait

Peter Tait is the former head of Sherborne Preparatory School and is now a writer and independent education adviser.