SATs – are you passing the test?

Without getting too deep on you, let’s face it, whatever your spiritual leaning, we are all here to make the world a better place and be the best people we can possibly be.  Life throws up all manner of tests for us to face – some harder than others, some which deeply challenge us, others that help us to grow.  The biggest test of all is to do the right thing when it’s also the hardest thing.

Sure, it’s easier to pay 5p for yet another plastic bag but the right thing to do is bring your bag for life right?   It’s easier to just chuck everything in the wheelie bin but the right thing to do is wash, squash and recycle right?   It’s easier to think everyone else will solve the world problems than take action ourselves.  It’s easier to follow orders that to challenge authority.

Right now the education accountability system is a mess. Kids are suffering as a result and teachers are despairing at how they can protect children from a flawed standardised testing system.  Are you doing the easy thing or the hard thing to solve that problem?

If you are a primary headteacher we understand you have difficult ethical choices to make.  The hard thing right now is to say no to Baseline pilots taking place in your school – testing 4 year olds is nonsense and everyone knows it… the data will be unreliable and feed a system which is deeply flawed.  Every year you face the moral issues regarding SATs in both Year 2 and in Year 6 – the easy thing is to continue to feed the data machine, the hard thing is to work with other heads to try and fight the broken system that does so much harm.

If you are a parent watching your child prepare for SATs the hard thing right now is to ask difficult questions and challenge your school, your LEA, your MP – the right thing is to be part of the change you want to see by asking those difficult questions and challenging the system you know is failing your child.  The easy thing is to hope someone else will fight on your child’s behalf – as parents we are advocates for our children, we can not take the easy route.

If you are a secondary headteacher and can see how Progress 8 is damaged by over-inflated primary SAT scores, setting your children and your teachers up for failure, the hard thing right now is to work with primary colleagues towards a better solution. The right thing is to fight against SATs to protect yet more children entering a damaged system.

The easy thing is to think this is someone else’s problem, to maintain the status quo and allow this mess to continue.  The hard thing is the right thing, the thing that helps us sleep at night knowing we are part of the solution and not the problem.  If we all try to do the right thing, we can sort this mess out together. Ask yourself… are you passing the test?

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SECONDARY TEACHER PERSPECTIVE – SATs don’t just fail Year 6

SATs don’t just fail Year 6… Why are we not talking about this?

“On the day I left teaching a student apologised to me – he felt he had ‘failed me’.  

It was GCSE results day and this was a Year 11 boy who had just received his English results; he had gained a level 5 for Literature but ‘only’ a level 4 for Language.  The DfE assure us that the bottom of a level 4 equates to the bottom of a grade C – so surely a pass? But this student was basing his failure on the target grades he had been given to work towards – throughout his secondary school career he had been told the target he must aim for was much higher than a level 4 – the implication being that based on the score achieved in his KS2 SATs this target should be possible to achieve.  In the same way that ‘satisfactory’ no longer means just that, a ‘target’ has become an expectation and something to be judged on.

This was not a student who hadn’t worked hard, in fact after a sometimes unsettled start to secondary school, often working with support, he had made a conscious decision to commit to his GCSEs and had worked extremely hard in English – even enduring ‘swot’ comments from the friends he would normally ‘mess on’ with; he wanted to do well and was determined to try to meet that target.

But this was a target imposed upon him based on the results of a flawed test taken five years earlier, crammed for at primary school by teachers who themselves were striving desperately to meet unobtainable targets. He had been taught to pass a test and his score was not an accurate assessment of what that child was capable of. Time wasted teaching to a test had left him unprepared for the demands of secondary school, the depth and range of knowledge required and the embedding of basic skills necessary. Much of his time in lower school was spent catching up.

The day I gave this child his targets in Year 10, his face dropped; his incredulous response: ‘I’m never going to achieve that am I?’ He lived with the target for two years in the knowledge that he was unlikely to achieve it and despite repeated reassurance that he was working brilliantly and that it was just that, a target to aim for, he never quite lost that worried look.  In his mind, no matter how well he did, he was never good enough.

Each set of progress monitoring sent home served merely to reinforce this to both him and his parents; every time he was ‘flagged up’ by data entries that colour-coded him as ‘underachieving’; each time he was targeted for extra intervention or spoken to by his head of year about working harder. For two years he was reminded almost daily that he ‘could do better’.

He did work hard and he did make massive progress – on an individual level he was a huge success story – the day he gained a 5+ in a mock exam I cried! I even asked my head of department to double check it before giving it back to give him the reassurance of us both that he was improving.  His shy response: ‘Nice one!’ But on a grid of data he still flagged up as failing because the outcome of his KS2 SATs at the age of eleven suggested he could do better.

As teachers we are expected to differentiate and focus our teaching on an individual’s needs, however the system imposed upon our assessment of those same children expects them to progress in a steady linear route, not taking into account the individual at all.

It wasn’t just his English targets that were set using his KS2 English and Maths data; the target for every other subject he took was based on those two results. A PE target set on how well he did in Maths and English at primary school…

As I said goodbye to one of the hardest working students I have had the pleasure to teach, now embarking upon an apprenticeship that he had worked independently to secure, I was able to reassure him confidently that the failure was in no way his; the failure instead being that of a pointless and damaging test system that sets children, teachers and schools up to fail. Why?”

