An anti-anti-SATs rant

It’s that time of year again: children are looking forward to getting those pesky SATs over and done with so that they can concentrate on preparing for the Year 6 prom or auditioning for the lead role in the end of year performance. You know, fun stuff. What are the adults doing? It seems many, including educationalists, are falling over themselves with worry about how SATs kill children’s ‘creativity’ and mental health etc. Well, I’d like to step forward as one of very few primary (maths specialist) teachers who thinks SATs are not just not that big of a deal, but are actually really important.

Let’s begin with this:

Ahem, it’s a ‘subordinating conjunction’, by the way.

We’ve all saw it last year and then had the great joy of seeing it again all over facebook this year. What’s great about it is that it handily sums up the opinions of many relatively wealthy, privileged and middle class people who have no clue about the lives of disadvantaged children in this country. They see childhood as an endless carefree jaunt in the woods, but they don’t realise that their childhood home life (which would’ve included plenty of opportunities to read and write), even the very conversations they had at the dinner table, would’ve provided that extra education and boost towards academic success that the disadvantaged child would not receive. So, just because they’ve been given a leg up in life and didn’t need, for example, knowledge of how our wonderful language is constructed*, they seek to deny that knowledge to other children and then they seal it off with a ‘And Shakespeare didn’t know any grammar either!’

I don’t know which is worse. The fact that this children’s author compared herself to one of the greatest playwrights in history, or the sheer audacity with which she implied that even Shakespeare didn’t receive this ‘intense’ a schooling. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that Shakespeare had a very traditional education and would’ve been able to parse the hell out of a sentence, in Latin. Abi’s missive that one should simply ‘dream BIG’ also reminds me of that popular song which many primary school children sing: ‘Believe’ by Lin Marsh. It’s a very catchy, emotional song that has, on the face of it, some empowering lyrics:

I can do anything at all; I can climb the highest mountain and I can hear the ocean calling wild and free. I can be anything I want, with this hope to drive me onward if I can just believe in me.

I can’t be the only teacher and parent who thinks this and Abi’s message might be setting children up for failure when they realise, half way up Mount Everest, that believing is not quite enough; you also need a vision, a plan, hard work, perseverance and the maturity to not wimp out when the going gets tough. Plus an oxygen tank.

SATs calm

I think many people lose sight of what the SATs are for and instead opt for the odd view that they are somehow about labeling children, making them feel miserable or because ‘exam factories’ etc. To be fair, much of the misery comes from the fact that many children rock up to year 6 with gaps in their learning that go back as far as the educational eye can see and suddenly there’s a panic about school data. This leads to a massive diversion of manpower and resources towards these children who end up being tutored to the nth degree. If there were ever an example of how bonkers progressive (child-centred) education is, it is this total farce whereby children are allowed to fall behind or take a less steep trajectory compared to their peers in the name of ‘differentiation’ and then they’re subjected to intense pressure at the 11th hour to make up for all those years of staring out of the window or having a massive cob on whenever they were expected to work hard. It’s actually quite cruel, but this isn’t the fault of the SATs, it’s the fault of a system that does not expect all children to progress together and yet at the same time expects all children to be secondary ready at exactly the same time. It never ceases to amaze me how so many in education either cannot see this paradox or who seem to think that their amazing skills as educators can somehow override the space time continuum. I also feel sorry for many year 6 teachers who are having to tutor through lunch periods and after school, as well as run all those breakfast clubs and Saturday schools, yet at the same time have to put up with other teachers who berate them for being ‘driven by data’ or ‘careerist’.

What is also apparent is that many teachers and primary leaders would prefer for the SATs to be abolished so that the children would not need to be put through the pain of breakfast or Saturday clubs etc. I believe that this would lead to many more children rocking up to year 7 without the basics in terms of reading, writing and mathematics because, at the end of the day, SATs are a proxy for ensuring children are able to read, write and add up such that they’re able to get the most out of their secondary schooling and therefore life. We should also remember that while children may, of course, prefer to mess about, play and do ‘creative’ lessons, we need to be responsible enough to ensure they have the opportunity to experience the simple pleasure of reading a good book. So, whenever a primary teacher makes the argument for ‘happiness’ (ie more art and drama) in year 6 for children who are not fluent readers, writers or who cannot do basic arithmetic, she is also inadvertently making an argument for potential misery in year 7 and beyond.

