2nd July 2021

SEND and SATs: the worst of all worlds

Jeremy Barnes, headteacher, All Saints Catholic Primary School, Liverpool

  • For children with SEND (special educational needs and disability), a primary education focused on SATs and league tables can lead to the worst of all worlds: they must accept a severely narrowed curriculum and miss out on the opportunities that could support them
  • Headteachers, under the pressure of a results-driven accountability system, may even be unwilling to accept pupils with SEND
  • There are better ways than SATs to measure accountability for spending on SEND

Whether parent, pupil or teacher, we’re continually told that choice is good, and that a deregulated system allows more of it: more competition, more choice – a rising tide lifts all boats.

But what if your choices lead to perverse incentives? What if the choices available to you are all bad ones?

Because this is what it must feel like if you’re a pupil with learning difficulties in Year 6, and this is what it definitely feels like if you’re the headteacher of a school with a high proportion of pupils with special educational needs.

I’m talking SATs, of course. Here’s what choices mean for me as a headteacher:

Firstly, the choice of curriculum. So many schools accept the overwhelming pressure of league tables and, sadly, it leads them to narrow the curriculum, possibly as early as Year 4. So, if you’re a child with learning difficulties, you might be deprived of many learning opportunities such as music, dance and drama that could unlock potential, confidence and talent. Instead, you are told to do more of the same in areas where you already struggle. Not a great choice.

But it doesn’t stop there. If you have very severe learning difficulties you will be almost certainly be taken out of most lessons in Year 6, and probably Year 5. The constant cycle of exam preparation means that it would be almost abusive to put the child into that environment, even with support.

“Because of SATs, many schools actively push against the admission of pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disability), knowing the impact it will have on overall results”

The critic might counter this with, “Ah, but if you had included these children earlier in their education, and your mastery teaching was good enough, these pupils would now be able to work alongside their peers!”

Unfortunately, those who pontificate from the sidelines have no idea of just how severe some children’s learning difficulties are, neither have they any idea just how many mainstream primary schools are trying to address this with pitiful resources.

“There is no purpose for SATs in the education of pupils with special educational needs, especially those with learning difficulties. Worse than that, they can have damaging perverse consequences”

Which provides a neat link to my second point: the choices made by schools regarding pupil admissions.

I would argue that because of SATs many schools actively push against the admission of pupils with SEND, knowing the impact it will have on overall results. In 2019, we took a pupil into our Enhanced Provision – a child who had missed his entire Reception year because the school had said they could not meet his needs. The pupil is now in Year 2, integrated into his mainstream class for the full curriculum. Admittedly, even with fabulous progress, he is unlikely to hit his standardised score measures (and will therefore be deemed a failure by many), but the fact that he was out of the school system for a whole year didn’t help. I’m convinced that the school’s cry of ‘we can’t meet his needs’ is often driven by a desire to achieve high SATs indicators.

This is not a one-off, and I have some sympathy with fellow headteachers. Their reputations – and possibly careers – rely on good test data. The current system takes no account of the proportion of pupils with significant learning difficulties. I also think that there is an institutional scepticism in whether some of these learning difficulties exist, and that they are in some way exaggerated to provide a convenient excuse for poorer test performance.

I do have a sceptical disposition, and I would be the first to call out schools that are labelling pupils as SEND incorrectly, but if you visit my school you will see children whose needs are incredibly acute. I’m in awe of the staff who educate them every day.

Yet these same children will be given a score of zero in the SATs, and this zero will bring down the cumulative score of the year group. What message does this send out?

And what of the choice of accountability?

As with so much of life, the pandemic has taught us an awful lot about the future. For parents of pupils with SEND, they will have seen how technology can shape the relationship between school, pupil and home. To varying degrees of success, a more personalised curriculum for pupils can now be shared almost in real-time with parents through the technology available to schools.

This is the front line of accountability, direct to the parents themselves. There’s a real opportunity to strengthen this partnership. We don’t need to wait for SATs results to tell us this.

The second line of accountability is to the taxpayer. I accept that considerable sums of extra funding support many pupils with SEND, and therefore it is understandable that schools should be held to account for the way the money is spent. Firstly, we have local authorities who still have statutory responsibility for this. Secondly, we have Ofsted, who inspect schools on precisely this prospectus. And thirdly, it’s back to the parents again who have a central say in the allocation of funding.

So, it’s wrong to say that SATs play a major role in the accountability for SEND spending and/or pupil progress.

There is no purpose for SATs in the education of pupils with special educational needs, especially those with learning difficulties. Worse than that, they can have damaging perverse consequences: they can narrow the curriculum; dissuade schools from being truly inclusive; and pull us away from better methods of accountability for spending decisions.

“The use of SATs as an accountability yardstick, as an indicator of school quality,
as a way of collecting meaningful data, is flawed and corrosive”

Schools should be able to use SATs for their own internal assessments, for those pupils able to access the tests. But the use of SATs as an accountability yardstick, as an indicator of school quality, as a way of collecting meaningful data, is flawed and corrosive.

And all of this is made even worse by the compilation of ‘best schools’ tables in both local and national media.

Another bad choice.

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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