SATs: testing children is not ‘child abuse’

Exams are an important means of assessment. But New Labour has turned them into a tool to micro-manage schools.

David Perks

Topics Politics

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The English schools examination system is heading for near meltdown for the second year in succession, as two of the largest teaching unions have decided to ballot their members over the boycotting of the primary school tests at ages seven and 11.

On Saturday, 94 per cent of delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) conference backed a motion to ballot the association’s members for a boycott of the National Curriculum assessments (usually referred to as ‘SATs’) in primary schools in 2010. The motion was carried despite an address by Ed Balls, secretary of state for education, who called the action ‘irresponsible’. The vote exposes the collapse of faith in the New Labour administration and leaves the government’s education policy in tatters. But is it really wrong to test primary school children?

Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the union celebrated ‘the NAHT’s historic vote to end the tyranny of testing’ (1). Does this mean that primary school heads don’t believe in testing pupils? How did we get into a situation in which head teachers are arguing against measuring the performance of pupils based on written examinations?

As Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), put it: ‘We want an end of SATs because they are bad for children, bad for teachers and bad for the education service.’ Blower went on to say: ‘We are not against assessment. What we want is assessment that is meaningful, assessment that is more accurate, and assessment that focuses on what children can do, rather than stigmatising them as failures for the things they can’t do.’ (2) Blower is happy to blame national tests for undermining children’s self-esteem and detracting from their education.

Bill Greenshields, outgoing NUT president, went so far as to declare: ‘We will end this child abuse.’ (3) But equating national tests with institutionalised ‘child abuse’ just reveals how little we believe children are capable of.

It is worth remembering that testing a child’s knowledge and understanding has always been a part of what teachers do. It is crucial to a child’s intellectual development to be able to judge their own performance against their peers. Examinations have always been inextricably linked to public education. The whole point of putting a child under pressure at key moments in their education is to give them the chance to show publicly what they have learnt and understood about their studies. Without the pressure of having to explain yourself, how can you confront the inadequacies in your knowledge and understanding?

Examinations should be a celebration of a pupil’s successes and a chance to push them on to do better. Being judged against your peers has always been the best ruler to use to measure your performance. The sitting of public examinations provides a simple way of providing schools with such a measure and clearly puts a child’s achievements into perspective.

The trouble is that the National Curriculum assessment tests being run this summer are not educational tools. They are political tools. The government is reluctant to let go of SATs not because of their educational value, but because they are its primary weapon for putting pressure on schools to improve standards and manage the educational system. The reason the tests are really so reviled by heads and teachers is because they give politicians the power to micro-manage schools.

SATs results have become high-stakes instruments for making schools accountable to an ever-more centralised educational bureaucracy. Achieving the targets handed out from government is now the main driving force behind educational policy at the school level. Failure to do so means that the school will receive a poor rating from government inspectors, ultimately putting the jobs of head teachers and teachers on the line. It is no surprise, then, to see that meeting the targets has come to dominate the day-to-day running of schools.

But in the rush to chase targets, educational priorities are swept aside. Teaching to the test may have come to dominate pupils’ experience of the last year of primary school, but this is driven by the capitulation of schools to the pressure to meet targets rather than a desire to get the best out of children. This is not the fault of testing per se, but of an over-centralised system of assessment and accountability that increasingly works on the assumption that the central control of every aspect of education is the only way to guarantee standards and force through the government’s agenda. But paradoxically, the more effectively the centre dictates what happens in schools, the less room there is for the professional judgment of teachers and the less effective intervention becomes.

Despite the almost universal acknowledgement that the quality of a school system depends first and foremost on the quality of its teachers (4), the government seems insistent that teachers cannot be trusted to make judgments about children’s education.

A quick look at the National Strategies website at the DCSF will reveal just how minutely all aspects of school performance are dictated from the centre (5). Every aspect of teaching and learning as part of the National Curriculum is spelt out here for teachers and schools to follow. In fact, the NAHT and the NUT would do well to consider that their demand for teacher assessment to replace national testing means an even tighter control of what teachers do in the classroom and how pupils are assessed.

The new programme for Key Stage 3 (ages 11 to 14) that replaces the SATs which collapsed last summer in secondary schools is called Assessing Pupil’s Performance (APP) (6). This programme explicitly advocates not testing pupils as a means of assessing their performance. Instead pupils are tracked individually against the leveled criteria set down for each aspect of their learning. This straitjacket of assessment locks the pupil into a way of working dictated by their prior assessment. Teaching and assessment become interchangeable and blur into one continuous process. The object of the exercise is to produce teacher assessment that can be trusted. That is, teacher assessment dictated completely from a central bureaucracy.

The other major teaching union, the National Union of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) has seen this coming, and it doesn’t like it. As Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, put it: ‘Abolishing SATs and leaving the current league tables and inspection regime in place will simply plunge teachers even deeper into the nightmare world they already inhabit of hugely bureaucratic, workload-intensive assessment and lesson planning.’ (7) The union agreed to ballot their members at their national conference to reject replacing the SATs with teacher assessment on the grounds that it will mean an increased workload for teachers.

Sadly, like King Canute, there is no chance of the NASUWT resisting the tide. However, at least they can see which way the water is coming. It certainly isn’t in the direction of a better education for pupils or greater autonomy for teachers.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow said national school tests are not child abuse and urged: Forget this endless exam reform – bring back education. Emily Hill said that, when it comes to school tests, a bit of stress is good for you. Joanna Williams wrote about teachers, targets and theatre trips. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) NAHT press statement, Mick Brookes

(2) Assessment reform: Good for children, good for education,, 30 April 2009

(3) Legal dispute over Sats boycott, BBC News, 10 April 2009

(4) Teaching Matters: Attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers, OECD, 2005 see Chapter 2 summary

(5) The National Strategies, DCSF

(6) Getting to grips with Assessing Pupils’ Progress, DCSF

(7) Scrap tables not Sats, union says, BBC News, 16 April 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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