2nd July 2021

Race inequality and the inequities of SATs

Sandeep Kaur, associate headteacher, Highlands Primary School, Ilford

  • The curriculum is geared towards mastery of skills, knowledge and concepts built on a narrow Eurocentric view that alienates BAME children and makes them feel ‘other’
  • For pupils from BAME backgrounds, SATs represent yet another form of judgment – what they don’t do is develop children’s sense of belonging and identity as empowered, active citizens of the future
  • For BAME children and families, the disproportionate impacts of Covid have resulted in an unfair language barrier, making SATs an even bigger threat this year

“By ‘education’ I do not mean hobbling the mind but liberating it. By ‘education’ I do not mean passing on monologues but engaging in dialogues. Listening, assuming sometimes that I have a history, a language, a view, an idea, a specificity.”
Toni Morrison

Primary school education should bring about a deep sense of safety and security that derives from a child’s evolving sense of identity. Pupils should transition to secondary school with an inner acceptance and a sense of belonging to their community, celebrated for the unique talents, skills, language and histories they bring and contribute. However, this reality is far from the truth, with Year 6’s primary journey culminating in a sense of being judged. This experience is compounded for children and families from BAME backgrounds and those learning English as an Additional Language. This is due to an intersection of factors, including the nature of the curriculum, the lack of opportunities to develop positive self-identity and a sense of belonging, and more recently the disproportionate nature of Covid impacts on BAME families.


Our primary school curriculum is designed to culminate in a final pass or fail judgment, with children assessed on the memorisation of specific skills and facts to demonstrate mastery. Sadly, we are so invested in the fruits of these assessments that the nourishment of the child has become a by-product. The National Curriculum offers children a narrow Eurocentric-dominant view, by default making the colonial world the planetary world (Pratt, 1992). By this, we mean the views and perspectives of history are predominantly expressed from a white, male, privileged position – stories told by the oppressor rather than the oppressed. The core texts of literature are dominated by Western thought and ‘classic literature’, but is this the only literature?

There has been much debate in the media about the Sewell Report 2021, which asserts that exploring the colonial past is akin to ‘victim narratives’. Well, who will tell the stories of the silenced? Our children’s sensory systems download an evolving world in which they are viewed as ‘outsiders’. By association, this perpetuates a constant need to fit into a ‘universal mould’ – in other words, the colonial narrative. The curriculum is political by design and perpetuates a romantic notion that Empire gave the world only positives. As educators, it is our duty to lead the way in facing our history, warts and all; only then can our children truly learn lessons from the past, work towards a better sense of humanity, and become the critical thinkers that we strive
to create.

“Do children from BAME backgrounds truly get the opportunity to question the world if they only see a partial view of it represented in the curriculum?”

Teachers have neither confidence nor experience when it comes to diversifying the curriculum, as they themselves grew up with the same education system, accepting the indoctrinated narrative that it espouses. It will only be in schools fortunate to have leadership that nurtures support and promotes a more equitable curriculum that children will see themselves represented. Just recently, a team planning the Victorian unit were shocked that children had no concept of Queen Victoria’s links to India. When pupils found out that she had been Empress of India they felt awe and wonder that this part of history related to them and their current sense of belonging to the British identity. How sad that in Year 4, children from BAME backgrounds still question if they are British. Displays of superficial British values will not change this mindset – children need to see themselves as inextricably part of history.

Identity and belonging

“Young people’s sense of belonging in school is shaped by what they bring to it – their histories, their day-to-day lived realities – as well as schools’ practices and expectations. Relationships, encounters and pedagogical experiences make a difference.”
Riley (2017)

Riley challenges us to consider to what extent the build-up to SATs nurtures this environment for pupils from BAME backgrounds. Can children see themselves in what they are learning – enriching it by drawing on their own life experiences? Do children from BAME backgrounds truly get the opportunity to question the world if they see only a partial view represented in the curriculum? Can children really get their sense of belonging if they always feel like the ‘other’? SATs offer neither grounding nor security to children, families or staff – just anxiety, judgment and a culture of fear. This oppressive system gives no space for critically questioning the validity and fairness of SATs tests for BAME children. They are being assessed on views and knowledge that are alien to their very sense of being. One such example is the reading paper, which year on year assumes a white, middle-class knowledge background and familiarity with ‘classic literature’, but whose classical knowledge and cultural capital are reflected here?

Data can be manipulated in many ways, highlighting model minorities such as the Chinese and Indian ethnicity groups as always performing highly, while detracting from the underachievement of black and Pakistani children across the SATs data cohort. Data can also be manipulated to show a gradual improvement, yet this does not reflect the growing divide. In 2018/19, data showed that 65% of children achieved ‘expected standards’ in combined reading, writing and maths. The Chinese cohort achieved 80% and the Indian cohort 77%. However, the black Caribbean cohort achieved 56% and the Pakistani group 62%. The fact that Chinese and Indian ethnicities outperform other ethnicities, including white British, doesn’t answer for the underachievement of black and Pakistani children. What really needs to be looked at is the proportionate change for each ethnic group over time, and which are consistently making the least progress. The fallacy here is that great progress equates to closing the gap (Gillborn, 2008).

Covid impacts

The impact of Covid has disproportionately affected BAME families in health and social terms. At our school, we are supporting children living in multigenerational families who are coping with the loss of loved ones. Many of our BAME families have fallen into extreme poverty during the pandemic due to job insecurity; they require foodbank vouchers just to ensure that their children’s basic needs are being met. As a school, we have set up a hardship fund supported by staff and local communities to help families most in need – this includes a family of four with one single bed between them. Faced with such circumstances, our children’s emotional wellbeing is adversely affected. They have experienced a lockdown without access to wi-fi or rich language opportunities.

“Our pupils’ experience of lockdown didn’t include unlimited wi-fi and rich language opportunities”

Our dialogic teaching and learning pedagogy have enabled our most disadvantaged children to make good progress. In recognition of this, we have been presented with the ‘Schools for Success’ award by the Mayor of London for four years in a row. However, our efforts have been severely thwarted by the pandemic, giving the BAME community a sky-high barrier to climb. Dialogic teaching and learning are powerful, as they create a utilitarian classroom environment where all voices are valued, language is modelled, critical-thinking questions are posed and encouraged, and the majority of the lesson is driven by the children building on each other’s ideas. This is the core of high-quality modelled language. But SATs-motivated primary education next year will detract from all of this valuable learning and will pose a threat to their life chances.

As an educational community, it is time to protect our children from the detrimental effects of SATs’ high-stakes accountability system and see an end to the narrowness of vision that undermines their identity and belonging. It’s time to introduce a system that celebrates and works for every child.

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


support the campaign

privacy policy