10th May 2024

The SATs Effect: Year 6 teachers reveal the “toxic”, “horrible” effects of government tests

  • Nine in 10 classes doing practice papers under exam conditions

  • One in ten classes devote three hours of every school day to test preparation

  • Two-thirds of teachers say children are feeling anxious

  • Year-long pressure for pupils and schools in deprived areas

  • “I feel like an actual dictator”

Maths test papers every morning; cramming grammar; no time for other subjects and children worrying about failure – year 6 teachers have revealed the reality of preparing 10- and 11-year-olds for government SATs.

The SATs Effect, a new report based on research from UCL IOE, Faculty of Education and Society, and Teacher Tapp, commissioned by campaign group More Than A Score, reveals that the final year of primary is dominated by preparation for SATs with negative effects on teaching as well as pupil and teacher wellbeing.

As schools are measured on the data provided by the test scores, pressure on teachers is inevitably passed on to pupils. In the final stretch before the tests, almost nine in ten (87%) of classes were doing practice papers under exam conditions. Summing up their experience, one teacher commented, “I feel like an actual dictator…I don’t know how else I’m going to get them there.”

Report author Dr Laura Quick comments that the report highlights, “the extent to which the need to achieve good SATs results shapes year 6: they affect what and how teachers teach, they affect teachers, and they affect children themselves.”

How SATs impact what is taught in year 6

SATs dominate teaching throughout year 6. Research carried out in December, showed that 20% of teachers surveyed were doing more than three hours preparation a week for SATs. By April, 38% were doing over six hours and one in 10 schools (11%) reported over 15 hours test preparation a week – equivalent to three hours every day.

This need to prepare for the tests in English and maths leads to a narrowing of the curriculum. In April over half of teachers (54%) reported that they had squeezed the timetable. As one teacher explained, “PSHE, computing, other subjects, PE…just went out of the window”.

How SATs impact how teachers teach

As the school year progresses, teachers experience increasing pressure to deliver results – 64% reported feeling this way in April. Delivering the entire curriculum in just over two terms ahead of SATs week means the opportunity to “delve deep” is lost, with one teacher commenting on the need to move “at more speed thinking I’ve got to get these things covered” and “all the good practice…is pushed out…which is ridiculous”.

In March, 19% of teachers reported ‘teaching to the test’. By April, with SATs just around the corner, this figure has shot up to 55%. Others described having to focus on speed, in order to complete the tests under strict exam conditions, as “stressful” and “horrible” for children who are struggling.

Pupils who are behind their peers become an increasingly urgent focus. In December 67% of teachers were delivering interventions for these children, a number which rose to 84% by April. Often these focus on borderline or ‘cusp’ pupils – those just below the ‘expected standard’ or ‘greater depth’ mark.

Unfortunately, the pressure to focus on these pupils means there often simply isn’t time for lower attainers, arguably those who need most attention. One teacher reported that lower attainers “don’t get the same level of teaching as those that are getting 99” (one mark below the ‘expected standard’).

How SATs impact children

Despite teachers’ best efforts — “We try not to make it a scary thing” — as the school year progresses, year 6 pupils become increasingly worried about failing. In December, 43% reported children feeling anxious about SATs, rising to 63% in April.

Additionally, almost a third of teachers (32%) agreed that SATs preparation has a negative effect on pupil engagement: “it just kills their enthusiasm” comments one teacher.

The report also highlights the significant difference in SATs preparation in deprived catchments as measured by the proportion of children on free school meals. In March, only a small proportion of schools in affluent areas (13%) were spending more than six hours per week on SATs preparation but this figure rose steeply to 40% of schools in the most deprived catchments. By April, however, more affluent schools were catching up, with 37% doing more than six hours prep as compared to 55% in deprived catchments. In other words, while children in more deprived catchments are affected by SATs for more of the school year, those in affluent catchments still experienced intense preparation in the weeks before the test.

Dr Laura Quick concludes, “These findings add further weight to concerns that Key Stage 2 SATs dominate the last year of primary school. The teachers we spoke to believe the high stakes nature of SATs has led to toxic effects, putting the need to supply data to the government before the needs of pupils. Ultimately this can only negatively affect primary education as a whole.”

Alison Ali, spokesperson for More Than A Score comments, “The body of evidence showing the harmful consequences of SATs continues to grow. Year 6 teachers are on the frontline, trying their very best to give pupils a fulfilling and inspiring last year of primary school but, at every turn, they are hampered by a system which puts data before love of learning and ultimately brands over 40% of children as failures before they start secondary school. The time for change is long overdue.”

Teacher Tapp research: surveys of over 1200 year 6 teachers and school leaders carried our in December 2023, March 2024 and April 2024

UCL IOE – Faculty of Education and Society’s research: Interviews conducted in February and March with ten year 6 teachers from across the country, for which ethical approval was gained from the UCL Ethics Review Board.


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