There is a widespread view amongst teachers, parents, politicians and education experts that the current assessment system is damaging education. From 4 June we will ask you to take part in an indicative ballot. We will gather your views on our campaign to scrap standardised testing and whether you would be prepared to boycott all statutory high-stakes tests during the next academic year, including KS1 and KS2 SATs, the Phonics Check and Multiplication Check.
- Read our frequently asked questions below or watch our video to find out more
- Download our Too Much Testing posters, postcards and stickers or order materials for use in your school
- Let us know we can count on your support
- Listen to Jeremy Corbyn and Layla Moran get behind our campaign to scraps SATs at our conference in April
Why is the NEU opposed to high stakes testing?
The NEU believes our education system is obsessed with league tables, turning children into data points and denying them a broad, stimulating education at key stages in their development. We believe it puts an unnecessary burden on teachers, students and parents alike.
High-stakes testing distorts the work of schools. It narrows the curriculum, increases stress on pupils and adds to teachers’ workload.
Those who work in schools have highlighted their opposition to high-stakes testing. Every year since primary assessment was ‘reformed’ in 2016, the NEU and its predecessor organisations have asked their members about their experience of SATs. Each year members consistently tell us that SATS are bad for children and education. If you would like to read more about the results of our member surveys, please click here.
The OECD in 2013 stated that evaluation and assessment systems can distort how and what students are taught, and they give examples of teachers being forced to ‘teach to the test’, focusing solely on skills that are tested and giving less attention to students’ wider developmental and educational needs.
What do the political parties think about high stakes testing?
After long silences on the issue, the main opposition parties, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are all united in their opposition to SATs and high stakes testing. In their recent speeches to the NEU’s Annual Conference, both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Layla Moran committed to abolishing SATs and Baseline testing.
The Conservative Party, alone, is committed to continuing high stakes testing in schools. Despite the evidence of research, despite international opinion, and despite repeated messages from teachers, Theresa May’s government is rigid in its belief in testing. Since 2010, Conservative-led governments have introduced new versions of SATs, as well as the Phonics Check and the forthcoming Multiplication Tables Check and Baseline Assessment of 4 year olds.
The Welsh government is one of those which is moving away from high-stakes testing: Its 2019 document ‘A Transformative Curriculum’ states:
“The evidence of the effects of ‘high stakes’ use of assessment information is accepted internationally …. By ‘high stakes’ we mean a system which places undue weight on outcomes and where ‘failure’ or perceived failure has consequences beyond what is intended or appropriate. In this case, it means that rather than being about the learner and guiding teaching and support to enable them to fulfil their potential, learner assessment has become something which is seen to reflect on the performance of teachers and schools.”
Recent comments by the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds and Schools Minister, Nick Gibb reinforce their commitment to high stakes testing as a measure for schools, not children. The NEU has challenged the arguments behind these policies.
See Layla Moran and Jeremy Corbyn speak at NEU Conference on their commitment to scrap SATs, and click here to read the Green Party's education policy.
What do school leaders think?
We know that from a recent YouGov survey that 93% of school leaders support the view that that the government should review the current system of standardised assessment. The same number believed that policy is decided without enough consultation with heads or other experts, while 87% thought that politicians don’t listen to the views of headteachers when making education policy.
The National Association of Head Teachers has said that children's progress could be measured through "everyday teacher assessment and classroom tests" rather than SATs. The Association of School and College Leaders has called SATs ‘flawed’ and believes that a new approach is ‘long overdue’. The NEU of course – the second largest union of school leaders – is strongly opposed.
What do teachers think?
In 2017, a survey carried out following the completion of Key Stage 1 and 2 tests, have described how children are inadequately served by the current system of primary assessment:
- 84% of teachers said that the high-stakes system had a particularly negative impact on children with SEND.
- 58% said there was a particular impact on children who speak English as an additional language (EAL)
- 33% said that children eligible for free school meals, a benchmark for disadvantage, were particularly adversely-affected
In 2018 over 90% of NEU members surveyed thought that the SATs adversely-affected pupils’ well-being:
“We've had children crying, making themselves ill and refusing to come to school - even labelling themselves failures - because of these tests.”
“I have seen many pupils in year 2 crying and anxious during the tests and making comments like ‘I can't read’ and ‘I'm stupid’”
“The curriculum is narrow,” wrote one teacher, “dominated by English and maths, and with other topics normally off timetable, especially from Christmas onwards.”
Another noted: “We have been subject to huge pressures to narrow the curriculum and to replace deep conceptual learning with temporary memorisation of facts and procedures in order to boost SATs results.”
That was why, in the view of another teacher, “SATs are the biggest barrier that we have to high quality and relevant learning.”
A 2018 survey revealed almost three-quarters of teachers (74 per cent) say the Year 2 test regime is detrimental to teachers' mental health.
What do parents think?
