The crisis in primary assessment


Recognising the deep concerns of primary teachers about the conduct and effects of the Government’s new system for assessing primary pupils, the Union conducted a survey to capture the full extent of teachers’ views and experiences.

The survey was sent to NUT members who are head teachers and teachers in primary schools, in the week of 16th May, following this year’s Key Stage 2 SATs.

6,613 members replied, of which 918 were head teachers or senior leaders.

Respondents were asked for responses to 13 questions on a 5-point scale that ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” In addition, they were encouraged to respond with additional “write-in” comments. More than 5,000 such comments were collated.

On key issues, the survey reveals strong and widely-shared views about primary assessment at KS1 and KS2, going well beyond concerns with the SATs. Inevitably, strong concerns are expressed about the Department for Education’s management of the assessment process. But teachers’ criticisms extend to far more than the issues of maladministration. Teachers think that:

  • fundamental aspects of primary assessment are wrong, and that they have very negative effects on the primary curriculum and on children’s experience of education: many teachers fear that their pupils’ attitude to learning has been permanently damaged.
  • that their own workload has risen further, with consequences for their morale, health and family life.
  • data from 2016 assessments, inaccurate and valid as it is, will be used to judge their schools as ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’, and thus vulnerable to conversion into academies. 


97% of teachers disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that primary assessment arrangements in 2016 have been well managed by the DfE. Their “write-in” comments are strongly worded. “Shambles” or “shambolic” are used more than 100 times. “Chaos”, “fiasco”, “farce” and “disgrace” are frequently employed. Teachers single out a number of issues: ever-changing and contradictory guidelines, late communications, leaked test papers, and very high demands on teacher workload. Many teachers feel that mismanagement reflects a contemptuous attitude towards teachers on the part of the DfE, which offers no self-criticism or apology. Typical comments include:

“How on earth am I supposed to keep up with these forever-changing goalposts, no matter how hard I try?”

“Shambolic! Teachers would never get away with such late and badly organised affairs. If teachers are given information late then how do we expect children to jump through these highly put hoops?”

“It has been farcical from start to finish, the level of incompetency at the very top only matched by the arrogant disregard of our profession’s concerns. Shameful.”

“Farcical is putting it politely. It has been incredibly stressful for Year 6 teachers: I have had teachers in my team in tears and ill as a result.”

Curriculum damage

It is not just the DfE’s management of the assessment process which is the object of severe criticism. On a number of key issues concerning the content and effects of assessment, teachers feel just as strongly.

97% of teachers agree or strongly agree that preparation for the SATs has had a negative impact on children’s access to a broad and balanced curriculum. Respondents report a situation in which the time taken to prepare children for tests in Maths and English, or to provide work for teacher assessment in these subjects, has squeezed out other subjects and activities. Typical comments include:

“This year children have not been given sufficient time to learn what was expected of them. In order to try and meet these new requirements, teaching of other subjects was completely sidelined.”

“I have only taught literacy and numeracy since Christmas.”

“When asked their favourite subject they say English or Maths because they don’t know anything else.”

The comments frequently underline the costs of a narrow emphasis on core subjects:

“Children need to be creative, play music, paint, compete in sports, run, swim, sculpt, perform, work together. This is fundamental to their development, growth and well-being. SATs and the new expectations regarding primary age children’s achievements do not allow for these vital elements of their life to flourish.”

The SPaG tests in spelling, punctuation and grammar are likewise criticised for the way they skew the curriculum away from complex, motivating learning towards simplistic and unengaging activity. 74% of teachers think that the SPaG tests do not support the development of children’s writing, and many teachers took time to set out their criticisms:

“It is important to teach children spelling, punctuation and grammar as part of teaching writing. At times it is necessary to teach these elements discretely but they are useless and of no value unless a child understands and is ready to use them within their own independent, creative and context based writing. The function of writing is to communicate with the reader. Spelling, grammar and punctuation help the writer in this communication process but they are of no value on their own. It is of no use a child being able to identify and explain the purpose of a fronted adverbial unless they can use it effectively in their own writing. The requirements of SPaG and its focus in the interim framework have led to children shoehorning all sorts of wonderful spelling, grammar and punctuation into their writing but with no real effect on the composition, meaning and value of the writing. This focus on SPaG is in danger of damaging the children’s creativity and belief in themselves as writers in such a way that a whole generation’s voice could be lost.”

