Cheating, pressure to improve results, stress. Now campaigners call for a different approach to assessing children
New Delhi, April 26, 2018: When children across England start their week of Sats tests next month, 30 primary schools will be under particular scrutiny. That is because children from those schools have performed poorly once they have moved to secondary schools. That has raised suspicions that their good Sats results – more properly known as key stage 2 tests – were the result of cheating. Children from other primary schools feeding the same secondary schools, meanwhile, have performed roughly as expected.
“For example, if the children were predicted 10 Bs [at GCSE], they would get 10 Cs,” said Dave Thomson, chief statistician at Education Data Lab, which carried out the analysis. “I don’t think we can say with absolute certainty why this is happening but it warrants further investigation.”
Cheating is one of the many reasons why Sats continue to face serious opposition. Parent groups such as Let Our Kids Be Kids plan to boycott Sats this year by taking their children out of primary school when the tests start on 14 May. Last year a headteacher of a Leeds primary school locked the Sats papers in a cupboard and took the children to the Captain Cook Museum in Whitby instead. In 2010 nearly 15,000 children in London did not take Sats after a boycott and had continuous assessments instead.
Campaigners against Sats object to the huge pressure primary schools are under to deliver improvements year after year, which they say encourages schools to teach only the core subjects of reading, writing and mathematics, almost abandoning art, music, foreign languages and even science, which is only assessed in a random selection of schools according to reports published in theguardian.com
“Schools are judged, compared and ranked on these results,” said James Bowen from the National Association of Head Teachers.
“If the scores aren’t good enough, teachers start fearing the implications and the interventions they might face – even the future of the school. The stakes are far too high.”
Those stakes are high enough for some teachers to risk their careers. Over the last 12 months, three headteachers have been taken to a disciplinary panel of the National College for Training and Leadership – now the Teaching Regulation Agency – for altering Sats papers after they had been completed. In each case the heads resigned or were dismissed.
A National Union of Teachers source told the Observer that in other cases, borderline pupils had done Sats in the headteacher’s office so they could be helped to get the right answers. “Another head prepared for a mental maths test by giving all the children a copy of the paper so they could see the questions,” the source said. “There was a teacher who read the multiple choice test aloud and emphasised the right answers. One pressed so hard when she was altering exam scripts that the marks came through on other papers in the pile underneath.
“Those numbers are an overwhelming minority of cases,” Bowen said. “You have to question what is going on with the system where people feel driven to that kind of behaviour. No one trains to be a teacher thinking ‘one day I’m going to cheat in tests’. It says something about the system where people feel under so much pressure they start taking questionable action.”
While the vast majority of the 15,000 primary schools in England do not cheat, Sats are still seen by some as disruptive. Little London primary school in Leeds decided to boycott the exams last year after parents backed the idea in a consultation, says Ivelina Metchkarova, whose son was in year six. The key factor was that school would continue as normal in the remaining eight weeks of term after Sats finished.
“We were told that if there are no Sats, but there are extra assessments, then there will be continuous learning throughout the year until July,” she said. “If there had been Sats, after they finished the school would have been putting on plays. My son learned a huge amount in those three months and it really built his confidence.”
Unlike GCSEs and A-levels, Sats have no bearing on a child’s future – they aren’t used for school selection, and primary schools send far more detailed assessments of each child when they move up to secondary level. Yet there is growing concern that the stress felt by teachers trickles down to the children. The Commons education committee said last year that young children were at risk of developing mental health problems, with evidence that growing numbers of children suffering from panic attacks, anxiety and depression according to theguardian.com
Alison Roy of the Association of Child Psychotherapists, which is part of the More Than A Score campaign group seeking to replace Sats, said it was common now to hear children as young as six say they feel “stressed out”.
“We’re seeing higher levels of physical responses, like headaches, tummy aches and feeling sick, not wanting to go to school,” she said. “At this time of year [around Sats] we see a lot more emotional stresses and difficulties, and relationship issues from being put under pressure.”
Madeleine Holt, More Than A Score’s spokeswoman, said it wanted to see a broader range of assessments.
“In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales they don’t do this. In New Zealand they got rid of them,” she said, referring to the National Standards tests that have been abolished.
“The driving motive behind More Than A Score is to show that we are an international outlier. Most countries don’t do this. More and more parents are starting to feel that something is going wrong.”