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.

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Frequently asked questions about Too Much Testing

  • 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 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.”

    In a 2018 a survey found most 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.”

    Wiliam, D. "What testing can - and cannot - do" published in Pedagogiska Magasinet, September 16, 2011

    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.”

    Harlen, W. "Assessment, Standards and Quality of Learning in Primary Education" a report for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, November 2014

  • 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.

    More information on the assessment for children charter can be found here.

    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.

    More information on the More Than A Score pledge can be found here.

Frequently asked questions about the ballot

  • Why are we doing an indicative ballot?

    There is a widespread view amongst teachers, parents, politicians and education experts that the current assessment system is damaging education, because: 

    • The high-stakes nature of the tests and their link to school league tables causes stress for pupils and staff alike.
    • The narrowing of the curriculum resulting from pressure to teach to the test means children miss out on a broad education. 
    • The focus on only a small set of skills which can be tested treats all pupils the same and labels them as failures if they do not meet arbitrary standards. 
    • The tests are about comparing schools, not about assessing children in a way which helps teachers to support their learning. 

    Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party now stand united in their opposition to high-stakes testing in primary schools and societal pressure against testing children is growing.

  • What is an indicative ballot?

    An indicative ballot is a way for the union to understand what members think about an issue and if they feel strongly enough to take industrial action. The NEU rulebook stipulates that the union must undertake an indicative ballot before progressing to an industrial action ballot.

    An indicative ballot is not a statutory ballot and therefore is not bound by any legal process. It does not, therefore, need to meet the legal ballot thresholds for formal ballots (50% of all members to vote and 40% of all members to vote yes) to take legal action.

    Despite this, we are keen to ensure as many members as possible take part so that we can demonstrate to Government how strongly teachers and support staff feel about the issues. So we would urge you to speak with other members in your school and encourage them to vote to get the highest turnout possible.

  • How was it decided we would do an indicative ballot?

    Annual Conference is the supreme policy-making body of the NEU and members at our Conference in April 2019 debated and then voted to ballot members on the issue of primary testing.

    Members at Conference believed this was the time to send a clear message to the Government that there is too much testing in primary schools and that a complete overhaul of the accountability regime is required that allows education professionals to use their expertise.     

  • When will the indicative ballot take place?

    The indicative ballot will run from Tuesday 4 June on Tuesday 2 July 2019.

  • What questions will be asked in the indicative ballot?

    Members will be asked 2 questions.

    Question 1 will ask for your views on the NEU’s campaign against high-stakes primary assessment regime.

    Question 2 will ask whether you would be prepared to take industrial action to boycott all summative high-stakes primary testing during the academic year 2019/20.

    The tests which would be covered by this would be: KS1 and KS2 SATs, Year 1 Phonics Check, Year 4 Multiplication Tables Check. The Reception Baseline Assessment is not due to become a statutory test until September 2020 (with a pilot taking place in September 2019), so would not be included.

  • Who will be eligible to vote in the indicative ballot?

    We will be balloting all in-service teachers and support staff working in state primary schools in England. This will include members in middle-deemed-primary schools. Members in middle-deemed-secondary schools and all-through schools will not be balloted, since it is likely a large proportion of those members will not be involved in teaching or administering statutory primary tests. Members in special schools are not part of the ballot group.

    All-through schools were excluded because, although they will contain some members who are involved in statutory assessments, the issue does not affect all members in the workplace. Ballot thresholds apply to all members in a workplace: in a school where the union has 20 members and 6 administering SATs, at least 8 members would have to vote Yes. The indicative ballot is meant to inform a decision about the potential for success in a formal ballot. Including All-through schools would set the bar unreasonably high and is not representative of action the union would take in these workplaces.

    Supply teachers, unless contracted directly by the school and not through an agency, would not be covered by any future trade dispute that the union declares. Their employer would not be the Secretary of State, but their agency.

  • Are supply teachers included in the indicative ballot?

    Supply teachers are not automatically included in the ballot. This is because we do not know the exact nature of the contract each supply teacher is employed under or who their employer is. If you are a supply teacher who is contracted directly by a school and not through an agency and you let us know via the ballot helpline before 5.30pm on 28 June (0207 380 6300) we will include you in the ballot group and send you a ballot.

    Supply teachers, unless contracted directly by the school and not through an agency, would not be covered by any future trade dispute that the union declares. Their employer would not be the Secretary of State, but their agency. Although this is an indicative – not a formal – ballot, it is important that it represents the conditions of a formal ballot and only includes people who would be eligible to vote in a formal ballot and take part in a trade dispute.

  • How will I receive my ballot?

    The ballot will be electronic and voting will be done online. Most members will receive their ballot via email and will be able to vote by clicking on the web link within the email. If you have not received your ballot email, please check your junk email folder before contacting us.

    If we don’t have a valid email address for you, we will send a letter to your home address. The letter will contain a web link to the ballot page, along with a unique ballot ID which you will need to cast your vote.

  • Will my vote be secret?

    This will be confidential secret ballot. Any results reported will be aggregated across the entire ballot group. Detail about whether and how you have voted will be kept confidential.

  • I have moved school/house recently or have a new email address, what do I do?

    You can update your membership record by logging into myNEU with your email address and date of birth:

    If you are not able to access myNEU, please email our membership department using BALLOT in the subject line of the email.

  • I’m an NEU rep – can I see who is a member at my school/update my list?

    Reps can view the membership list for their school via myNEU.

    By the end of the first week of the indicative ballot (week of 3 June), there will be an online tool available for reps to:

    • Let the union know if a member(s) no longer works at their school
    • Provide or update the email address for any member at their school

    This information will feed back into the NEU membership system to help cleanse our data.

    Any eligible member who joins the NEU during the ballot period, any time before 5pm on Friday 28 June, will automatically receive an email ballot paper within 72 hours of joining. Likewise, anyone who’s email address is updated will receive a new ballot email to their updated email address within 72 hours of their member record being updated.

  • I haven’t received my ballot, what should I do?

    Please check your junk email folder to see if it is there.

    Our ballot helpline will open at 9am on Wednesday 5 June. The number will be 0207 380 6300. The opening hours will be 9am-5pm Monday-Friday.

    You will need to let us know you have not received your ballot before 5pm on Friday 28 June at the latest, to guarantee we can reissue it via email.

    Once you let us know you haven’t received a ballot, you will be issued with a new one within 72 hours.

  • When would any formal ballot take place?

    A formal, statutory, ballot for industrial action would be needed to allow NEU members to boycott activities related to high stakes testing. There are legal ballot thresholds for formal ballots which the Union would have to meet in order to ask members to take legal industrial action (50 per cent of all members to vote and 40 per cent of all members to vote yes).

    Under 9.1 of the NEU’s rules an indicative survey must be undertaken before starting any formal ballot process. This is to ensure there is sufficient support among members for a formal ballot before proceeding. The Union’s National Executive will decide whether to proceed with a formal ballot once the results of the indicative ballot are known.

    Formal ballots are only valid for 6 months after the ballot closes: this is the period during which legal industrial action can be taken. To cover all the statutory primary tests during the next academic year, therefore, a formal ballot would need to close early in the spring term (January 2020) so it would still be valid for the SATs in May and the Phonics Check and Multiplication Tables Test in June.

  • Simple tests? NEU members describe how SATs are not fit for purpose.

    SATs give no opportunity for children to demonstrate what they DO understand, testing only what is easy to test. The system that we are putting our children through is not equipping them for the world outside of school.

Too much high stakes testing

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Watch members and the main opposition parties oppose the use of high stakes testing in primary.