At this point many will argue that my argument is too binary. What about those with SEN who will have to suffer through these exams only to be labelled as ‘failures’? Well, I have seen this ‘fact’ propagated far too often. Children with statements are not required to sit the exams and besides, the results are reported to parents who are then free to share (or not share) this information with their children. I am also quite amazed to learn that schools are allowed to provide readers for children who cannot read; this is surely proof that there is some leeway in the system to facilitate the needs of children with SEN?

There have also been arguments leveled at the entire SATs regime because of individual experiences of children crying over SATs. My counter to this would simply be that just because one middle class child has never experienced any hardship, harsh words or even lifted a finger at home and therefore can’t cope with tests, is no reason to deny all other children the opportunity to work towards something so important (basic life skills) and then be tested on it. For every mum on Facebook raging against the fact that her little angel Persephone is in tears, there are 10 others with children who are just getting on with the job without making a fuss. Why are their children able to do this? Perhaps because they live in cramped, damp homes and have seen their parents worry and fret over the bills; an hour long test in the warm followed by half a mars bar is a walk in the park in comparison. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ that anything that makes a child feel a little bit sad will inevitably lead to mental health issues.

I think that what we all need to remember is that for every parent who barges into the school reception and shouts at the year 6 teacher for making her son work towards having neat, fluent and spelling-error-free handwriting such that he is ‘forced’ to throw a strop, wail, shout and bemoan his lack of time in the ICT suite or on the playing fields, there are 10 parents who are worried that their children might end up in the low sets at secondary school and be subjected to bullying, low self-esteem and unhappiness because of their poor grasp of the basics. These parents are also worried that their children might not have choices in life, or, even worse, make the wrong choices, leaving them to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams when they themselves are struggling to make ends meet. These are the parents who tacitly approve of a few weeks of intense study towards doing well in the SATs because they have the maturity to know that doing well in the SATs is actually about having basic life skills and knowledge. Also, they know that working hard is a good thing because it gives you the opportunity to experience the true joy of success that comes from sheer effort and also deferred gratification. I am rather miffed at the way in which educators seek to undermine these opportunities for children to mature or even experience real happiness when they promote an agenda that effectively prioritises instant gratification.

What would help though (I believe) is if we had some kind of yearly exam and requirement to report the exact results and their comparison to the average to parents. This would go some way to mitigate the need for such intense teaching in year 6. Also, I think it would be a good idea to encourage primary schools to be evidence-based in their construction of curricula and use of certain teaching methods. For example, there is an increasing awareness that reading comprehension success is mostly to do with having lots of general knowledge as well as being able to read fluently. It behoves us to ensure that children are reading a wide range of non-fiction writing from the start of their school career, rather than focusing on endless fantasy stories. A middle way would ensure that even stories contain a modicum of general knowledge, for example using settings that give children geographical or cultural knowledge of the wider world. I’m sure many schools already do this to some degree, but that perhaps it is not sequenced or with the deliberate aim of improving the vocabulary and general knowledge of disadvantaged children. Certainly, when you check the websites of most primary schools, you will see a nod to child-centred education and skills based curricula despite evidence showing us that whole-class teaching and knowledge-based curricula is best for all children, especially disadvantaged children. ‘Knowledge’ is still very much a dirty word in primary education and this needs to change.

I saw our year 6s recently and I said well done to them for working so hard towards something that is so important; not the SATs, but towards being able readers, writers and mathematicians which is really what this is all about. I also let them know that I was excited for them because, next week, they would have the opportunity to show how amazing they are, to go for a personal best and to be proud that they can focus so well.

It’s all about attitude and I do believe that we need to model being positive in the face of adversity.

Who’s with me?

*I may not have the writing skills of a widely published author such as Miss Elphinstone, but without my self-taught knowledge of grammar and punctuation, I would not have the confidence or skills to write this blog.


