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 opposed to the Westminster Government’s plan for all primary statutory tests to go ahead in 2021 and is working with More Than A Score to campaign against this. Find out more on:

Read our December 2020 update

December 2020 update

On December 3 the Government announced changes to primary statutory tests in 2021.

SATs in Year 2 will be cancelled this school year and replaced by teacher assessment. The SPAG (Spelling and Grammar) test for KS2 SATs is being cancelled, but other Year 6 SATs papers will go ahead.

The Year 1 Phonics Check will continue as normal, while the Year 4 Multiplication Check will be made optional. Adding in the additional Year 2 Phonics Check which schools had to carry out in Autumn Term 2020, this means formal Government tests happening in potentially 4 out of 6 primary school year groups this year.

The Government also said data from formal tests will not be published in league tables in 2021. But results will be available to Ofsted and to schools to use as they wish, meaning the worst effects of this data – driving fear of accountability – will remain.

The cancellation of KS1 SATs is a huge victory for the campaigning work of NEU members, parents and head teachers. But going ahead with KS2 SATs and other tests flies in the face of reason. Pupils have missed many weeks of in-school learning due to the pandemic: what they need at this time is high-quality teaching, not practicing to pass tests. More than 60,000 parents, heads, teachers and TAs supported More Than A Score’s call to Drop SATs and other primary tests in 2021: by continuing with most tests the Government has shown it values test scores more highly than the wellbeing of children during a pandemic.

As Schools Minister Nick Gibb has himself admitted, the tests exist purely to hold schools accountable – they do not help children to learn or help teachers to teach. In a time of such disruption and uncertainty, the tests and the data produced will be irrelevant. It will also be totally unfair for any school or teacher to be judged on the basis of test performance when coronavirus has had such uneven effects on disruption to in-school learning.

The NEU will continue to press the Government to clarify how test scores will be used and will continue to campaign for the reform of our broken assessment system.


The union is working with the More Than A Score campaign against the present system of primary tests.

Find out more on:

As a first step, you can sign the More Than a Score petition, ‘Cancel SATs and all formal government tests in 2021’.

The Phonics Check

In addition to saying all formal tests will go ahead as usual in primary schools this year, the Government is  introducing a statutory phonics check for year 2 pupils who did not take this test in year 1. Schools have been told to carry out this statutory test in the second half of the Autumn term and report pupils’ scores to their local authority to submit to the DfE. Pupils who do not meet the expected standard will be expected to take the check again in June 2021 – in the same year they will also sit key stage 1 SATs.

This will pile pressure on young children who need to be supported to re-engage with school, while the requirement on schools to report their results to local authorities and Government will create new pressures of accountability. This proposal is part of the Government’s programme to restore as quickly as possible the pre-Covid system of assessment and accountability. It is the exact opposite of what schools need. At a time when educators will be trying to rebuild their school community, and cope with the challenges of a ‘second spike’, the return of high stakes assessment places a new set of obstacles in their path. Only a Government which was completely out of touch with the experience of schools could think this was a good idea.

The NEU, alongside other unions,  is arguing strenuously against this measure. In the meantime, members should aim to ensure that the work of their school focuses on recovery and wellbeing, not on preparation for an entirely inappropriate test.

Use these resources in your school to help you speak to your leadership team and school community about Government tests this school year

John Hayes - NEU member and headteacher

In this video, John Hayes spells out the reasons why a new Phonics check should be opposed. 

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.

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.

The Government, however, is reluctant to give up completely on Baseline 2020. It  encouraged schools to become voluntary ‘early adopters’ of the new test. The union advised schools not to  do so. In the midst of a pandemic, to expect educators to devote their time and energies in the first term of Reception to one-to-one testing of children could not be justified. It would work against children’s wellbeing and add nothing to their learning and development.

Working with More Than A Score, the NEU will continue to campaign for Baseline not to be introduced in 2021.

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.

Early Education (The British Association for Early Childhood Education) has produced guidance notes on early adoption.

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

Most political parties – 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.

Assessment resources