Why the NUT are right to challenge SATs

Assessment feels like a story that should have been finished long ago, yet not a month goes by without another announcement, a new bit of detail, coming out. In the past, we’ve referred to the new Primary assessment policy as a jigsaw puzzle, with the pieces slowly falling into place. However, to move this analogy on, assessment is more like a treasure hunt. School leaders need to scavenge about through numerous reports, handbooks and exemplification material just to get all the pieces together. Then and only then can they start to solve the head-aching puzzle it presents.

This week, the NUT have called for SATs to be suspended on the basis that the majority of pupils and teachers alike have been set up to fail by the unfeasibly high standards required and the lack of time provided in which to achieve them, let alone provide evidence of them.

Numerous pundits, not least Michael Tidd, who has emerged as a strong voice of reason and clarity on the educational blogosphere since the beginning of the curriculum consultation process, claim that the newly released exemplification materials for teacher assessment of KS2 writing equate to a level 5 under the old NC levels system, rather than the 4b which had previously been imagined.

In order to assess whether children are reaching the required standard, the DfE recommends that teachers check six different pieces of work for every pupil against up to 33 different statements. While the physical act of writing a tick on a piece of paper may not take long in itself, it would be reasonable to imagine that teachers will give some thought to whether a pupil has or hasn’t achieved a statement. Shall we say a minimum of 20 seconds? Multiplied by 33, multiplied by 6, multiplied by 30. Between now and May please. The burden this places on teachers – who already work more unpaid overtime than any other profession – is immense.

The government has been very clear and consistent about its ambition to raise educational standards in core subjects and make England an educational power-house. However, the floor standard they have set for writing smacks a little of poor performance forecasting. If the DfE were a publicly listed enterprise they would be riding for a giant drop on the stock exchange. Setting arbitrarily high expectations and simply expecting schools to achieve them creates a climate of stress, fear and despondence that will only drive more teachers out of the profession and create a generation of children who, unless we are very careful, will grow up feeling that they are never quite good enough.

Sure, we should be aiming to turn out employable young adults who can read, write and do maths and science. But these skills on their own don’t guarantee employability, and it is completely unrealistic to expect the same academic standard in every discipline from every child. Yes, all children should be given the opportunity to reach their full potential, and no, it is not good enough to only foster the skills of those who show natural talent for a subject from an early age. We cannot let children ‘off the hook’ because they find something difficult. But nor can we expect teachers to perform miracles.

Because miracles are expected of them, teachers are being forced to be harder on the children than they would like to be, or believe is right. This promotes conditions where positive reinforcement is replaced by constructive criticism. But is this what we want for small children? Shouldn’t we be praising a child who picks up a pen and writes a page of badly spelled jibberish so that they are likely to keep doing so and improving as they go? Or do we want to point out that they’ve missed out bits of punctuation, or spelled a word phonetically and guessed wrong which of the many letter combinations that produce a given sound should appear in that particular word? To over-focus on this risks undermining their fledgling confidence and putting them off writing altogether.

Of course, most teachers try for a combination of praise and criticism, but with the pressures upon them to turn out mini-Shakespeares by the end of Year 6, they can’t afford to pull any punches. I imagine my own accelerating frustration and impatience with my children when they’re not responding quickly enough to something I need them to do against a deadline (like get their shoes on for school) – and imagine how magnified that feeling could become for exhausted, pressured teachers whose very jobs depend on getting children to a required standard within a required timeframe regardless of how able, willing or ready each individual child is to comply.

I read a quote today from Neil Gaiman saying there is no such thing as bad children’s books – that anything that gets them on the reading ladder is getting them on the path to Literacy. From my own personal experience, I would like to extend that further and say there’s no such thing as bad children’s writing – at least not in Key Stage 1 and maybe into lower Key Stage 2. My son, age 6, is not a natural writer, in fact getting him to write at all has until very recently been like pulling teeth. But yesterday he penned an entire scene from Harry Potter. The vocab was superb, the sequencing wonderful. The spelling and grammar practically non-existent. For him, it was an enormous achievement and I want to celebrate it as such – but I know if I were to show his teacher, the focus would be on what is missing not on what is there. This makes me really sad.

My son’s teacher is not a bad man, or a cruel one. He’s just trying to prepare my son for Year 3 when the pressure will ratchet up another notch. He’s doing what the DfE expect of him, but I wonder if it makes him feel good or whether deep down it makes him feel just a little bit miserable.

We have a serious and growing problem in education, with qualified, experienced teachers leaving the profession in droves because of the relentless pressure piled on top of them; a climate where headships are no longer desirable because a bad Ofsted inspection means career death; and a shortfall in teacher trainees, because well, we all read the news. A career in cold-calling to sell real-estate in the Australian Outback is probably more rewarding, better respected and less risky.

Combine this with climbing birth rates and a shortfall in school places and explain how we are going to raise standards in education when there is no-one left to teach our children at all. The controversial troops to teachers drive has fallen flat on its face, with only 28 ex-servicemen qualified to train, according to news reports this week, so no miracle solution will be forthcoming from that quarter.

The education system today requires managers and administrators who’ll treat children like assets – people who will relentlessly pursue the goals set by them from on-high, even if it means ignoring the child as a whole person. The problem is that the kind of person who goes into teaching does so because they like children, and liking children in the current environment is a weakness.

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