16 thoughts on “An anti-anti-SATs rant

  1. I would be happy with a KS2 English SAT which assessed students’ grasp of basic grammar and their ability to read and write fluently. Sadly, the current one is poorly designed and encourages overuse of the now-notorious ‘fronted adverbial’ and other devices, as well as making children learn a truckload of ridiculously overcooked grammatical terms. Like the rest of Gove’s policies, good ideas incompetently executed. In my ideal world, everyone would learn Latin in secondary school and would be able, like Shakespeare, to ‘parse the hell out of’ sentences, but if this were to happen it would take many years of careful planning, training of teachers etc. Likewise, I would absolutely love it if my Y7 class had arrived in September fluent in all of the Y6 Maths objectives, but they didn’t – if anything, they were worse prepared for secondary than last year’s cohort. This is of course for the reasons you so eloquently describe: a lack of secure learning all through primary, followed by unhappy cramming in Y6. This can only be sorted out, as you say, with proper careful attention to the primary curriculum and teachers’ expertise. In the meantime, I would MUCH rather kids came to us in Y7 with a strong foundation in a considerably smaller body of knowledge which we could build on, instead of having to unpick a load of misconceptions, reteach most of it, and also drill them on times tables which most STILL do not know properly. Grr. Btw please, please don’t think I am having a moan at primary teachers – it is totally not their fault that they are asked to teach 5 or 6 different subjects with large classes, ridiculous workload from marking etc, and no in-depth training in any of those subjects. Countries which do successfully get their kids to a good level in Maths by the end of primary have subject specialists who are properly trained.
    So I’m with you in principle, but totally against the current version of the SATs. They are counterproductive.


    • I agree with you on the maths curriculum. However, what I find is that when I approach the teaching of grammar in the same way as approaching the teaching of maths (it’s all ‘rules’ and facts after all), children really do understand and are much more confident with their writing, particularly males who read with less emotion/speed and therefore don’t have the ‘intuition’ to know here punctuation should occur.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree and I would also point out that the last time I looked at school curriculums there was still a lot of schools which are using the frameworks of the old literacy and numeracy strategies, while shoe horning in the new objectives. It requires curricula rethink. Though I do think that the capacity of primary schools to do this when subject expertise is lacking, was overestimated. Schemes of Work providers have not really stepped up to the mark or innovated for a knowledge rich curriculum, becuase they don’t believe in it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. In Australia we have nation wide testing in literacy and numeracy at year 3, 5, 7 and 9 , called NAPLAN.
    It gives our schools a useful snapshot of pupil progress and an objective measure of how well our instructional programs are working.
    There is still widespread dislike of the tests and we’ll get similar whining at NAPLAN time each year from some sections of the education community.
    For students the tests are “no stakes” For schools they have some weight as results are published.
    Have these tests improved our education system? PISA and TIMMs would suggest no. Australian results in these studies relative to other participating countries have declined significantly in the last 12 years.
    I still think the test are worthwhile but many don’t agree.
    The pig doesn’t get any fatter the more you weigh it.


    • I was under the impression that decline in Australian results was because of the curriculum, rather than the testing? I’m pretty sure there is some data somewhere comparing no-SATs cohorts (Wales?) to SATs cohorts finding that those who take the tests tend to be better readers, writers and mathematicians.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s the lack of responsibility within the system that is the problem. Teachers/SLT/Educationalists who encourage and believe in an irresponsible approach (because someone or something else can always be blamed for their failures instead of facing up to it themselves) want an end to SATs so they can be even less responsible.

    I read only this week that removing SATs should entitle children to an EYFS curriculum throughout primary school. This is why, despite the problems with the SATs, I don’t want the system changed until a robust alternative is in place. The primary assessment report from the Education Committee was woeful in the end, cherry picking examples and not getting to the heart of why children are being hothoused in Year 6 (vacuous child-centred, skills based teaching).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s not often that I have the slightest urge to commit an act of physical violence, but children’s authors are an exception. Having taught hundreds of children who were failed by ‘caring’ primary school teachers who valued ‘creativity’ over basic competences, I know the anguish this creates for parent and pupil alike.

    In “Does Education Matter?” Alison Wolf analysed the data and came to the conclusion that educational qualifications have less effect on an individual’s earning potential than is commonly assumed. However, she made an exception for basic skills. Commenting on the National Child Development Study–which tracked the outcomes of over 17,000 children born in Britain during the week of 3 March, 1958, she concluded:

    “Poor literacy and poor numeracy—especially the latter—have a devastating effect on people’s chances of well-paid and stable employment. Moreover, this is not just because people with poor skills tend to have few GCSEs or other formal qualifications. Even after controlling for these, the effects of low skill levels are major and evident.”

    To paraphrase Thomas Sowell: “The problem isn’t that Abi can’t think. The problem is that she doesn’t know what thinking is; she confuses it with feeling.”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. As you suggest, a rant against those who don’t agree with the current arrangements for testing.

