Monday, September 21, 2009

The end of SATs?

Polly Curtis reported in Friday’s Guardian that 10,000 people have signed a petition to scrap SATs.
Independent and objective testing is an appropriate way of seeking to find out if pupils are successfully remembering and understanding what society wants them to be taught. Unfortunately there is little evidence that the Government's SATs papers actually do this and there is much evidence that pupils can be trained to give correct answers to questions on these papers despite them having limited literacy skills.
Just ask any local high school whether the English SAT scores achieved by their new pupil intake each year bears much resemblance to the independent academic work they can carry out in the classroom. Almost all schools will report numbers of pupils achieving the Level 4 standard expected by the end of Key Stage Two, but whose classroom performance is only at Level 2 or 3 (i.e., between 2 to 4 years lower than Level 4). One of the grounds on which many teachers, parents and pundits want to see SATs done away with is because they encourage teaching to the test. But who can blame teachers for doing this when these unreliable and poorly validated tests are used to construct league tables purporting to have some relevance to their school's academic standing in the community?
However, people have very short memories. The reason why the testing regime was put in place was because there were plenty of schools around in the seventies and eighties in which children were NOT getting a decent education in English, maths or science. I know because it happened to two of my own children. One of the reasons this occurred was because, whether you like the 11+ or not, teachers had a standard to teach to and when they were abolished in most counties of England that standard disappeared.
It is all very well for Michael Rosen to go around telling everyone how SATs should be abolished because they 'drive children, teachers and parents nuts', as was reported in the Guardian piece, but Michael Rosen's parents were both senior and committed academics, who, no doubt, ensured that Michael got an excellent education when he was a lad. Who is going to ensure that everyone's children get a sound enough education to ensure that they leave primary school capable of reading, spelling and performing basic arithmetic to a high enough standard to enable them to cope satisfactorily with their high school studies and their future adult lives?
I certainly do want to see these SATs abandoned - not because I think children and the education system shouldn't be scrutinised, but because they are bad tests being manipulated by government for political ends. What parents and society definitely need to know is that, by the end of the primary phase of education, their children are literate and numerate. If SATs are to be abandoned, they need to be replaced with more accurate and independently verifiable forms of assessment.


  1. Whatever your arguments about SATs and exams, your attempt at psycho-social guessing of my parents' lives and attitudes is way off-beam. My parents weren't academics when I was growing up. They were classroom teachers, my mother in a state primary school in Hertfordshire and my father in various schools in Greenford, Kingsbury and Walworth. As far as making sure that we got a good education, they simply sent us to the nearest primary school and along with everyone else we were entered for the eleven plus. My brother and I went to what was regarded at the time locally, the third best grammar school in the area. About 30-35% of children passed the eleven plus at that time.

    My parents were until 1957 members of the Communist Party. It had made sense to them in the 1930s and early 1940s living under the threat of local and international fascism but stopped making sense by the mid-fifties. However, the intellectual process (some might say it was jesuitical)involved also made one side of their parenting quite remarkable: their attitude to my brother's and my intellectual and artistic lives was that the sky was the limit and they (not the schools) did all they could to enrich our lives with visits, trips, travel, endless discussion, talk, debate, argument, jokes, fun, linguistic word-play, books and an endless stream of visitors through the house who were themselves challenging and interesting people. In comparison with this, what was offered at school, often appeared dull, repetitive, pointless and tied into a testing and exam system that was unfair.

    As for SATs, needless to say, I said much more about them than that they drive people nuts. The full interview is in the NUT journal out this week. Yes, that is one of my criticisms, but there are plenty of others, the most important being that these tests, like all tests, determine the education that precedes them. SATs in the subject I know about, English, determine a study of texts that is driven by an obsession with empiricism, and that in a subject that suffers when this is the case. Schools have been engulfed by what I call 'excerptitis' where children are being swamped daily (and nightly with homework) with worksheets in which fragments of whole stories are put in front of children immediately followed by tedious, irrelevant and ultimately off-putting questions to do with fact, sequence and logic.

    The end result of this is that reading for pleasure has been relegated to the status of an optional extra, whereas we know that the children who read widely and often (ie for pleasure) achieve the most or - to put it another way - find education a doddle. What follows from this is that if school is not the place that introduces books to children, then there is a substantial minority of children (no one seems bothered to research how many!) who will not encounter books ie they are discriminated against by the very system that claims to be doing them a favour - the testing, league tables, Ofsted system.

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  3. Dear Michael,
    Thank you so much for adding a comment.
    Just to get things straight, I didn't in fact presume to try to 'psycho-social' guess your parents at all. In fact, I was at the Institute when your father was there as a professor and still have his pamphlet rebutting Bernstein's Class Codes and Control. It was as a result of reading this especially – I hadn't heard of Labov until then! - that I developed an interest in socio-linguistics. And, I still have a copy (somewhere in my library) of your mother's The Language of Primary School Children – but apologies for assuming that they were already in academia when you were growing up.
    Well, from what you say, your upbringing certainly had a remarkable influence on you and the beneficiaries have obviously been the nation's children. I and my children – they span twenty-five years – have enjoyed your writing over the years and I want to say how much I admire the work you've done in schools throughout the country and the pleasure you’ve brought to all and sundry.
    For the rest of what you say, I don't have any disagreement. I too can't stand 'excerptitis', as you call it. When I was teaching in a Hackney comprehensive in the seventies, the boys were still reading (amazingly now that I think about it) Dickens, Shakespeare and Lawrence. And, even when they were thought to be becoming too difficult, books (The Silver Sword, Z for Zachariah, and so on) were read all the way through. I've also seen very recently at first hand the stultifying effects preparation for Key Stage 2 SATs has on children. In my opinion, it's a travesty of education.
    I don't know what the answer is to getting children reading for pleasure though. I'm sure that when you or Michael Morpurgo or Jacqueline Wilson go into schools to talk to children, you inspire them hugely. But, for how long? How long before they slip back once more into the school routine and are yoked to the daily treadmill of SATs, targets and outcomes?
    I hardly dare say it but, I think from what you said about your own upbringing, that it was probably your parents and the culture in which you were raised that had by far the deepest impact.
    Schools have an important role in doing all sorts of things, not least of which are, in my view, teaching children to read and how to do basic arithmetic as preparation for mathematics and science later on. However, as Todd Risley and Betty Hart showed very clearly in their superb study Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, '[i]ntergenerational transmission of a culture and its knowledge passes from parent to child. During the first years of life when almost everything a child learns depends on what the family provides, parenting puts in place not only fundamental skills and understandings but also an entire general approach to experience' (Page 210).
    We both know that this means spending time (a heck of a lot of it) talking, reading, joking, singing to and with our kids, giving them positive feedback, being responsive and guiding them gently. If people do that, their children will, depending on the quality of education they get at school, gain maximum benefit. Otherwise, we're back to 'them and uz', as another poet once put it.
    Best wishes,