The NEU is working closely with several parent organisations who are all opposed to high stakes testing and in particular, SATs and baseline testing. The parents’ organisation, Let our Kids be Kids recently wrote to Damian Hinds spelling out their opposition to SATs. They are also supporting parents who are withdrawing or want to withdraw their children from SATs.
Let Our Kids be Kids is part of a wider coalition, More Than a Score (MTAS), of which NEU is also a member. MTAS has prepared a parents’ toolkit to help parents and community groups campaign against high stakes testing.
What does the research say?
Dylan Wiliam is one of the world’s leading authorities on assessment. He writes (2011): “In every single instance in which high-stakes accountability systems have been implemented … adverse unintended consequences have significantly reduced, and in many cases have completely negated, the positive benefits.”
In a review of the effects of high-stakes testing in several countries, Wynne Harlen, writing for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust (2014) analysed the effect of high-stakes tests on teachers and pupils. She noted that: “the pressure that teachers feel to increase test results is often transferred to pupils. This research shows that under these pressures teachers focus teaching on the test content – resulting in teaching to the test – effectively training pupils how to pass the tests, thus narrowing the classroom interpretation of the curriculum, to the detriment of pupils’ wider and deeper understanding and skill.”
Does the NEU believe that schools should be accountable?
Absolutely! But the current high-stakes testing system holds primary schools accountable for narrow aspects of maths and literacy, the aspects that are easily testable. Of course, it is important that children learn to read and to work with numbers, but the accountability system is based on a belief that this can be used a proxy for how good the school is. No-one is suggesting that teachers stop assessing pupils. But we must stop assessing them in ways that do not support their learning, that risk harming their well being and that do not provide primary and secondary teachers with useful learning.
What does an alternative to testing look like?
Education Minister Damian Hinds recently claimed that without SATs we would have no means of checking whether ‘our children can read, write and add up’ That is, of course, nonsense. We believe that teachers can and should use their professional expertise and judgement to assess children’s learning and there are lots of examples where that is done very successfully without the need for high stakes testing which is damaging to education professionals and schools.
In Finland, schools manage very well without external tests: they conduct self-evaluations as part of their responsibilities. Beyond Finland, there is a wealth of work that sets out alternatives to SATs (MTAS 2018). It focuses on 3 kinds of assessment:
- formative assessment by teachers, across a broad range of learning.
- occasional use at the teachers’ discretion of summative tests taken from a national text bank, to confirm teachers’ judgments
- sampling – as with the international PISA tests a small proportion of learners would be tested, to evaluate trends in the school system as a whole.
In England, even under the pressure of SATs, some schools have committed themselves to different values. The Assessment for Children Charter, initiated by Hampshire headteachers, pledges to:
- prioritise children’s personal growth, long term development and engagement as learners and their well-being over SATs test scores
- ensure breadth and balance to the curriculum in every year group and not narrow our broad, balanced and creative curriculum offer in Year 6 or 2 reference the work our pupils produce against suitable other benchmarks (e.g. work from pupils in other schools) to ensure that we are secure in our teacher assessment judgements
- not run any additional SATs booster classes, holiday clubs or other such provision that would indicate that the SATs tests have any broader significance than being simply a tool to aid teacher assessment.
And More Than A Score has developed a pledge for schools to take, committing to a different approach on primary assessment. The aim is for head teachers, school staff and parents to unite in opposition to high-stakes standardised testing and to demonstrate their commitment to supporting children’s overall education and wellbeing ahead of SATs and other testing. The pledge makes clear that schools value effective assessment but do not believe that children sitting high-pressure tests is the best way to measure a school’s performance.
Will abolishing SATs lead to higher workload and a worse quality of work?
The NEU isn’t just calling for an end to SATs and other testing but a complete overhaul of the testing regime with one that places teachers’ professional judgement at its heart. The union links this to a call for change in the Ofsted-dominated system of accountability – with the abolition of league tables and a complete reform of school inspection to be supportive rather than punitive.
Teachers’ workload is driven in significant ways by a culture of data collection and management.
In primary schools, SATs are key to that culture. Teachers are constantly expected to prove that their pupils are on track to meet targets related to SATs performance. This generates workload – it also generates teachers’ sense that they have lost control of the most important part of their work. They are not trusted to know their children and to know what to do for them.
Abolishing SATs, and centring teachers’ work on professional judgment, will improve the quality of teachers’ work.
Some teachers are concerned that change would increase their workload, since they would be involved in continuous assessment against the kinds of detailed checklists that have been developed by Government, for example the assessment of writing. The NEU strongly opposes such an approach. We are working to develop alternatives to SATs that put teachers’ capacity for confident and trustworthy professional judgment at the core of school assessment cultures and which promote good work, rather than meaningless additional workload.
Watch members and the main opposition parties oppose the use of high stakes testing in primary.