Adrian Owens is Chairman of Governors at a state voluntary-aided primary school. He was also the Conservative candidate at the General election in West Lancashire, where he increased the Conservative vote by nearly 3,000 to its highest ever level on current boundaries.
The Key Stage 2 Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) taken at the end of primary school stand somewhat forlorn now. Similar tests at ages seven and fourteen have been replaced by teacher assessment as pressure from the teaching profession and the political tide has turned against such tests.
For those of us observing at close hand, the Key Stage 2 tests, as they are currently formatted, have clearly outlived their usefulness. Indeed, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) organised a boycott of the tests this summer which had only limited success, though more because head teachers were torn between their contractual duty to facilitate the tests than by any residual love for them.
As the years have passed, teachers have become more and more adept at playing the system to maximum advantage. In some primary schools children spend large parts of their final year being drilled for the tests that take place in May each year. After-school cramming sessions abound and “teaching to the test” crowds out sport, music, languages and humanities for week after week in the early spring.
Yet ironically, many secondary schools recognise the limitations of SATs which measure only learning against the national curriculum. So two-thirds of secondary schools supplement SAT results with their own cognitive ability tests to test a range of reasoning skills often masked in SATs. Indeed, my own son has just started secondary school and little weight was attached to his SAT results. Instead class setting decisions involved these additional tests and teacher assessment.
The Conservative manifesto promised to retain Key Stage 2 tests and league tables, reforming the tests to make them more rigorous. Michael Gove has now established an independent review to consider the matter and the NAHT, to their credit, are cooperating with the review.
It’s clear to me that our manifesto had it right. While there is a clear case for reform as I’ve outlined, parents still show a keen interest in a primary school’s comparative SATs performance in the “league tables” when choosing a school. Furthermore, SATs results at the end of primary school are a measure by which the quality of educational provision in each primary school can be referenced against the financial investment made by the taxpayer. GCSE results provide such a measure for secondary schools and the taxpayer might be short of empirical data on the quality of primary education if Key Stage 2 tests were simply abolished.
So if they are to stay, how should Key Stage 2 SATs be reformed and made more rigorous? The independent review should seriously consider the relatively straightforward step of moving SAT tests from May in Year 6 to the first few weeks of secondary school Year 7. At a stroke the pressure to intensively coach pupils for their SATs tests will diminish. After all, a long, six-week summer holiday before the tests and a different school administering the tests is likely to blunt the effect of any teaching to the test and cramming planned by the primary school.
Moreover, these SAT tests at the beginning ofYyear 7 would more accurately reflect the underlying achievements of the primary school in teaching pupils over six or seven years rather than their skill at teaching to the test in the final year. SAT results would be more meaningful and robust. Results could easily be referenced back to the feeder primary school to produce league tables as previously. However, in my view the review should also consider broadening league tables to include other measures such as parental satisfaction to make them more meaningful.
The current arrangements place pupils and teachers under significant pressure because the stakes are high – parents attach such great importance to SAT results and league tables. In an increasingly competitive education marketplace that is inevitable. Yet moving SATs to the start of secondary school and broadening league tables would ease the pressure on teachers and pupils and provide space in the final year of primary school for education in its widest sense, while also producing more robust SAT results and better information on which parents could make their school choices.