SATs’ effects on children’s education: who cares?

13 July 2017

A Curriculum for All?

Occasionally, as I guess many people do, my wife and I think about doing something radically different. How about taking the kids on a world tour?

It might be a little disruptive to their education – it would certainly interrupt our careers – but surely this would be balanced by the huge learning opportunities in such a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

But when to do it? Well, if we had only one child, there would be an overwhelming candidate: year six. The reason seems obvious: this will be the least enriching of any year at primary, as the school is forced – from our child’s point of view – to waste time on cramming for tests, the results of which are insignificant for her.

How did we get into such a situation, where a set of high-stakes accountability measures can become so important to a school that they end up damaging the very thing that education policymaking should surely be here to safeguard: the quality of a child’s learning experience?

There will be some who say that children can and do experience a varied and engaging curriculum, even in year six. I have no evidence that this is not the case, by the way, in our daughter’s excellent primary, where the commitment and professionalism of her teachers and TAs so far have been superb.

But there is also copious evidence that, in many schools, non-tested subjects can be side-lined and SATs “revision” classes organised, even in the holidays. And all this for tests whose results should carry no major consequences for the child.

There will be others who argue that such results are important, from the pupil perspective. I wearily sighed “not again”, for example, on reading a TES piece last week. This seemed to argue that the results of SATs were important to pupils, as failing to meet the “expected standard” in them meant a reduced chance of doing well at GCSE.

Yes, children doing relatively badly at SATs tend to have a much-reduced statistical chance of good GCSEs. But that’s correlation, not causation: no-one has shown that it is SATs performance per se, rather than the underlying level of understanding a child may have of national curriculum subjects which the SATs then assess, or indeed any other underlying characteristics picked up by both SATs and GCSE results, which drive these figures.

To use the “SATs results are important” analysis and then make what seems the natural conclusion: let’s focus more on the SATs themselves, rather than the underlying quality of learning, seems both wrong and dangerous. I wrote about the correlation-versus-causation fallacy in relation to SATs results 10 years ago. It is depressing to see that, implicitly at least in that piece, it is still being trotted out.

It was interesting to see Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, warning last month that over-extensive test preparation may be damaging pupils’ learning in some schools, as the needs of institutions for better results were sometimes put ahead of priorities for the child.

What Ms Spielman’s speech didn’t acknowledge was the effect of government policy in driving such practice. In the past seven years, England’s mechanisms for reminding schools to focus as much as possible on test and exam results – making them very important for the school even though, in the case of SATs, this is out of kilter with their relevance for pupils – have grown.

Now, on top of league tables, performance pay, targets and Ofsted, we have an academy takeover regime whereby institutions can be handed over to new management, with test results seemingly the key measurement mechanism in decisions.

On that front, I wonder if many parents really want the level of instability inherent in a system of academy takeovers and “rebrokerages”: when schools are moved about between “sponsors”. (We were reminded of this last week, in a Schools Week story about the farce of institutions having their inspection records wiped on takeover.) Did anyone choose to ask the users of schools before this system was set up?

The answer to that final question is, of course, “no”, just as the actual effects of the accountability system on pupils’ experiences are never put at the forefront of any question as to what form that regime should take. Education policymaking, on this as on so many fronts, seems divorced from both a sense of reality and an ability to look beyond what seems to be its own internal logic to ask questions about the fundamentals of what it is trying to achieve.

As it stands, I doubt that world trip will materialise. The fact that we have two children makes these calculations more complicated, leaving aside any other practicalities. I hope the school can and does manage the SATs-preparation experience well.

But even to daydream about such a possibility is a reflection, I think, on how messed-up England’s policy priorities have become.

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