Every May, children in Year 6 at schools in England have to undergo SATs tests. These are a marker of a child’s understanding in basic maths and literacy, before they progress to secondary school. In 2013, the Department of Education added an extra test – in spelling and grammar – to those in reading, writing and rithmetic, sorry, maths.
There remains controversy about whether or not 10- and 11-year-olds should be made to undergo the stress of such tests at such a young age, and whether publishing the results means primary schools are purely judged on these simplistic performance measures rather than the all-round school experience they can deliver to their pupils. Does it mean that teachers are drilling students to pass the tests, because the school must demonstrate the best results it can, rather than providing a more rounded curriculum? Yes, say many teaching unions, who argue that the tests are in fact counterproductive.
Back in 2005, the Welsh Assembly ditched SATs, following an independent inquiry into the tests and a separate review of the school curriculum, which both concluded that the tests put unnecessary strain on teachers and pupils. Yet there are continuing problems with standards of reading, writing and numeracy among schoolchildren in Wales, with the Welsh national inspection body, ESTYN, continuing to raise concerns. It has said that some teachers’ expectations are too low. A 2013 study by the University of Cardiff showed that reading standards in children of seven years old (rather than 11) were weaker than those of their English neighbours. This is a complex issue, of course, and may be nothing to do with the lack of SATs as a driving force but more to do with the higher average levels of poverty in the Principality. It would be interesting to compare directly the results at Year 6.
Whatever the arguments, the government believes that SATs work. SATs tests are taken by over half a million children, and the results over the last couple of years have shown continued improvement. In 2014, 79% of pupils achieved an overall level 4 across the four tests – level 4 is the standard that children of this age should attain. That’s a result up four percentage points on 2013.
In reading, 89% of children gained at least a level 4, up from 86% in 2013. In writing, 85% of youngsters reached this threshold, up two percentage points on last year. And in maths there was a smaller rise – but still a rise – from 85% to 86% in 2014. In the spelling, punctuation and grammar test, just over three-quarters (76%) achieved the standard, rising from 74% in 2013.
Gradual improvement, splendid. But if you look at it the other way, then about a fifth (21%) of England’s primary school pupils went to secondary school without attaining decent literacy and maths skills. Not reaching level 4 does not of course mean that they can’t read, but that their achievements are not where they should be. Will this dog them for life? The SATs tests undoubtedly point up underachievement, but many of these children, and their teachers, will already have been aware that they weren’t doing as well as some other pupils. That, unfortunately, is life. And all through life, we have to take stressful tests of one sort or another – a sales pitch, a driving test, an interview, as well as further exams. The question is, does schools’ focus on SATs mean that these less-able children are missing out on developing other skills which will help them get on?