There is a larger debate we need to have about SATs

(c) dlisbona

Sam Burt

Last week, this year’s results for national curriculum tests, or ‘SATs‘, were published for almost all 11-year olds in England. They were closely followed by the now familiar refrains of the main teachers unions – which want to replace SATs with teacher assessment – and the schools minister – who highlighted the annual rise in the proportion of students achieving the level 4 standard in individual subjects, whilst restating his understandable concern that a third of primary pupils are finishing without attaining a level 4 across the board. 

But quite apart from the necessary debate about the integrity and validity of these figures, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that these tests are a political tool utilised by parties in government and in opposition to simplify national debates about education policy. At the same time, like so many target-based regimes in the public services, they are useful cover to hide behind and avoid a more imperative discussion about the damage that instrumentalism is causing right throughout our education system, because they have the veneer of being ‘objective’ and evidence-based. In fact, the flurry of analysis surrounding year-to-year fluctuations in SATs results tells us very little at all, because nobody really seems sure exactly what these figures really mean.

SATs tests were introduced along with the national curriculum at the start of the 1990s, with the aim of structuring primary and secondary schools along the provider/consumer model being embedded across the public services. Their ostensible purpose then remains the same today – providing data on pupils’ performance throughout their time in education that will enable the effectiveness of schools to be ranked, based on how far their intake progresses from start to finish (“contextualised” to account for external factors like mobility and socio-economic deprivation).

But the fundamental problem is that these sets of numbers are expected to serve multiple functions. For the government, they are supposedly a means of identifying successful and failing institutions (as defined by targets), and criteria for determining the allocation of funds. Yet they are also supposed to ’empower’ parents, who can use league tables (compiled from government data by media outlets) to make an informed choice about where to send their children, thereby injecting some quasi-market discipline to lift standards – ensuring “schools’ accountability”, in the words of Lord Bew’s review last year.

In which case, to whom are schools “accountable” to – parents, or the government? Or, to put it another way, parents as service ‘users’, or as citizens via their representatives? SATs statistics are both performance indicators and targets, and therein lies the dilemma – if school A performs better than school B, could this be because school A currently has a more pressing financial need? The debate we need to have is which of these ends we want to be served by “outcome” figures like SATs results.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am opposed to any rigorous, standardized testing for pupils finishing primary education. On the contrary, I acknowledge the need for parents to have some such information – alongside internal teacher assessment – to form a judgement about their child’s progress relative to his or her peers. But this is precisely what SATs are not, and were never intended to be. They are first and foremost a political tool, rendered unfit for performing their multiple functions because they contain a basic contradiction, reflecting the confused political thinking of the late Thatcher and early Major governments – simultaneously centralizing and decentralizing, asking schools to answer to demands from above and from below.

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