Corbyn’s Coming for SATs. Head Teachers are Behind Him

Earlier this month, Jeremy Corbyn announced to the Annual Conference of the National Education Union that, should Labour win the next general election, they will scrap SATs. The Labour leader cited various concerns surrounding the well-being of students which has resulted in wide-spread support from teachers across the country. This statement comes weeks before year 6 pupils are due to sit their SATs and has prompted widespread discussion of the narrow British curriculum and the pressure it puts on teachers and students alike. 

So, what would Corbyn’s alternative look like? He told delegates at the conference last week that “we need to prepare children for life, not just for exams.” He advocated a broader curriculum, where teachers are trusted to do the job they trained for and where assessment will focus on understanding “the learning needs of each child, because every child is unique.” He cited his reasons for the proposed change as symptomatic of what the current system has created which he described as extreme pressure causing “nightmares” and leaving pupils “in floods of tears.” 

The reaction appears to have been positive on the part of unions with Paul Whiteman, head of the National Association of Head Teachers, commenting that children’s progress could be measured by teachers in everyday classroom settings.

While supporters of these measures have heralded this as a possible step toward ending league tables, Schools Minister Nick Gibb has been vocal in condemning the proposals as “a terrible retrograde step” which could jeopardise “decades of improvement in children’s reading and maths.” He fears “Labour plan to keep parents in the dark” as removal of SATs could result in a lack of data available to parents about a school’s teaching standards in numeracy and literacy. 

But what does the system currently look like and how has the government attempted to change it? At the moment, SATs are a concentrated set of tests sat by 11-year olds in May at the end of Key Stage 2. The government in 2018 announced that KS1 SATs, which apply to six and seven year olds, would eventually be replaced by baseline testing in reception which is due to start in 2020.  

Government advice surrounding the tests is that schools will provide suitable preparation for students and that parents should have a supporting role by encouraging good homework habits and regular reading. However, one cannot deny the inequality present as some schools hold revision classes during school hours while others rely on the curriculum as it is laid out and have a more relaxed approach to prevent undue stress in the days leading up to the tests. 

The government lay out a threshold or ‘floor target’ for primary schools which they are expected to remain above. Currently, schools are considered above the threshold if more than 65% of their students meet or are above their expected standard in reading, writing and maths. 

Something worth considering is an adoption of the school model employed in Finland. There, pupils have no mandatory exams until they are 17 years old. Instead, teachers assess students in class and their findings are implemented by schools to ensure greater progress. This system appears to have paid off. In the 2013 PISA test results (a form of international student assessment where 15 year olds around the world complete standardised tests) Finland were placed 6th in the world for reading skills and 12th in the world for maths, while the UK placed 23rd for reading and 26th for Maths. While raw figures like this don’t tell us much – to appear anywhere in the top 40 is good – it does appear that the more relaxed approach of the Finnish schools has paid off. 

Cautiously, however, I believe this would be a difficult system for the UK to directly copy without it feeling very foreign when compared to the rigorous testing we are used to. In Finland, teachers are required to have a Masters’ degree before they work full time and schools have complete autonomy. There is often no transition between primary and secondary school as many are combined and teachers can remain with classes for many years developing a better understanding of their students’ needs. There is less of a focus on streamlining pupils by ability and additional staff are commonly available to help lower ability students.

Corbyn’s plans are definitely welcomed by many and a recognition of the undue stress put on young children is to be commended. However, as it stands, these are only suggestions and, for now at least, we still have the Conservative government’s baseline testing to look forward to.  

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