England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

“Miserable, scary and middle class”: School SATs scandal shows unions must fight

By Carole Clohesy, education worker and NEU member

New data has recently emerged which has blown the lid on the impact of SATs assessments on school students. This information has revealed how apparent improvements in pupil’s reading across schools in England has come at a cost to pupils’ mental health.

Sadly, many pupils are not enjoying their reading. As school staff reported nationally, large numbers of pupils were recently reduced to tears by the 2023 Year 6 SATs Reading Paper due to its excessive difficulty. This was both in terms of the one-hour time allotted, during which pupils were required to read 2,106 words across three text – a 34% per cent increase from last year’s 1,564 words.

Department for Education (DfE) guidelines say that Year 6 pupils should be able to read at least 90 words a minute, meaning it “should” take 23 minutes and 30 seconds to read the three extracts. The questions themselves add up to 1,337 words, meaning pupils would need around 15 minutes to read them. This then leaves an ‘average’ pupil a grand total of 21 and a half minutes to answer 38 questions!

The difficulty of the test was exacerbated by the inaccessible nature of the texts. One passage was set in the countryside and referred to “sheep rustlers” – not a common experience to many pupils in inner-city schools. Another was adapted from a New York Times article, while the third had a reading age of 13+ – in a test aimed at 10 and 11 year olds.

These stress-inducing tests have correctly been called out by many education workers in the unions. Greenwich National Education Union member Jo Howcroft-Scott wrote to the DfE to complain about the test, stating:

“I began my teaching career in 1986 and SATs came in 1991. In all those decades, I have never seen such a paper that assassinates talent. The reading test was disgusting. I was so cross about the complete lack of accessibility for urban children. I am troubled and concerned about the negative impact of the exams on the mental health and wellbeing of our children.”

These sentiments were echoed by Birmingham headteacher Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, who called the paper “utterly miserable, scary and quite middle class”.

The grammar, punctuation and spelling test has also been effectively critiqued by Michael Rosen, who points out that a number of the questions do not in fact even relate to grammar but to semantic and stylistic issues. This formalistic approach to grammar sucks the joy from reading and writing. One commenter summed up this approach with a certificate their child had been presented in Year 5, which complimented him “for using subordinate conjunctions in a fronted adverbial while writing in the subjunctive form”. Confused? You’re not the only one – even the child who received the certificate does not remember what he wrote!

Where these tests come from

To understand why these ridiculous examinations are being forced on young people and their teachers, we need to look at the top-down, competitive way that schools are run under the Tories’ system. These tests are drawn up by one set of examiners, rather than by the pupils’s own teachers, who are perfectly capable of testing the pupils they teach in such a way that the results actually inform their teaching in future.

Assessment for learning is, after all, what helps learners to improve. The government tests were designed not for the learners’ benefit, but solely for the government to rate and compare schools. The existence of standardised testing itself has a lot to do with the marketisation of education. A system now exists whereby schools are measured and compared with the use of ‘league tables’, which effectively treat schools like a private business. They are not necessary and should not be the norm. This is why Socialist Alternative members in education say that SATs need to be abolished altogether. Our schools should not be exam factories; they should be places where young people learn about the world and develop themselves.

Teaching and learning is severely affected by these looming SATs every year. Likewise, the wider curriculum, which should help pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to expand their horizons, has been defunded so badly that parents have to pay extra for trips and workshops, which had previously been somewhat guaranteed to pupils in all schools.

Girls all over the world are consistently achieving better than boys academically. But the female role models around them, their own highly-skilled support staff, are underpaid and undervalued, often struggling to pay for their own costs to be able to get to work.

This disgraceful government has insulted teachers and support staff by offering derisory pay deal while describing strike to save the future of our services as ‘selfish’. They maintain this pretence that strike action is selfish, when actually it is for the benefit of society as a whole.

The most vulnerable students, as usual, suffer the most. That is why the strike action of UNISON members at Ashfield Academy in Leicester to secure a decent pay rise and to keep their residential unit open will continue to attract our full support and solidarity.

Next steps

At the 2019 National Education Union conference, a motion was passed advocating a boycott of high stakes summative testing in primary schools. The union correctly said that “there can be no lasting solution to problems of children’s well-being, teacher workload, curriculum narrowness and teaching to the test unless our assessment system changes”.

Unfortunately, however, the threatened boycott did not materialise. Unions representing education workers should jointly organise industrial action against schools being turned into exam factories, including a boycott. Boycotts in the past have been aimed at SATs, but could and should also be applied to Reception baseline tests, Year 1 phonics tests and more, in conjunction with other unions and actions by parents and pupils to bring an end to these hated tests.

Socialist Alternative fights in our unions, workplaces and communities for a fundamentally different sort of education system. Instead of heavy workload, low pay, academisation and league tables, we stand for a democratic, socialist education system based on meeting needs and maximising the educational potential of students.

Read more

Reject capitalism’s exam factories! A history of exams and the struggle today

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