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:
Reintroduction of formal primary tests in 2021/22
In May 2021, then Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced the government’s plans for primary assessment in 2021/22:
- A new Reception Baseline Assessment.
- The return of KS1 and KS2 SATs.
- Phonics Checks in Year 1 and Year 2.
- A Multiplication Check in Year 4.
In other words, there will be more primary assessment than ever. Nick Gibb added; ‘there will be no performance tables for primary school SATs’ in 2022. But although there will be no performance tables, test results will still be used for accountability purposes – Ofsted, LAs and academy managements will have access to the results.
The NEU says that reintroducing SATs and phonics tests and adding further tests in Reception and Year 4 is the wrong way of responding to the problems of recovery from the pandemic. Bringing back high-stakes, high-pressure tests will harm not help learning recovery and will not protect children’s mental health and wellbeing.
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. The new Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi and the new Schools Minister must take a fresh look at the system and make it clear that there will be change.
Reception Baseline Assessment
In July 2020, 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 has made Baseline Assessment compulsory in September 2021, as part of its plans to get schools back to ‘normal’.
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.
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.
A survey of reception teachers conducted by Teacher Tapp for MTAS shows that Baseline has gone down in schools like a lead balloon. 88% thought Baseline was a waste of teacher time. Just 1% thought it was a positive experience for children.
Comments by NEU members in Reception back up these findings:
I feel my time is better spent in direct activities with the children where I can get to know the children and make early judgements about their strengths.
Baseline treats children as algorithms with yes or no answers to tasks which doesn’t allow for any deviation.
I could clearly see that most children were not ready to sit at a table with no peer support, no stimulating resources, no reason for the questions.
The amount of cover needed is ridiculous,leaving my class with TAs from KS2 etc.
Some did a lot of shrugging and said 'I don't know' a lot.
Stressed children hiding under the table, and upset children who did not like me touching their carefully arranged teddies, and children who really wanted to talk about squirrels or monkeys or their food preferences.
Many were self -aware enough to know they were being tested on something.
Beginner EAL children were very willing and able to answer as best they could in their home language but they got zero points and lots of confusion and stress.
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. It is promoted by government at the expense of all other approaches to the teaching of reading.
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.
In autumn term 2020 the Government forced schools to carry out an additional Phonics Check for pupils in Year 2 who had ‘missed’ the test the previous summer because of cancellation of assessments due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ministers have announced they will repeat this exercise in autumn term 2021, with any Year 2 pupil who ‘fails’ the test having to re-sit it in the summer term. The last thing children need after Covid-19 is another formal test which won’t tell teachers anything new or helpful about their pupils and will simply put them under more pressure.
Early Years Foundation Stage
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.
The wider support for an alternative
Many organisations are calling for change. It is essential that the new Schools Minister, Robin Walker, listens to them.
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.
In its paper on the future of education the One Nation group of Conservative MPs has written:
‘’Rather than having SATS, surely it would be better to evaluate a pupil’s progress rather than national testing at 11. Similar to GCSEs, time spent preparing for SATS could be better used for teaching subjects in depth. Testing is good but should be designed as a tool for feedback to individual teachers and schools rather than being used to monitor and penalise schools.
In June, the British Educational Research Association published High standards, not high stakes: an alternative to SATs.
BERA’s case is simple and forceful. To understand the performance, the strengths and the problems of primary education we don’t need to make every primary pupil go through the rigours of high-stakes assessment. We don’t have to devote weeks of curriculum time to preparing for SATs. We don’t have to endure, against all our better instincts, the narrowing of children’s learning experience that led one teacher to write to the NEU that between Christmas and SATs week she ‘hadn’t taught anything but English and Maths’. In place of universal testing there is a better way.
Learning from European experience, BERA proposes testing a weighted national sample of pupils in a broader range of topics. This would provide a year on year understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Linked to surveys of pupil, teacher and parent experience, it would provide what BERA calls a ‘richer exploration of educational processes than the current system allows’. New ‘assessment instruments … including but going beyond literacy and numeracy tests and their current narrow remits’ would focus on broader issues on pupils’ development. There would be surveys, for instance, to pick up topics such as cyberbullying, mental health and the impact of Covid-19. Whatever the focus, the aim would be to understand in depth the learning and experience of pupils – and the responses of their schools.
Schools would use data from the national sample to reflect on their own experiences and compare themselves with their peers. Sample items from a national bank of assessment instruments would enable schools to provide helpful information for parents about their child’s achievements. SATs would be phased out.
The NEU agrees that the framework for a different model already exists. Read and download our leaflet on the alternative.
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.