22nd January 2020

Too many tests for no good reason: parents stand against primary school testing

Our latest research demonstrates that the majority of parents disagree with the government’s policy of using SATs and other formal tests to judge primary schools, according to new research. In sharp contrast to the government’s position, parents do not prioritise the data generated by the tests to make decisions about their children’s education and do not believe the current system is a fair way to measure schools.

YouGov surveyed 2028 parents of children in state primary schools in England* to investigate their views on the current assessment regime. The resulting report – Too many tests for no good reason – can be downloaded here.

The report’s findings include:

  • Only 4% of parents surveyed are aware of the extent of government testing in primary schools.
  • Only 16% of parents believe it is fair to use SATs and other formal tests to measure a school. Parents would prefer schools to be judged on the happiness of pupils, not test results.
  • Only one in four parents consider SATs results when choosing a primary school – 8th in a list of factors. League tables are ranked 10th.

Parents also believe that pupils have to sit too many government tests and the current system has a negative effect on both school and family life.

  • 73% of parents surveyed think children are under too much pressure because of government testing.
  • 61% agree there is too much standardised assessment in primary schools.
  • 44% believe SATs had a negative impact on their child’s well-being and almost one in three believe they affected family life negatively.

Dr Alice Bradbury of the UCL Institute of Education writes, in a foreword to the report, “…the underlying premise of parents as consumers in a market-based system is failing. Information is being created which parents do not appear to trust, or need, when choosing a school; while the process of producing these data is seen as damaging to children’s well-being by those who know them best.”

What do parents look for in a school?

Government league tables, SATs results and Ofsted inspections have gained a high profile over recent decades. However, this research demonstrates that parents pay less attention to these measures than policy-makers might believe.

When asked which factors would influence the choice of school for their child, just 25% of parents surveyed are influenced by a school’s SATs results which means this factor ranks 8th in a list of considerations. The school’s position in league tables came in 10th position (23%) while the school’s Ofsted ranking came in fourth place (53%).

The most popular consideration for parents is “teachers that care about their pupils and inspire them to learn” (77%) while parents’ own instincts score highly (72%) along with recommendations from other parents (62%).

How should schools be measured by the government?

Rather than looking for data-driven test results, parents in the survey believe children’s overall well-being and a broad curriculum should be paramount when the government is measuring schools.

The most important factor for parents is how happy pupils are at school, cited by 63% of parents in the survey. In sharp contrast, only 12% believe schools should be measured on the basis of standardised tests taken under exam conditions, and only 11% think pupils’ performance in English and maths only is a fair way to measure schools.

In light of this, it’s no surprise that only 16% of parents believe it’s right that children have to sit tests under exam conditions to measure a school’s overall performance.

What do parents think about standardised testing?

One of the most striking features of the research is that the parents surveyed are unaware of the extent of government testing in primary schools. From September 2020, there will be statutory assessments in five out of seven primary years.**

Across the board, respondents under-estimated the quantity of standardised tests. Only 4% correctly stated that there are tests in five out of seven primary years.

Having been made aware of the extent of government testing in primary schools, almost two-thirds (61%) agree that there is too much standardised assessment. In addition, 73% agree that children are under too much pressure because of standardised testing and fewer than one in three parents (29%) believe that SATs and other formal tests are a good way to measure how well their children are doing overall at school.

The negative effects of standardised testing

Parents also have serious concerns about the preparation their children undergo for formal government tests, and its subsequent effect on the curriculum. Over three-quarters of those surveyed (76%) believe that spending time preparing for tests does not inspire a love of learning in children, while over two-thirds (67%) do not want their child to spend time preparing intensively and 79% do not want the time spent on arts, music or sport reduced in the run-up to SATs or other tests.

However, the negative effects of children sitting formal tests and thereby carrying the burden for the overall performance of a school reach beyond the curriculum and the classroom. Almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents agree children are under too much pressure because of standardised testing and over half (52%) believe that — as parents — they too feel under pressure to ensure their children do well in formal tests.

SATs: pressure at school and at home

The most high-profile primary school tests are Key Stage 2 SATs, taken in year 6 by 10- and 11-year-olds. Parents*** of these children feel the pressure of standardised testing perhaps most of all. Two-thirds of respondents (66% ) agree that their child was under pressure to get good marks and over half (57%) say their child was anxious or nervous about taking SATs.

This pressure is not limited to the classroom: 44% believe SATs had a negative impact on their child’s emotional well-being while 30% of parents agree that SATs had a negative impact on the well-being of their family as a whole.

Dr Alice Bradbury concludes, “Parents’ views should raise some serious concerns about the current system. I hope, as a parent and a researcher, that these findings cause policy-makers to reflect on whether, with this current testing regime, the pain is worth the gain.”

Sara Tomlinson of More Than A Score comments, “It is now clear that parents’ priorities are not reflected in government policy. It’s time to overhaul a system which lets children down and works against their chances of experiencing high-quality learning.

“The government may argue that ‘standards’ are improving but this claim is based on narrow tests taken under exam conditions. A recent international study (Pisa 2018) demonstrated that the drive towards to high-pressure testing has come at a serious cost: children in England were found to have among the lowest levels of life satisfaction.
“Parents want to be reassured about the quality of their children’s education. They want a broad curriculum and inspiring teaching. They do not want their children to be subjected to unnecessary testing purely for the purposes of gathering data to create league tables.

“We need to ensure that our education system is one that focuses on developing skills in our young people and cultivates a love of learning for life, not simply on cramming them with facts. The government must now listen to those who know children best – educators, experts and, above all, parents.”

* All figures, unless otherwise stated are from YouGov plc. Total sample size was 2028 adults with children aged 3 – 13 in state primary education. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12th – 18th November 2019. The survey was carried out online.

** From September 2020, there will be statutory assessments in five out of seven primary years. These are:
The reception baseline assessment in reception.
The phonics screening check in year 1.
Key Stage 1 statutory assessments (KS1 SATs), including papers in English and maths, in year 2.
The multiplication tables check in year 4.
Key Stage 2 statutory assessments (KS2 SATs): a week of papers in English and maths taken under exam conditions in year 6.

*** Figures from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 859 parents of children 10-13 not at an independent school or PRU in England who have taken SATs.


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