The high-stakes testing system in England’s primary schools is not fit for purpose. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted even further the flaws in this system. The union is working with the More Than A Score campaign against the present system of primary tests. Find out more on:
Cancellation of formal primary tests in 2021
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed to MPs on 6 January that Government primary school tests would not go ahead in 2021. Watch his statement on tests in response to a question by a fellow MP.
All statutory key stage 1 and key stage 2 tests and teacher assessments planned for summer 2021, including the key stage 2 tests in reading and mathematics and the key stage 1 Phonics check, will not take place. This is a huge victory for parents, educators, politicians and members of the More Than A Score coalition of which NEU is a leading member, who had campaigned against these unnecessary tests taking place this year.
Williamson himself admitted the tests would be “an additional burden on schools”: this is true not just this year but in any year. Government tests are not about supporting high-quality teaching and learning, they exist purely to capture data on schools for accountability purposes. It is unacceptable – in any year – that young children are put through tests for this purpose and that educators are forced to narrow the range of subjects and experiences pupils get to enjoy, in pursuit of higher test scores.
The NEU wants to see an assessment system that supports children’s learning and gives meaningful information to school staff and to parents. Our present system does not do this. Having seen the cancellation of formal primary tests two years running, our focus must now be on winning the campaign that they should be scrapped for good.
More Than A Score has published a comprehensive report, bringing together new research with academic evidence and case studies of teachers, heads and pupils, to make the case that formal tests have no place in primary schools during this recovery phase of education. Significantly, it represents a consensus which has now emerged around the issue of formal testing in primary, being supported by all main education unions (NEU, NAHT and ASCL) and MPs of all political parties (Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens), and is therefore a key milestone in our campaign to reform primary assessment.
Reception Baseline Assessment
In July, the Government recognised that its plan to make Baseline statutory from September 2020 had to be put on hold; it would add another element of disruption to an already difficult situation. The union welcomed this decision.
However the Government intends to make Baseline Assessment compulsory in September 2021, as part of its plans to get schools back to ‘normal’. A new test in September is the last thing that schools need – it will be a distraction from all the work that is needed to help children’s education recover from the pandemic. Working with More Than A Score (MTAS), the NEU will continue to campaign for Baseline not to be introduced in 2021.
Baseline Assessment is not designed to help teachers support children’s learning. It is not a diagnostic form of assessment, but an accountability measure. Children will be tested when they enter reception and tested again through key stage 2 SATs: the scores will be compared and schools will be held to account for the progress children have made.
The Government has been trying to introduce Baseline since 2015 and it remains highly controversial. Academic research commissioned by the NEU has shown that the 2019 pilot of Baseline added to teachers’ workload, disrupted children’s settling in period at their new school, and in some cases added to the stress they felt. The British Educational Research Association has questioned the validity of the test as a measure of children’s learning.
Recent research for MTAS found only 8 per cent of parents strongly support Baseline, while two-thirds of head teachers oppose it.
Pupils currently sit SATs tests in Year 2 and Year 6. Both sets of tests are unnecessary, but the pressure on older pupils is greater.
Because of the high-stakes nature of the tests, most Year 6 pupils spend months cramming for SATs. Pressure on teachers and children is extreme and school staff have very little time to deliver interesting, varied lessons, as they feel forced to “teach to the test”, focusing largely on English and maths. Even after all this, in most years around one third of children “fail” their SATs.
Despite Government claims, results from SATs tests are not routinely used by secondary schools, who perform their own informal on-entry assessments. They are, therefore, purely there to create league tables and compare schools. However, in research commissioned by the More Than A Score campaign group only one in four parents said they looked at SATs results when choosing a school for their child.
The same research found three quarters of parents believed taking SATs would add to their child’s stress, while only 16% thought it was fair to use SATs and other formal tests to measure a school. In a poll of pupils 40% of children in Year 5 were already worried about taking their SATs the following year.
The current primary assessment system is broken and must be reformed.
The Phonics Check
Learning to read should be about children discovering the world of words and learning to love language. The Year 1 Phonics Check does not support teachers to help children learn to read, nor does it inspire joy for reading in pupils. It is a test designed solely for Government accountability purposes.
The use of real words and nonsense words as part of the Phonics Check confuses young readers, particularly those whose reading ability is already high. Preparing pupils to pass this test is a distraction from helping them to learn to read.
Teachers, heads and education experts strongly disapprove of using nonsense words and believe the Phonics Check tells them nothing new about their pupils ability or progress. Parents also disagree, preferring to enjoy reading books with their child then preparing them for a test.
Pupils who do not achieve the required pass mark in the Phonics check are required to re-take the test in Year 2, the same year they are expected to site key stage 1 SATs. All this piles huge pressure on young children for no benefit to them or their school.
Early Years Foundation Stage
In January 2020, before the consultation on the revised early years foundation stage (EYFS) had even closed, the DfE invited infant and primary schools to express an interest in being “early adopters” of the new framework in September 2020 a year before it becomes statutory. Then, in July 2020, faced with the massive disruption caused by Covid-19, schools were given the option to opt out of early adoption.
The NEU advised schools to take the opportunity to opt out.
There has been a complete rewrite of both the Educational Programmes and the Early Learning Goals, a rewrite which is being strongly criticised within the early years sector. In the union’s view, it should not be a priority for reception teachers to be scrutinising the new documentation trying to work out what it means for practice, when they will also have, as the centre of their work, the need to support the learning and wellbeing of children whose learning and home lives are likely to have been disrupted.
The Early Years Coalition, of which the NEU is a member, has launched Birth to Five Matters. This is a project which will publish alternative practical guidance, written by the sector, for the sector, to support educators working in the EYFS. You can catch up on its work here.
Too Much Testing : the alternative for England
The Westminster Government wants to hold on to its SATs-based system of primary assessment. It is increasingly isolated in this. In a recent YouGov poll of parents, 73 per cent thought children were under too much pressure because of standardised testing and 61 per cent believed there was too much testing. In a 2019 survey, 97 per cent of 54,000 NEU members voted to abolish SATs.
There is a contradiction between what is required by the Westminster Government and what works for children and teachers. The NEU believes that the framework for a different model already exists. Read and download our leaflet on the alternative.
The political support for the alternative
MPs from all political parties – Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party - are opposed to Baseline and other high stakes tests.
It’s time for the Government to listen and move to an assessment system that trusts teachers and values children as individuals, not as data.
A resource focusing on assessment in English by the UK Literacy Association.
The UCL Institute of Education research, teachers’ lack of trust in Baseline is made abundantly clear. The report reveals the impact of the new test on pupils’ first experience of schools.
The Westminster Government wants to hold on to its SATs-based system of primary assessment. The NEU alternative is based around a core set of principles that aims to put children's learning at the heart of education.
Key findings relating to primary assessment from a research project run by the International Literacy Centre at UCL, Institute of Education.
UCL Institute of Education
UCL Institute of Education