2nd July 2021

Drop SATs for good: the case for recovery without high-stakes assessment

More Than A Score is a coalition bringing together tens of thousands of headteachers, teachers, parents, academics and professional organisations in one united call: to change the way primary school children are assessed and the way schools are held accountable through high-pressure statutory tests. We are not against teacher-led tests, national sampling, or moderated assessments, and we’re not against holding schools to account.

In the wake of the pandemic, our call is more prescient than ever. The wildly differing experiences and the many months of lost learning over the last year oblige us to explore boldly how to free up learning time and how to target resources accurately to give children what they need to thrive at school. This necessarily involves close examination of the current statutory assessment system, which is not there to provide a diagnostic tool to help pupils, but rather to measure school performance. In the words of the Schools Minister to the Education Select Committee in May 2020: “SATs are not qualifications for young people… they are a form of accountability for the school system.”

On this premise, we have three simple requests:

  1. Pause the introduction of the Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) in English and maths for four-year-olds in September 2021
  2. Pause all other statutory assessments in Years 1, 2, 4 and 6
  3. Set up an independent profession-led review into primary assessment

These steps will give every child at primary level all the time they need to catch up properly without the additional stress that SATs cause children, parents and teachers. They will also give time for a thorough review of the assessment system, as well as proper consideration of alternatives that support learning and do not place the burden of school accountability on young shoulders.

The More Than A Score Drop SATs For Good report pulls together voices from across the educational and policy-making fields to demonstrate the exceptionally broad strength and unity of opinion, as well new and detailed evidence, all pointing to the urgent need for a rethink of primary testing. Statements of support from the three major unions representing teachers and head teachers show the entire profession aligning behind the call for a re-evaluation of assessment, and statements from a cross-party group of MPs demonstrate the extent to which the issue rightly transcends politics.

Our brand-new research reveals that school leaders overwhelmingly believe that preparing for SATs should not be part of a catch-up programme and two thirds believe the Reception Baseline Assessment should not be introduced in September. With trust in teachers at an all-time high, parents want to see pupil wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum; their lowest priority is preparation for SATs, and they do not believe these tests should be used to measure schools. This research is backed up by numerous case studies from children, parents and headteachers. “The children’s wellbeing and mental health are so much higher this year – as are the teachers’ – knowing that there are no SATs just around the corner,” says Chris Dyson, a Leeds headteacher.

Diane Reay from the University of Cambridge collates a body of evidence on the increasing class inequalities in the wake of Covid and how assessment exacerbates the widening gap. The UCL Institute of Education’s (IoE) Alice Bradbury demonstrates the effects SATs have on the entire school and the curriculum: “The way SATs data is used demonises schools in challenging circumstances, meaning that in some cases the whole school appears geared towards the improvement of SATs scores,” she comments. Dr Chris Bagley from the IoE looks at the lasting mental health effects of the pandemic on primary school children, saying “standardised assessment is a core underpinning factor in poor wellbeing, as asserted by young people themselves”. Gemma Moss, from British Educational Research Association, provides a compelling overview of their alternative to the current system.

The voices of academics are amplified by experts on the ground (headteachers across the country) who provide a commentary on the valuable learning time lost to preparation for statutory tests. They also report on how especially damaging the current system is to pupils from socially deprived backgrounds, from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority communities, and to children with special educational needs.

Among all these themes that are being discussed by so many with ever more volume and import, one point crops up in every conversation and is well worth remembering: statutory tests have been cancelled for two years now with zero negative impact on pupils’ education or on school performance. Paradoxically, while their absence has barely registered, their presence creates unwarranted stress on young children and schools, narrows the curriculum, and generates a fear of failure within the whole school community.

As Mark Chatley, a headteacher in Kent, points out: the only real impact of two years’ worth of no testing has been on the Department for Education’s data. As his piece shows, the gaps in data and their repercussions over the next seven years make a return to the high-stakes testing regime nonsensical from an effective data-gathering standpoint. And, as Brighton headteacher Jonathan Cooper asks: “How do you measure the quality of an education system? … In our ability to nurture a love of life and learning, to transform lives through creating opportunity, to create individuals who care about the world and want to make a difference, to build a community of compassion and hope, to inspire innovation and creative thinking.”

Change to the system is long overdue and any focus on true recovery is incomplete without an acknowledgement of this. The chorus of parents, heads, children, unions, MPs and dozens of organisations working in the field agree: the time has come to turn the page on the current primary assessment regime.

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


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