Demands which are inappropriate

In addition to narrowing children’s experience of learning, teachers think the assessment system makes inappropriate demands of learners. As one teacher puts it, “whilst raising standards are at the heart of most teachers’ hopes for education, this year has seen unrealistic expectations forced upon children.” In some cases children can be drilled to meet the standards, but the knowledge they are “filled with” will not be retained, and their learning is therefore “constructed on sand.” 91% of teachers agree or strongly agree that the “Expected Standard” stipulated by the DfE in its guidance on teacher assessment is beyond the reach of the majority of children. They stress two issues in particular. First, some of the SATs were too difficult for most children. Secondly, the way that marking and assessment schemes were designed made it difficult to reach the “Expected Standard”: rather than a “best fit” being accepted between pupils’ work and a set of assessment criteria, pupils had to meet each one of a detailed set of criteria, relating not just to the category for which they were being considered, but also to lower categories on an assessment ladder. Unmet criteria meant that a “grade” could not be awarded.  

“Even high ability children in my class aren’t hitting the Expected Standard. Not because they aren’t good enough but because we are struggling to find evidence. They can write complex sentences and use similes etc. but because they haven't got enough forced sentences such as ‘what a surprise!’ they may not even meet the expected level let alone be above as they would have been in previous years.”

“I think that many children, who have tried their utmost, are going to be very disappointed to find that they are ‘working towards.’ I think this is because the element of ‘best fit’ has been removed and children have to fulfil all criteria in ‘working towards’ before they can move onto the ‘working at’ criteria. I think that this has been one of the most difficult things to come to grips with this year.”

“Many of the things being tested are just simply beyond the children’s level of development. Some of the things they can learn, but actually don’t fully understand – for example, some children can learn ‘tricks’ to spot passive voice, but don’t actually grasp why the sentence is passive and what that means.”

In these conditions, teachers feared their pupils would become further demotivated: “Even bright kids feel like they’re failures.”

Effects on pupils

90% of teachers think that changes to primary assessment this year have had a negative impact on children’s experience at school. Expressing the damage that the new system has done to pupils, teachers write of demoralisation, demotivation, and physical and mental distress – whose effects, they predict, will be lasting.
“Despite all my reassurances that ‘the most important thing is that you try your best’ and extra PSHCE lessons, extra circle time and support from our school counsellor, the children’s confidence has taken a nose-dive. Some children have felt so anxious about the tests that they have struggled to sleep, experienced nightmares or a disturbed and broken night’s sleep.”
“We have had a massive increase in social, emotional and mental health issues this year. It has been reported that teachers and schools are to blame for this, but we have not designed a curriculum and testing for which most of our children are not emotionally or developmentally ready for. Our children are being set up to fail! Ministers don’t seem to realise that there are children at the end of these tests. They are only concerned with measuring teacher accountability.”

“Many of the children who previously enjoyed school now detest education. This is a crime and a shame because, in its incompetence, the Government is willingly and knowingly making children hate learning with a passion, rather than harbour an environment of lifelong learning.”

Even those who write of their efforts to mitigate the effects of the assessment system see their work as an uphill battle:

“The staff I work with have done wonders to capture and maintain the children’s interest and engagement in preparing for SATs but they are not miracle workers and all their efforts can only go so far.”

In addition to these general effects, teachers think that the new system adversely affects particular groups. 97% of teachers think that children with special educational needs and disabilities are disadvantaged. They note with passionate concern the effects of the assessment system on these pupils.

“This test system makes a mockery of an integrated mainstream school system, leaving children feeling left out, different and disenfranchised.”

“It is difficult to watch children’s needs go unmet as teachers’ time is spent working to prepare those who could pass the new requirements. With funding and resources dwindling at all times (our own school budget dropping significantly next year) I am certain that the situation will continue to get worse and we will fail those children most in need of our support.”

“Children with SEN are being cut adrift as they are bombarded with SATs preparation. Self-confidence; demoralising; self-esteem; what future?”

