2nd July 2021

Alternatives to SATs: why covid-19 has made changing our current testing and accountability system a pressing issue

Gemma Moss, Professor of Literacy and Director of the International Literacy Centre at UCL Institute of Education

  • Covid-19 has shown that the English test and accountability system is over-centralised, inflexible and inefficient
  • It unnecessarily penalises schools serving our most disadvantaged communities, where the material impacts of poverty on children’s health and wellbeing are highest
  • It promotes poor practice in teaching and learning, and a low-trust culture through a curriculum that is poorly paced and over-specified in the parts it chooses to test

The pandemic has shone a harsh light on how the English education system currently runs, and the distorted priorities entrenched by its test and accountability system (ILC, 2020a).

Our research shows that, in keeping educational provision functioning during such an extended period of disruption, schools responded quickly to the multiple impacts Covid was having on their communities (Moss et al, 2020). The forms of support they offered went well beyond the narrowly educational to ensure, for instance, that pupils reliant on free school meals would not go hungry, and that families most in need of other support services could access them. Schools recognised they had a vital role in keeping communities together at a time of crisis and responded accordingly.
Yet they have received little public recognition or credit for this.

Instead, policymakers’ attention has been narrowly focused on reinstating the current test and accountability system, and the fast-paced curriculum delivery it mandates, with scant regard for actual circumstances on the ground. Yet Covid is by no means over. The disease is still actively circulating in schools, while the full economic impacts of the pandemic on our poorest communities have yet to be realised.

In numerous ways, Covid has revealed the depth of the material poverty in which many families in England now live, and the precariousness of their situation (ADCS, 2020; Children’s Commissioner, 2021). This has substantial effects on children’s lives, including on their physical and mental wellbeing. Poverty matters. It creates an unequal playing field in education, well demonstrated by the strength of the correlation between persistent disadvantage – defined in a recent Education Policy Institute report as pupils who are “eligible for free school meals for 80% or more of their school life” (Hutchinson et al, 2020, p 14) – and lower educational attainment. Child poverty is on the rise, and Covid has exacerbated income inequalities, creating more stress for families in the process (CPAG, 2021). Schools are at the forefront of dealing with the human dimensions of these issues – they do so underfunded and under-resourced, against a backdrop of a testing and accountability system that penalises rather than supports those schools working with our most disadvantaged communities. It is time for a radical overhaul of how we manage (and fund) our education system (ILC, 2020b; Julius et al, 2020).

A radical solution for radical times

Trying to recover from the impact of the pandemic on children’s education will take time. It will require investment targeted at our most vulnerable communities so that some of the material effects of poverty on children’s lives can be mitigated (NEU, 2021; CPAG, 2021; EPI, 2020; IFS, 2020). For schools, it requires creating space on the curriculum for high-quality teaching informed by local understanding of children’s needs, and with the capacity to adapt to meet them. Formative assessment designed to enable teachers to adjust their teaching to strengthen student learning (Baird et al, 2017) has a crucial role to play here. Our current testing and accountability system militates against this by over-monitoring and over-policing delivery of a curriculum atomised into its constituent parts, to be delivered with fidelity to a timetable that brooks no adjustment. The curriculum and test timetable facilitates external monitoring. It does nothing to encourage the kind of responsive teaching we need and deserve.

Our research shows that during the pandemic, teachers and teaching assistants demonstrated considerable resilience and agility in adjusting and adapting to meet the needs of their communities (Moss et al, 2020; Moss et al, 2021). By contrast, centrally directed policy responses were often ill-timed and poorly judged. Those looking at data from afar have ignored the primary resource available to schools – their own staff and their immediate knowledge of what matters most. Instead, additional funding has been hypothecated to remedies that are hard to scale (NAO, 2021) and whose fitness for purpose in particular local contexts has not been calculated. The inadequacies of a low-trust culture that prefers the expertise of anyone except those dealing with the immediate issues first-hand is here exposed. Covid is a wake-up call for putting more agency back into the hands of the teaching staff who know their communities best and rebuilding the local and deliberative forums the system requires to function well (ILC, 2020b).