    You go from SATS and a picture of the lady who seems to be on the receiving end of much of your anger to usual sequence of straw men including walks in the woods, child centred education and a lack of respect for the knowledge curriculum. You even throw in a bit of William Shakespeare to up the tone a bit.

    At no point do you address the assertions made in the picture by the lady known as Abi. She is absolutely correct that not being able to define, describe and use a modal verb is not going to affect your ability to achieve your potential. Unless of course you are going to edit an online book on English grammar. Likewise the subordinating conjunctive.

    Rich people do not get where they need to go in 2017 because they know modal verbs and subordinating conjunctives, that was 17th and 18th centuries. In those days you couldn’t get into Oxford without such highbrow nonsense but those days are gone. The world really is changing.

    So instead of sweeping generalisations which invoke the old trad vs prog incantations all over again, just address the ladies points.

    Very few teachers would argue that assessment is unnecessary, so there really is no need for all that anti-intellectualism rhetoric. There is widespread objection to SATS, a subject I know very little about so I am unable to offer an opinion one way or another.

    Being anti SATS doesn’t make anyone anti assessment, doesn’t mean someone has low expectations for kids and certainly doesn’t mean that they are neglecting their teaching responsibilities.

    The last sentence of the first comment said it perfectly I think.


    • It’s easy to pick something out of the curriculum and say that actually you can get a long way without knowing it. Reading a Shakespeare play. Learning a foreign language. Knowing about the battle of Hastings. Knowing the Fibonacci sequence. Logarithms. Trigonometry. Photosynthesis. Particles. The list goes on. If you go down this route you end up saying that all you need to teach is basic literacy and numeracy and that everything else should be optional. I’m with Hirsch on core knowledge and cultural capital

      Liked by 2 people

      • I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that basic literacy and numeracy are the only things that matter–rather, that they are the only things that are essential to one’s chances of getting stable and well-paid employment. I frequently rail at those who suggest that preparing children for the world of work should be an overt aim of schooling. Happily, good discipline and good teaching will almost certainly serve you well when you go for your first job, but this applies no matter what you’ve learned in school.

        As a general statement of the aims of schooling, Frank Furedi put it rather well:

        “The statement that education is important for its own sake is not an appeal to some snobbish sentiment about valuing ideas in the abstract. What it refers to is the valuation of cultural accomplishments through which society renews itself and acquires the intellectual and moral resources necessary to understand itself and face the future.”

        Liked by 2 people

  6. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that testing should be more regular. It is grossly unfair that year six teachers have to make up for all the time wasted being ‘creative’ in earlier years.

    What we need are annual tests based on specific knowledge that is clearly defined.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Where I disagree: your pastiche of those who disagree with SATS as hypocritical spoilt upper middle class idiots (and, conversely, with your description of all those brave untermenschen who are trying to haul themselves up out of poverty by settling down to SATS); the straw man that says being against SATS is really the same as being in favour of inequality.

    Where I agree: the concept that the real value of SATS is that it teaches kids about the link between hard work and achievement; the argument that it would be better if the whole of the primary school curriculum was designed to carry the load, rather than Years 5 and 6 being used to crush them; the (unexpressed) view that knowledge is never useless.

    Finally, I can’t be with you on the idea that we need to model positivity in the face of adversity. Who (really) wants to be positive when life is crushing? Family killed in a car accident? Plenty more fish in the sea (and more time for following your own interests now!). Diagnosed with terminal disease? Thank the Lord for the NHS! Stuck in a dead end job where you suffer abuse and discrimination? At least you’ve got your health! Instead, let’s promote acceptance that life is challenging and a rigorous exploration of why that might be so.


  8. I am more and more sure you are not actually a real person and your blog is simply a cliche generating machine.

    Oh and get your facts right, having a statement (EHCP plan) does NOT mean you do not have to sit the SATs and in my experience most DO take the tests.


  9. Abi’s poor reasoning is nicely deconstructed here:

    For every kid who does poorly at SAT and then goes on to do well, there are likely 10 kids who do poorly at SATs and then go on to do very badly.

    She also, apart from poor logic, left out some things that are relevant. She went to university — so at some stage she did pass exams. She wasn’t the sort of kid who needed to worry about how things would go anyway — grand-daughter of a Baronet, with parents with money. Her passage through life is, to put it mildly, not relevant to most people.


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