2nd July 2021

SATs and our community

Matt Morden, co-head, Surrey Square School, London

  • 98% of our families sit within the lowest 40% of the income-deprived families index, many of them experiencing extreme deprivation
  • Pupils leave us with above-average results in core subjects, because in our “personal and academic excellence” school motto, the personal comes first
  • Much of the SATs’ content is unrelatable for children from deprived communities, putting them at further disadvantage

Last year at Surrey Square, only 17% of our nursery cohort were at age-related expectations for reading, writing and maths when they joined us at the start of the year. We are committed to closing this gap and have extremely high expectations of all our pupils.

Surrey Square is a school at the heart of the community it serves, meeting not just the educational needs of its pupils, but also responding to the plethora of social issues facing local families. 98% of our families sit within the lowest 40% on the IDACI indicator of deprivation. Despite these challenges, the children leave us achieving above-national results in the core subjects, which we believe is due to the emphasis we place on the ‘personal excellence’ of our children and their families while they are part of the Surrey Square community.

In our school mission, Personal and Academic Excellence, Everyone, Every Day, the ‘personal’ comes first. This is essential, as children’s basic needs have to be met in order to enable them to access their academic learning to the best of their abilities. If something in a child’s home life is affecting their ability to learn, then we see it as our duty to address this first.

That being said, many of the systemic social issues faced by our families do not disappear overnight, and no matter how much we attempt to prepare our children for the notorious ‘SATs week’ there are still many unforeseen challenges our pupils experience that make an already tough week even tougher.

Of our children, 25% live in temporary accommodation. It means they can be moved with just a day’s notice. Indeed, they’ve experienced first-hand being called to the homelessness unit, with all their belongings, to be given keys and a new address without knowing in what state they’ll find the accommodation. This has sometimes happened immediately before SATs week, impacting the children’s tests results. How can this be fair?

Temporary accommodation is often overcrowded. One family of five – mum, grandma, teenage boy, teenage girl and Year 6 girl – were placed in one room in a hostel containing just two sets of bunk beds and a garden table for 18 months. They had to share the kitchen and bathroom with multiple families. The youngest daughter has sickle cell anaemia and is often awake at night with joint pains, which meant everyone was woken up. She was unable to use the toilet out in the hallway on her own as it wasn’t safe, meaning her mum had to accompany her. She was still living there during SATs week.

This situation isn’t a one-off. Temporary accommodation is often sub-standard, riddled with mould and infested with vermin. Children living in these conditions are then expected to come to school and sit high-pressured tests at the age of 10 or 11. Since the pandemic, we have seen a rise in cases of families falling below the poverty line, which means even more children will be experiencing similar difficulties with food and housing.

Furthermore, the wider social contexts for many of our children only compound the challenges they face. We had a child sitting SATs when a family member had been arrested the previous night; another child witnessed a stabbing on the landing of his block of flats on the Sunday evening before SATs week. This is extremely overwhelming for a 10- or 11-year-old, with a huge impact on their mental health.

In one classroom we saw a child who struggled with the first question of the reading paper and then proceeded to put his head on the table because he couldn’t face doing any more. In that same classroom another child walked out, tipped over the water cooler and kicked a hole in the door as he left. What are we doing to children’s mental health by making them endure this at such a young age? It really doesn’t need to be this way. It’s the high-stakes, high-pressure nature of this type of testing and accountability that is wrong – a child’s entire primary school learning experience being judged on one single test result.

Much of the content of the SATs testing is unfair for children from more deprived communities. Take the reading paper, for example: not only is there the pressure of reading three texts and answering a series of questions within a limited timeframe, but children in communities such as ours are also disadvantaged by the fact that much of the content is so far removed from their own experience. For example, Maria and Oliver rowing a boat across a lake to see a monument, or Edward describing his memories of the old farmhouse in Albion’s Dream, or Michael out fishing at sea and encountering a whale – these are not experiences that many, or indeed any, of the children in our community would have encountered. But we know it would be different for children from more affluent backgrounds for whom the test would be more accessible.

As regards the maths reasoning paper, mathematicians who are good with numbers but poor with language can be further disadvantaged. Studies support the fact that not only can the complex, specialised words used in reasoning questions be a barrier for EAL children, the problems are also often culturally biased, representative of the type of experience more familiar to affluent families. If children have never experienced going to a concert or theatre, this could present an additional barrier to the question in the example below. With 98% of our families sitting within the lowest 40% on the IDACI indicator of deprivation, and 60% with EAL, this puts them at a disadvantage even before the 40-minute paper begins.

We believe that a fairer system must be developed. We are using this year to trial a different way – a broader assessment mechanism that doesn’t just focus on a narrow set of outcomes based on a snapshot of one test result. We are collating digital portfolios for reading, writing and maths, as well as focusing on wider curriculum areas, including values, oracy and the arts. Tests will still be used but will form only part of the evidence. They will capture a range of examples to give a fuller picture of a child’s understanding in these areas and a more expansive overview of the whole child within a context that is relevant to them.

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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