Why Are Teachers Taking Action Against SATs?

by James McAsh

14 June 2019

Paul Townsend/Flickr

There’s a whole world of exciting things for children to experience at school. They can feel a thousand grains of sand fall through their fingers. They can draw great pictures of dinosaurs. And they can exercise their imaginations by working out excuses for why they haven’t done their homework.

But kids also need protecting. Parts of the adult world are simply not appropriate for children: too scary, too dangerous, too harmful. So while bigots across the land are seething that primary pupils are taught about the existence of LGBT people, the National Education Union (NEU) is taking on the real menace in the classroom: SATs.

Since the introduction of SATs in 1991, high stakes tests have infected primary schools at every level. From next year, children will confront them in Years 1, 2, 4 and 6. And the government wants to introduce them into Reception, testing kids as young as four.

The children forced to undergo these tests gain nothing from them. The scores don’t affect secondary school admissions and no future employer will ever ask for them. They don’t even determine which set or stream the child enters at secondary school – secondary schools mistrust SATs so do their own assessments.

If high-stakes tests do not benefit children, for whose benefit are they?

Exam factories.

Under neoliberal ideology, the role of education is not to prepare children for an enriched and fulfilling life. Rather, schools are factories where masses of human flesh are moulded into cogs for the capitalist machine. The state needs to measure productivity in these factories. So children need to become numbers that can be measured. That’s the role of SATs.

SATs are central to this process because they introduce competition. The scores they produce are used to compare and punish teachers and schools. Thanks to the introduction of performance-related pay (under Tory leadership hopeful Michael Gove) teachers can lose pay increments if their class underperforms in these tests. Punishments exist for schools too. SATs scores shape league tables and if a school experience a drop then fewer parents will choose it. A reduction in pupil numbers means a loss of funding, so schools and teachers have a big incentive to treat these tests very seriously. They cannot afford not to.

Is this so bad? Surely schools should be accountable for their performance?

Unfortunately, high-stakes testing is a woefully poor way to measure teaching quality. Studies suggest that factors in a school contribute as little as 6% towards students’ test scores. Much more significant are the pupils’ background and experiences at home – over which the school has no influence. Through league tables and performance-related pay, schools and teachers are punished for outcomes only partially in their control.

Tests harm kids.

It’s not just teachers who suffer from high-stakes testing. Pupils inevitably find these exams stressful. Education secretary Damian Hinds blames teachers for any stress, but how could any 11-year-old not find the experience alien? Government-imposed regulations impose extreme test conditions. The beautiful and familiar displays adorning the classroom walls are removed or covered, leaving the room sterile and clinical. They may be young but they are not stupid: they know something is happening.

The harm to children does not end at exam stress. The high-stakes testing regime limits their learning by raising the status of only a fraction of children’s education. Music, drama, art and sport: these are important parts of a child’s schooling but nowhere to be seen in the tests. And what about fundamental life skills like teamwork and making friends? You will not find these in the SATs.

If a school is worried about their scores they face a tough decision about priorities. Fund after-school revision sessions or a wider range of school trips? It’s the same for the teachers worrying about pay: do they risk prioritising drama over SATs preparation? High-stakes testing encourages teachers and schools to take the wrong decisions.

Nowhere is this truer than with behaviour management. A child with special educational needs who displays challenging behaviour might easily find themselves expelled to inflate the school’s results.

An end to this madness.

Who is our hero to slay the SATs dragon? Despite opposition from Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, the government has its fingers in its ears. And primary-aged children are not known for their industrial organisation.

But thankfully, teachers are. The NEU is balloting its primary members to boycott and campaign against all high-stakes tests. If enough vote yes then SATs can become a distant memory, and primary school pupils can focus on being children.

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