Corbyn’s promise to abolish Sats is merely a crowd pleaser

A few years ago, not long after Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party, I took part in a packed fringe meeting at the Labour conference. The subject was “Where next for Labour party education policy?” The Guardian reports.

This week, year 6 children are yet again sitting the tests, more than 20 years since they were introduced and less than a month after the Labour leader did indeed announce that Sats would be abolished if he came to power.

To a rousing response from the National Education Union conference, Jeremy Corbyn explained that a Labour government would introduce alternative forms of primary assessment that would mark an end to overworked teachers and stressed pupils. Children would be prepared for life, not exams, and standards would rise by freeing teachers to teach. Really?

The high stakes and intensely competitive nature of English schooling drives unethical behaviour by some school leaders and degrades the education experiences of too many children. Problems with recruitment and retention are inevitably fuelled by a negative culture in schools, where exam performance trumps all else.

But none of this is new and the problem for Labour and other anti-testing campaigners is that Sats don’t exist in a vacuum. They are just one cog in a deeply rooted choice-based public education system that also comprises judgments about the curriculum, qualifications, and what we mean by a good education. The principal secondary school performance measure, progress 8, rests on the foundation of Sats. Is Jeremy Corbyn planning to rip that up as well?

When I described, to a young mother at the Labour conference, the culture in my children’s primary school in 1993, before league tables and Ofsted, where some teachers believed a diet of music and art was sufficient, and more than half of children left school with inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy, she was temporarily lost for words. It seemed an unrecognisable world.

Remembering what many schools were like turns me into a crusader for accountability, which has almost certainly contributed to the fact that we have far fewer failing schools today. Hideous as being “named and shamed” by Ofsted was – when the first league tables were published our school was third from bottom and fewer than 40% of children achieved an acceptable level in maths – it was a powerful incentive to improve.

Read the full article Corbyn’s promise to abolish Sats is merely a crowd pleaser

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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  1. Mr Mike Bell

    The problem is not assessment itself, it is what is done with the results.
    If the assessments are public and used as metrics to name, shame, fire, stress etc, the student or the teachers, then their effect is negative.
    If however, the students can take the same assessment and get positive outcomes:
    * the figures are used to help the student learn (by knowing their prior Knowledge), then that’s a positive.
    * the collective figures for the school can be used as guides to developing the skills of the teachers and school-leaders

    Clearly there needs to be some level of ‘stick’ there, but this can be private (until enacted).

    The author is correct that before OFSTED some school were terrible (i went to one for a year). We cannot go back to no assessment.

  2. Anonymous

    This is the letter I wrote to the TES in November 1997 on the reliability of KS2 results: “I support entirely Mike Ollerton’s scepticism about the Mathematics KS2 test results (TES, 7.11.97), but would go further in my criticism of their usefulness or accuracy.

    For many years my secondary school has used NFER tests with all new year 7 pupils. In addition, the Mathematics Department uses the SMILE entry guides, which are National Curriculum referenced, together with a series of activities to reach an initial teacher assessment.

    In the first year, when I received the KS2 results, the NFER test results and our initial teacher assessments, I compared the three sets of results and found that although the NFER results agreed broadly with our own teacher assessments, the KS2 results averaged approximately 1 NC level higher. Subsequent experience showed that, if we had used the KS2 results as a guide to set work, the students would not have been able to do it. In fact, it would take students at least a year to attain their KS2 level.

    I have not actually repeated this exercise as thoroughly as I did in the first year, but it is still true to say that our own assessments are broadly in line with NFER, whereas the KS2 results are markedly higher. In fact, this year I think the problem is much more marked. With one of my year 7s (I haven’t checked the other) the average combined SAT and TA for the class is 3.7, whereas my average initial TA is 2.3.

    The reason for this worsening situation is very worrying. At first students performed well across more or less a whole NC level. This meant that if students could do most work at, say, level 3, they were probably solid on level 2 and could do only bits of level 4, but no level 5.

    This year, for the first time, I have students who are able to do quite a lot of work at level 4/5, but who have large gaps in core work at level 2/3. This is particularly true if the results for AT2 are compared with AT3 but is also true within the Attainment Targets.

    Thus, my concern is that the teaching to tests is being based on the exam techniques we all learned: don’t attempt to know all the syllabus; just learn part of it well. The difficulty for us in secondary schools is to decide which part of the syllabus has each primary school decided to teach.

    Like Mike Ollerton, I find it hardly surprising that primary schools feel pressurised in trying to maximise their KS2 results but am concerned about the long term damage being done by performance tables.”

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