‘They want to end this toxic testing’- Teachers pushing for tests for 11-year-olds to be scrapped

Teachers in Norfolk think SATs for 10 and 11-year-olds need to be scrapped and replaced with a new s

Teachers in Norfolk think SATs for 10 and 11-year-olds need to be scrapped and replaced with a new system which is less stressful for pupils and teachers. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

SATs for 10 and 11-year-olds are a costly and anxiety-inducing process which narrows pupils' learning, claim teachers who want to see them scrapped.

Jonathan Rice, headteacher at Caister Junior School. Picture: Ian Burt

Jonathan Rice, headteacher at Caister Junior School. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Some 97pc of primary school teachers polled by the National Education Union (NEU) about the key stage two exams said they should be scrapped and replaced with a "sensible alternative" which is better for pupils' all-round education and their mental health.

The NEU balloted its members on the issue last month, with more than 54,000 primary teachers responding. It is yet to announce the results of another question on industrial action over the tests.

Jonathan Rice, headteacher at Caister Junior School, believes SATs have narrowed the curriculum over the past 20 years and caused schools to exclude other subjects to focus on maths and English.

"That's not what primary education should be about. I heard of a school in London this week where the year six children had not had a PE lesson since last autumn," he said.

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"Ofsted are now having to insist schools provide a broad and balanced curriculum, but this is addressing a problem which SATs created.

"I also think it is wrong for children to be told, at the age of 11, that they have passed or failed. We should be measuring how much progress they have made instead.

Scott Lyons, National Education Union (NEU) Norfolk district secretary. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Scott Lyons, National Education Union (NEU) Norfolk district secretary. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

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"SATs costs around £60m a year to administer - that is money which could be much better spent if it was put into schools' budgets."

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St William's Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, believes children should be tested to ensure accountability for their progress but that it should be "a positive part of children's education and not a threat".

"There are such high stakes around this test [SATs] that it becomes disproportionate. Children's education suffers because the curriculum is narrowed," she said.

"If they were just used as an indicator of how successful children had been in primary school I don't think anyone would have an issue with it. What children get now is far better than it was, but in the last few years things have gone far too far."

She added: "The way your school goes about it is crucial. I want children to do their best but not at the expense of their wellbeing."

'Toxic testing'

Sarah Shirras headteacher of St William's Primary School. in Thorpe St Andrew. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Sarah Shirras headteacher of St William's Primary School. in Thorpe St Andrew. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

National curriculum tests at seven, 11 and 14 were introduced in 1991. The tests for 10 and 11-year-olds now cover reading, maths and spelling, punctuation and grammar.

But for almost two decades concerns have abounded that the tests put too much pressure on teachers and pupils and cause curriculums to be narrowed as schools chase good results.

In a poll of 1,200 primary school teachers by the NEU in July 2018, 88pc said SATs did not benefit pupils' learning and 86pc said preparing for SATs squeezed out other parts of the curriculum such as the arts.

Teachers said pupils could be put into "highly anxious states" by the tests, with reports of children having nightmares, making themselves ill with worry and even refusing the come to school.

Scott Lyons, NEU Norfolk district secretary, said teachers were having to work to "protect" children from the worst effects of the examination regime.

Of the SATs ballot, he said: "Our members are really looking for an alternative. They want to end this toxic testing.

"Children's happiness is inextricably linked to SATs and other exams. We have to convince the government that the mental health of our children and school staff is more important than figures on a spreadsheet."

He added: "From when children first get into education up to when they leave there is a constant scrutiny of their performance.

"It is assumed they will follow a straight flight plan in life while we know from our experiences that they will go through peaks and troughs and accelerate and stall - that is the messy reality but it does not sit well with Department for Education statisticians."

In response to last month's ballot, schools minister Nick Gibb said SATs had been pivotal in raising standards in primary schools and that abolishing them would be a backwards step.

The NEU ballot results coincided with the release of provisional key stage 2 SATs results for pupils who sat the exams in May.

Nationally, the proportion of children reaching expected standards in reading fell from 75pc in 2018 to 73pc, the proportion in maths rose from 75pc to 79pc, and the proportion in spelling, punctuation and grammar was static at 78pc.

SATs: A history

Following the controversial introduction of the national curriculum in 1989, with key stages for testing at seven, 11, 14 and 16, the first round of SATs in England and Wales was held in 1991.

It was immediately lambasted and a National Union of Teachers (NUT) boycott was narrowly avoided, leading to reforms by government later that year. Further planned NUT boycotts in 1993 and 2004 failed to materialise.

In October 1995, fewer than half of pupils reached the target grade in required English and maths tests.

When Labour took power in 1997 it set education as a priority and results in English and numeracy started to improve, but failed to meet targets in 2001 and 2002.

Around this time claims began to circulate of teachers doctoring pupils' SATs tests and the stress the exams were causing to pupils and teachers.

In 2004 Wales took the decision to scrap SATs for 11 and 14-year-olds; England followed suit for SATs at 14 in 2008, but retained tests at 11.

In 2013, then education secretary Michael Gove announced a new version of the national curriculum which introduced a new format for tests and teacher assessment at each key stage, which was used for the first time in 2016.

What do the public think?

We asked people on the streets of Norwich whether they thought children should take SATs at age 11.

Anna, 48, a personal trainer from Salhouse, said: "There needs to be an alternative, but more of a visual [assessment] - they haven't got the manpower to do it, though.

"I'm a huge believer in that they [children] should be happy and they should just be allowed to be kids."

Estelliane Kermagoret, 41, a university lecturer from Paris, thought the tests were unnecessary.

In France children are not formally examined until the age of 14 or 15.

She said: "The focus on English and mathematics takes attention away from other important subjects. It's a bit overkill. It's more important to see what they've done across the whole year."

Claire Mitchell, from Norwich, worked as a school counsellor before retiring.

"My feeling was that schools did put a lot of pressure on children. It was more about where the school came on the league tables than was it good for the children," she said.

Cheryl, 30, a massage therapist from Teeside, said: "I think it's too much - life's not all about exams is it?"

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