There are many comments on the experiences of children with dyslexia. Some are general: “dyslexic children frequently heard saying they are rubbish.” Others focused poignantly on individuals:

“I have a severely dyslexic boy in my class who cannot achieve ‘Expected Standard’ only because of his spelling. As he ‘can’t’ spell in the eyes of the Government, he believes that he is not good enough and will never be able to achieve in writing despite my best efforts to convince him that isn’t the case. It infuriates and frustrates me, as a teacher with 13 years’ experience, that children at the age of 10 and 11 years old think of themselves as failures because of the ridiculous standards that are imposed on them by the new curriculum.”

Likewise, 84% are concerned about the effect on EAL pupils, for whom English is an additional language, and 74% are concerned about the effects on summer-born children.

Within the “write-in” responses, there are many remarks about the way that assessment impedes, rather than supports, the learning of EAL pupils:

“EAL children (as well as other children who do not have English modelled well at home for them) need to be able to have lots of opportunity to talk and listen. This time is being lost, as so much time needs to be spent providing written evidence. Ensuring the children can use language involving subordinating and co-ordinating conjunctions at Year 2 seems irrelevant if the children do not know the meaning of more common words.”

Year 2 teachers, in particular, comment on the effects on summer-born children in terms like these:

“Summer-born children need time to ‘catch up.’  However there is no longer the time or opportunity to ensure this can happen. The push to meet targets in schools is resulting in tired, stressed Reception children.”

Impact on teachers’ work

86% of teachers agree or strongly agree that changes to primary assessment in 2016 have led to a significant increase in their workload. Some of this work relates directly to the demands of assessment:

“We’re already working desperately hard to monitor data and prove beyond all doubt that we are doing what we should be doing. Working beyond midnight and on weekends and holidays is considered the norm.”

Alongside these demands, many teachers say they face others: they continue, against the odds, to provide a broad and motivating curriculum for their pupils. As one head teacher comments:

“My staff drive themselves to the edge of exhaustion to ensure that learning remains relevant and engaging for their pupils.”

The effects of working so intensely, in a badly designed system, are mounting up, both physically and emotionally:

“I now work a 72 hour week.”

“I have never felt negatively about my job until this year. I have been teaching for 17 years.”

“Workload not sustainable. Either I’ll leave the profession or I will need to visit my GP.”

“To try and get as many children as I can to ‘expected’ I have had to teach mainly Maths and English. These children are 7 years old. I hate what I am having to do to them. I came into [work with] children to inspire them to learn. Breaks my heart.”

The misuse of pupil assessment to measure the performance of schools

88% of teachers are concerned about what 2016’s test results will mean for the future of their school.
“I am worried that my results will not be good enough and will trigger an Ofsted. It will be another way to place blame on the teachers and try to convert more school into academies.”

“I don’t have any faith in the validity of these results, but they will still be used to judge us and find us wanting.”

Many teachers stress that it is the fear of how the results will be used that pushes them to teach in ways that they would otherwise avoid.

“Overwhelmed by what we have had to do to them and disgusted with this Government’s inability to listen to people who are passionate about teaching.”

“I have found myself spending endless amounts of time teaching children exam technique instead of encouraging and developing their love of learning through a balanced curriculum. I have in effect been made to turn out a class of robots who have become disheartened, demotivated and switched off from their learning. How is this meant to build self-esteem and raise standards?”

“Confused and stressed teachers leads to poorer quality experiences for children. How could it be otherwise? We’ve done our very best to protect children from the damaging effects of these assessments but we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If we don’t play the game we face forced academisation for poor results or being a coasting school. It’s a no-win situation for teachers. We have just tried to do as much damage limitation as we can.”


Ministers seek to brush off reports like these as exaggerated responses to the troubles of a system that is just bedding in. This cannot be accepted. Teachers are identifying fundamental problems with primary assessment that are blighting the experience of pupils and the quality of their learning. 

This is why the National Union of Teachers, reflecting professional opinion, is calling for the results of 2016 assessments to be set aside, and not to be used for accountability purposes, now or in the future. It is also why the Union is calling on the DfE to recognise the depth of the problems it faces, and to re-think: parents, pupils and teachers need an assessment system that supports children’s learning. To arrive at such a system requires consultation on a much wider scale than the DfE recognises. Yet that is the only way in which a lasting solution to worsening problems can be found.