Testing really isn’t the problem.


I’m going to say it I don’t agree with the idea of getting rid of SATs. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a huge fan and I really don’t think they accurately test the things they purport to test (seems there are quite a few out-there who agree with me on that.) The thing that SATs definitely show is that we get better each year at teaching children to pass them. Does this mean that the children are better readers or mathematicians? On that I really wouldn’t be so sure.

Now hear me out…I’m aware some will have switched off already. The thing is that I don’t think testing is the real issue. It’s not testing that drives a narrowing of  the curriculum, it’s not testing that makes booster classes and holiday SATs sessions happen, It’s not testing that gets children stressed or anxious.  (I know some of you are disagreeing now.), It’s not testing that drove some teachers and heads to cheat, It’s not testing that made a list of the worst schools in England appear.  (If you’re a school that was listed in the 100 worst primary schools in England there will have been a lot of judgement and a lot of ridicule and upset, school shaming at its worst)

Let me state straight away  that I’m not going to blame the schools/ teachers for this stuff either, whilst this is something that I’ve seen quite a few high-profile edu-twitter types queueing up to do the past few days since Jeremy Corbyn suggested scraping SATs I think they’re look at a symptom not a cause. The first response is often to blame teachers/schools for making children stressed about tests. Thing is they’re not wrong but it’s a very simplistic bit of mud-throwing that fails to look at the real issue.

That real issue is the  accountability inherent in current set-up. Let’s not forget it was never meant to be like this. There were never supposed to be league tables and school comparisons. These are the things that create the crazy culture. Our current accountability system is fundamentally damaging to schools, staff and ultimately pupils.

When you hear of schools where heads have been dismissed and results annulled  my response is to think ‘Why they felt the pressure to do that?’. This is where our system is wrong. There is a deep-rooted lack of trust in schools  and this is what is ultimately driving  the system. This data from SATs has driven judgements about school, for some schools this means they are always sat on a knife-edge when results day rolls in. (we know these schools they are often the ones sat in our most disadvantaged areas.) Some schools literally have to move mountains to get children across the line.  There are other schools where regardless of the teaching the children will still achieve (that’s not decrying the teaching in those schools, I’ve worked in both).

Lets be honest SATs results are a pretty poor proxy for the quality of a school yet for years its been the defining factor in a vast number of Ofsted judgements. Regardless of framework changes I feel it would be very naive to believe that SATs results won’t form a key part of the judgement (especially if they’re bad) As a school whose phonics data was so important to a minister that he personally rang our MAT to demand to know what we were doing about it, don’t tell there are no systemic pressures. If you’re sat in RI or Inadequate or even good on wobbly data that pressure is constantly bearing down on you.

Accountability sits at the core of issue with SATs. The problem is regardless of this we are all expected to be above average (Don’t even start me discussing the bell-shaped distribution curve).


Schools have been a microcosm for this accountability culture, when performance management systems introduced points progress, reliable assessment went out of the window. How many primary teachers  have moaned about the data they’ve received from the previous teacher. When in our school we stopped using data as a stick to beat someone with and began to have honest discussions we started to get the things we needed to do right.

TRUST…(You gotta have it!)

Carrot vs Stick…Fight!!! (Steps to better Performance Management)

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We need to move to an honest picture of where we are and as long as the SATs are used in the way they currently are then that is never really going to happen.

As a head of a relatively small  primary school I’ll be honest the SATs data from one cohort to the next tells me very little. There may be strands to explore but often the issues are dependent on the cohort. Have SATs driven up standards as Damian Hinds suggested…I’d be dubious of that one to be honest it depends how much you trust the data. Speak to secondary colleagues and I’d suggest that most have very little faith in the information they get from SATs.

So my key question is how do we switch our accountability system from one where data/testing is used as a big stick to beat schools with to one where it’s used to help us explore our work honestly and develop what we do?


*nb… I’m not talking writing assessment here,  which really is a big pile of horse poo and has in my opinion really damaged children as writers.