27th April 2021

Drop SATs for recovery in primary schools, say unions, heads, parents and experts

 A recovery plan for primary schools must include not bringing back SATs and other statutory tests,  according to a new, united call for action from hundreds of headteachers, academics, writers and parents, with statements of support from teaching unions and cross-party MPs.

The More Than A Score coalition has compiled a new, detailed and evidence-based report, Drop SATs For Good: The Case For Recovery Without High-Stakes Assessment. It argues that dropping statutory tests will give primary schools and pupils all the time required to bridge any learning gaps caused by the pandemic. It calls on the government to:

  1. Pause the introduction of Reception Baseline Assessment (tests for 4-year-olds in English and maths when they start school in September)
  2. Pause SATs and all other statutory assessments in years 1, 2, 4 and 6
  3. Set up an independent, profession-led review into primary assessment

The calls for action have been signed by a cross-party group of MPs and peers; writers including Michael Rosen and Jamila Gavin, and hundreds of headteachers, academics and education experts, including representatives from the British Educational Research Association, the National Association for Primary Education and the UK Literacy Association. The report also includes statements of support for broad reform of the system from the general secretaries of the three main unions representing heads and teachers.

Kevin Courtney of the NEU states, “Even before March 2020, we knew about the pressures of accountability and the stresses they placed on teachers – and pupils. The problems are now more acute than ever, but it’s doesn’t have to be this way.”

Paul Whiteman of the NAHT states, “We all agree that now is the time to think clearly and carefully about creating a system that is fit for purpose in a post-pandemic world.”

Geoff Barton of ASCL states, “The pandemic has brought opportunity for permanent change to a primary testing regime that is demonstrably not fit for its original purpose. This should become our Covid legacy.”

SATs don’t matter for parents or school leaders

New research from YouGov included in the report confirms that parents and school leaders are closely aligned on their priorities for a recovery programme. Only a small minority  – 15% of parents with children aged 4 – 11 and 4% of primary school leaders – surveyed by YouGov think spending time preparing for SATs should be included in a “catch-up” programme.

A larger number of these parents would prefer a recovery programme to include children taking part in activities not available during lockdown (67%) and teachers taking time to individually assess children’s needs (64%). Meanwhile the most popular answer for heads and other school leaders surveyed is understanding of and support for pupils’ wellbeing (84%).

With primary assessments cancelled in both 2020 and 2021, the research also reveals parents’ views on the value of the current system. Only 11% of parents surveyed were unhappy that SATs and other statutory tests did not go ahead for their children this year. Meanwhile, when parents were asked how schools should be measured going forward, SATs results came second last in a list of eight factors, selected by only 13% of parents surveyed; school position in league tables came last (6%). Pupils’ happiness and wellbeing ranked as the most important factor (selected by 72% of parents surveyed), followed by children making progress at a pace which suits them (61%) and schools providing a broad and rich curriculum (60%).

When asked which factors they think are the most important outcomes from their children’s primary education, good SATs scores once again ranked last in a list of nine factors, selected by only 5% of parents surveyed. Love of learning (selected by 52%), friendship (48%), confidence to start secondary school (42%) and a sense of self-worth (42%) were the highest ranking outcomes.

As Gemma Haley, a parent in Brighton comments, “I would like my child to be exposed to a broad curriculum. I’d like school to focus on wellbeing and a positive transition to secondary school.”

The positive difference no SATs makes

SATs are the most high-profile statutory tests taken by primary school pupils. So, what difference will their cancellation this year make in schools? Perhaps most significantly, according to vast majority of heads and school leaders surveyed, SATs have little to no value in terms of the quality of information passed to secondary schools. Only 4% believe that the quality of information will be impaired this year while 30% believe it will actually be improved without SATs and 64% believe it will make no difference.

Instead of SATs, schools in the survey are adopting a variety of approaches to assessing their year 6 pupils. Three-quarters are using individual assessments based on teacher observation and classwork. Others (47%) are either basing their assessments on a portfolio of work collected over time and across the curriculum, or they are using informal tests in English and maths set by teachers over time (43%).

Many headteachers commented on the extra time afforded to them because the curriculum usually has to be completed by mid-May. Chris Dyson a headteacher in Leeds comments, “No SATs this year will see an additional two months of learning time. This is what we would all like.” A year 5 pupil from Grange Primary School in Harrow is already concerned about next year’s tests: “I’m worrying the whole time. Will I have time to revise? I want to make my parents happy so what if I get something wrong?”

Experts and headteachers agree: the time is right for change

The More Than A Score report argues that, following the pandemic, there has never been a better time to reform the current system for the benefit of schools and pupils. There is widespread agreement that children’s wellbeing must be at the heart of a recovery programme, along with the opportunity to bridge any learning gaps created by lockdown.

Headteachers in the report present the case that lost learning time can be recovered without the 20% of classroom time usually lost to preparation for and administration of high-stakes tests. They also make the point that the gaps created by disruption over the last two years mean the data gathered by the DfE has been rendered nonsensical for the next seven years. Meanwhile, children with SEND, those from socially-deprived backgrounds and children from BAME communities — many of whom have been adversely affected by the pandemic — will continue to be disproportionately damaged by the current system if it continues.

This evidence is backed by Diane Reay from the University of Cambridge who highlights the increasing class inequalities in the wake of Covid and how assessment exacerbates the widening gap. Meanwhile, Alice Bradbury from UCL Institute of Education demonstrates the negative effects SATs have on the whole school and the curriculum, while Dr Chris Bagley, also from UCL IoE, looks at the lasting mental health effects of the pandemic on children.

What’s the alternative?

The report also argues that there is an alternative to the current system. Gemma Moss, convenor of the British Educational Research Association’s Panel on Alternatives to SATs provides a preview of the panel’s recommendations, to be published later this year. She argues for national sampling, rather than cohort testing, overseen by an independent body answerable to Parliament. She also makes the case that local accountability should be redesigned to strengthen system learning and enhance system equity.

The introduction to the report concludes, “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.

“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.”

Contributors to the report

Jamila Gavin, writer
Beatrice Merrick, Early Education
Michael Freeston, Early Years Alliance
Jane Hanmer, EYFS Lead and Co-head
Diane Reay, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge
Alice Bradbury, Associate Professor, UCL Institute of Education
Dr Chris Bagley, Educational Psychologist, UCL Institute of Education
Gemma Moss, Convenor of the British Educational Research Association expert panel on alternatives to SATs
Jonathan Cooper, Headteacher
Matt Morden, Headteacher
Sandeep Kaur, Associate Headteacher
Mark Chatley, Trust Leader and Headteacher
Jeremy Barnes, Headteacher
Kulvarn Atwal, Headteacher
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary, National Education Union
Geoff Barnes, General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
Paul Whiteman, General Secretary, National Association of Headteachers
Daisy Cooper MP
Flick Drummond MP
Emma Hardy MP
Caroline Lucas MP

Parents research: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2012 parents (18+) of children aged 4 to 11 in England. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11th – 16th March 2021.  The survey was carried out online.

School leaders research: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 234 senior primary school teachers in England. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11th – 22nd March 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted by region.


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