Recovery requires creating space on the curriculum for high-quality teaching informed by local understanding of children’s needs

To rebalance and redesign an education system fit for purpose:

Step 1. Replace whole cohort testing with a system of national sampling
SATs in primary schools have morphed from a statement of what children can do into a retrospective means of monitoring whether teachers have delivered the curriculum items tested. This is a costly (£42m approximately) and inefficient way of determining teaching quality. It can lead to over-emphasising the parts of the curriculum tested at the expense of a wider and richer curriculum that engages children more fully and fosters their longer-term intellectual growth. A longitudinal national sample would have the merits of allowing fuller system monitoring over time by collecting richer data from fewer pupils. With intelligent design, it would create new knowledge of key aspects of teaching and learning in context that could support system improvement. By contrast, whole-population testing of four-year-olds in order to judge the value that schools have added seven years hence, when the children are 11, will not create any useful or reliable knowledge that will make a difference to their educational trajectories.

Step 2. Establish an independent body, answerable to parliament, to run the national sample
As part of its responsibilities, it will devise new test instruments designed to give a fuller understanding of how pupil competence changes over time. It will also develop survey instruments to collect fuller contextual information than is currently available on the National Pupil Database. The new body would insulate the curriculum and assessment from direct political interference and manipulation, while maintaining democratic oversight.

Step 3. Redesign local accountability to strengthen system learning and enhance system equity
Support and challenge are key parts of system learning, but they are not well wired into Ofsted’s current remit or its new inspection framework, which remains overly concerned with monitoring curriculum delivery. This is carried out on the basis of little proven expertise in forming judgements on curriculum quality during a short visit. Data from the national sample could be used instead to foster democratic accountability with a range of local stakeholder panels committed to reviewing outcomes and their relevance locally. By identifying substantive thematic areas warranting further exploration, and by committing funds for this purpose, it is possible to re-envisage system learning as responsive to local needs. It is also possible to draw researchers, practitioners and policymakers into closer relationships, working together on agendas defined collectively as requiring the most urgent investigation here. (These recommendations and how such a system could be made to work are more fully sketched out in the BERA Expert Panel report on Alternatives to SATs, led by Harvey Goldstein and to be published by BERA later in the year.)

This blog is a contribution to the Big Education Conversation. It’s time to rethink education: what big changes would you like to see? Join the conversation on their website #BigEducationConversation



ADCS (2020) Building a country that works for all children, Manchester: The Association of Directors of Children’s Services

Baird, J., Andrich, D., Hopfenbeck, T. N., & Stobart, G. (2017) Assessment and learning: Fields apart? Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 24:3, 317-350

Britton, J., Farquharson, C., Sibieta, L., Tahir, I. and Waltmann, B. (2020) IFS Report R183. 2020 annual report on education spending in England, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies

Children’s Commissioner (2021) Child poverty: the crisis we can’t keep ignoring, London: Children’s Commissioner Office

CPAG (2021) The cost of learning in lockdown: March 2021 update, London: Child Poverty
Action Group.

EPI (2020) Preventing the disadvantage gap from increasing during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, London: Education Policy Institute

Hutchinson, J., Reader, M. and Akhal, A. (2020) Education in England: Annual Report, London: Education Policy Institute

International Literacy Centre (2020a) Responding to COVID-19, Briefing note 1: Primary Assessment, London: UCL Institute of Education

International Literacy Centre (2020b) Responding to COVID-19, Briefing Note 3: Educational priorities in challenging times, London: UCL Institute of Education.

Julius, J., Hillary, J. and Faulkner-Ellis, H. (2020) The Implications of Covid-19 on the School Funding Landscape, Slough: NFER

Moss, G., Allen, R., Bradbury, A., Duncan, S., Harmey, S., & Levy, R. (2020) Primary teachers’ experience of the COVID-19 lockdown – Eight key messages for policymakers going forward, London: UCL Institute of Education

Moss, G., Webster, R., Harmey, S., and Bradbury, A. (2021) Unsung Heroes: The role of teaching assistants and classroom assistants in keeping schools functioning during lockdown, London: UCL Institute of Education

NAO (2021) Support for children’s education during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, London: National Audit Office

NEU (2021) Turning the page on poverty, London: National Education Union


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