Wading through my inbox, I came across an email asking me to sign an open letter to the Schools Minister and Secretary of State for Education, urging them to cancel SATs in 2021.
It’s certainly not the first time that school leaders have voiced strong opposition to these national assessments. However, this time the argument focused on the impact of Covid-19 and how SATs have no place in the middle of a pandemic.
This intrigued me because, actually, what we all crave at the moment is a bit of normality. And SATs, whether you love them or hate them, are a normal part of school life. So what, I wondered, are the benefits of scrapping SATs in 2021? And is there a way to address these concerns without cancelling them entirely?
Reasons to cancel SATs
In the current world of disruption and ongoing uncertainty that we find ourselves in, some leaders argue that SATs are not beneficial to the child, teacher or school.
After a difficult year, teachers are concerned that SATs will cause additional stress to children, on top of the ongoing pressures of Covid-19. Children have had very different experiences during lockdown. Many have missed months of learning. Is preparing them for a national test the most productive use of their – and their teacher’s – time?
We’re still living in uncertain times and future local lockdowns or outbreaks in schools could mean that some children have more time away from the classroom than others. This makes it difficult to ensure a level playing field. There’s also the risk that local outbreaks in May could mean that some children don’t get to take their SATs at all.
There has been a huge disparity in experiences of schools across the country because of factors beyond their control – the communities they serve, digital poverty, local outbreaks. If punitive accountability is attached to SATs results, they may feel unfairly judged.
Punitive accountability has also led, in the past, to too many incidents of maladministration of tests and this may increase. This could, in turn, cause secondary schools to disregard the levels the children arrive at the school with, effectively undermining one of the key purposes of the test in the first place.
Reasons not to cancel SATs
Schools should be accountable for pupil’s progress and SATs can provide a useful indicator of this, benchmarked nationally. This data enables Ofsted to pose questions about performance on behalf of the children. SATs help parents understand how their children are progressing and if they need any additional support. They give primary schools an indication of progress and areas they need to focus on and they provide secondary schools with a more accurate picture of what potential gaps children have when they arrive.
Whether we, as teachers and leaders, like them or not, most children simply accept SATs as part of school life. This has been echoed by many of the Year 6 pupils at our schools who say they still want them to go ahead. To them, SATs are a rite of passage – like the class photo, school play or end of year disco. And if they’re cancelled, it’s just another example of how far from normal life is right now.
It’s important we remember that children are delighted to be back at school. They just want to crack on with their learning and for the majority of them, SATs are not a concern. Children don’t – or at least they shouldn’t – care about the results. SATs are simply something they do and if they are feeling under pressure then their school is not doing it right. Yes, some children have had difficult experiences during lockdown and need support, but this should be dealt with individually, not by cancelling SATs altogether.
Even if schools or bubbles are sent home, national requirements for good home learning following a sequential curriculum delivery, coupled with laptops for those who need it, should minimise the disruption of any periods away from school.
Finding the right balance
It has been one of the toughest years in the history of education and schools are facing ongoing uncertainty. To many, the prospect of preparing for SATs is an unnecessary disruption. Instead, there has been a lot of focus on a ‘recovery curriculum’.
But what does this mean in practice? Fundamentally, children need – and want – to get back to normal learning and normal life. Our world has been turned upside down but children still grow up and life still goes on. Primary schools still need to know where to focus resources and secondary schools still need to understand where their new intake is at.
The issue will be if the same level of accountability is applied to all schools, when they have had very different experiences during lockdown based on factors beyond their control. Schools shouldn’t be punished if, because of this, children are not at the expected level. What’s more important is how they have progressed since returning to school.
Ofsted needs to acknowledge this and recognise that some schools’ results will not be as high as they might have been because of lost learning, which we know has hit some communities more than others. Schools should also be able to apply for special consideration including pupils’ experiences during Covid-19.
There is still a place for SATs in 2021 as long as future judgements of the school take into account the experiences of children during lockdown, including safeguarding consideration and digital poverty, what the schools did to support their communities with home learning, and the progress made in closing any gaps since schools have reopened fully.
If we can succeed on this basis, then SATs can play an important role in understanding pupils’ progress, readiness for secondary school and where we need to focus resources.
Five tips to prepare children for SATs
- Go slowly. Carefully build preparation up throughout the year, with teachers using the same language and style of SATs papers within the normal delivery of the curriculum. Weave extra support to those who need it into the daily curriculum input, little and often.
- Provide regular, low stakes testing across the curriculum, where children mark their own work. Google Classroom is useful for this. Set daily quick, low stakes tests in maths and SPAG.
- Review topics covered every three weeks to commit learning to long term memory.
- Increase exposure to rich language through whole class texts. Children need to be excited about what they are reading, we want them to fall in love with the books.
- Make mental health and wellbeing part of the school’s culture, a regular classroom topic not a taboo subject. Provide counselling onsite for those who need it.
Matthew Kleiner-Mann is Leader of the Ivy Learning Trust, a family of eight primary schools in Enfield and Hertfordshire.