2nd July 2021

Hours wasted in the quest to test

Kulvarn Atwal, headteacher, Highlands Primary School, Ilford

  • Approximately 20% of teaching time is spent preparing children for SATs
  • Children are being trained to pass tests rather than develop a love of learning
  • Teacher assessment can provide a nuanced, balanced view of children’s progress
  • We should spend time enabling children to develop creative and critical thinking

It would be possible to improve our Year 6 children’s learning in preparation for secondary education if we didn’t have the distraction of external tests. Children spend more hours in Year 6 learning English and maths than they will be expected to do in Years 7, 8 and 9. I would argue that a minimum of five hours per week are spent preparing children for SATs – approximately 20% of the teaching timetable. Just imagine the impact of this time if we were able to implement a broader and more balanced curriculum.

What’s more, SATs week in May significantly reduces the length of the school year; teachers must rush to complete the curriculum up to five weeks before the end of term. Not only does this mean that the results sent to secondary schools are not an accurate picture of where pupils are when they leave primary in July, it also means that the period following SATs could be better spent ensuring children have the time to fully absorb and understand the English and maths concepts tested via SATs.

Meanwhile, this tendency to narrow the curriculum in order to prepare children for SATs means that schools have to place far too much focus on English and maths at the expense of other areas of the curriculum. Essentially, children are being trained to pass tests rather than develop a love of learning within each subject.

I don’t necessarily think it is wrong to test children. I do think it’s important, however, to consider how we test our children. We need to arrive at a better balance between testing and developing wider skills. There remains considerable pressure on schools to demonstrate high levels of pupil attainment and progress, and there is too great an emphasis on the outcome of the KS2 tests.

We should use tests – which can be centrally produced – as part of a portfolio of evidence collated by teachers to demonstrate children’s attainment and progress. We trust teachers to assess writing in Year 6, so why not trust them to do the same for our children in maths and reading, too? Tests used alongside strong teacher assessment can provide a nuanced, balanced view of children’s personal development and attainment. Take the time to build their engagement and enjoyment of reading. Take as many opportunities as possible to engage them in quality dialogue.

By moving away from single, high-stakes SATs, not only will our children have more time and space to immerse themselves in deep and meaningful learning they will experience a more enjoyable and fulfilling education. Instead of focusing on preparing children for written examinations, we can spend time on enabling them to establish the skills of lifelong learning, including opportunities to develop creative and critical thinking. As we look now to recovery, in light of the months of lost learning and increased class inequalities across society and, crucially, in education, now is the opportune moment to pause, reflect, review and consider alternatives to the arcane formal assessment system.

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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