Ofsted – still room for improvement.

On October 11th, at a schools’ summit in Newcastle, Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman said what teachers and parents have been saying for years – the focus on data in schools is failing our children.  Admitting that Ofsted has played a significant role in this problem is a fantastic step forward. Promising to look beyond exam results brought tears to our cynical eyes.

We are thankful that Ofsted has taken a lead on this. The DfE has its fingers firmly in its ears, complicit in the failing of a generation by refusing to respond to parliamentary reviews, teaching unions, expert advisers or the pleas of parents.  Our elected members of parliament are still more concerned with league table ranking and the privatisation of education than the well-being of our children.

So, thank you Ofsted, although we will retain a healthy dose of scepticism… the proof of all these statements will be in the eating of the ‘pressure cooker’ pudding and there is still a long way to go.

Our world is evolving, technology advancing and the workplace rapidly changing.  Understanding of child development and mental health is moving forward and yet the education system is stagnating.  Creativity is stifled, critical thinking limited and freedom curtailed whilst academic progress and emphasis on data is put before all other metrics of human development. This change in Ofsted’s focus is a very welcome shift… but does it go far enough?

As well as limiting the impact of high stakes testing, a narrowed curriculum and an over reliance on data here are a few other suggestions that parents would welcome as key stakeholders in their children’s development.

OUTSTANDING schools should recognise the fundamental importance of free play for under 7s.  We, as parents, are appalled that children in years 2, 1 and Reception have a lack of play based learning activities and often have playtime severely limited due to curriculum pressures.  Under sevens in other parts of the world engage in exercise, fresh air and free play whilst children in England are sitting at desks learning cursive script! THIS IS UNSATISFACTORY.

OUTSTANDING schools should recognise that children who are ill should not be in school and trust a parent’s judgement to care for their child.  The requirement of medical sick notes for a day’s illness is a waste of NHS resources. 100% attendance awards are pointless, damaging and discriminatory. Attendance data is being put ahead of children’s health. THIS IS UNSATISFACTORY.

OUTSTANDING schools should be able to accommodate term time holidays for families who wish to broaden the experience of their children, maintain a proper work life balance and take an affordable vacation.  Holiday fines are punitive and unfair, demonstrating clearly just how intensely pressurised the education system has become as well as showing a gross disrespect for parental choice and family life. THIS IS UNSATISFACTORY.

OUTSTANDING schools should set appropriate levels of homework, respecting a child’s life outside of academic study. Research suggests that homework in primary school is pointless and potentially damaging, impacting negatively on family life; yet parents are finding homework is increasing in many schools. THIS IS UNSATISFACTORY.

OUTSTANDING schools should have parent groups involved in school policy.  The demise of school governors in many academies and the totalitarian authority of the senior management in schools makes it impossible for parents to become true partners in their child’s learning. THIS IS UNSATISFACTORY.

If Ofsted really wishes to evolve into being part of the solution rather than the problem please include PARENTS as valued key stakeholders – no one cares more than we do that our children are part of a truly outstanding education system.

Microwaving Childhood.

A few years back we chatted to our kids about moving house. Our 7 year old coped with it in the way children do – outwardly there was not much fuss – the emotion was processed through play. With 3 toy dogs in her little play house she acted out how they’d stay in touch if one moved away to another kennel, there were tears from each of the puppies. Play was her way of processing the information, of developing her mental strength and of coping with the change.

Children learn mental strength through play – it’s a fundamental part of human development and has been fine-tuned over millions of years of evolution. Without free play, children’s’ minds become so over structured that they can lack the skills they need to cope with the real world, with boredom, with difficult people and tricky situations. Yet this essential emotional tool is being limited by a whole host of factors – and the school system is undeniably playing a part.

As parents we know play is in decline. Limiting screen time is our continual battle and children not ‘playing out’ our constant lament… we’re trying our best to ‘let kids be kids’ for as long as we can but children spend the vast majority of their waking hours in school where play is being severely limited and a culture of teaching to the test is taking over.

Other countries recognise that the primary years are essential for nurturing slow and steady development through play based learning. In sharp contrast, the UK’s fast paced school system means that children as young as 5 can now be sitting at desks for the majority of the day. Missed playtime is often used as punishment for children who can’t keep up and schools across the country have done away with afternoon playtime altogether because there’s not space in the curriculum to fit play in!

Primary school, which should be a ‘slow cooker’ for development, is microwaving childhood. No wonder there’s such a call for initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week. No wonder Home Education is on the rise.

What’s causing this issue in schools? Undeniably high stakes testing such as SATs where schools are rated, headteachers judged and teachers promoted based on test results. SATs are killing play in schools as test scores take priority over wellbeing. As a strong coalition of parents, teachers and education professionals keep shouting – children are More Than A Score!

On top of this decline of play it is common knowledge the pressure caused by SATs actively causes anxiety and emotional stress in children… a double whammy for childhood mental health. We’re not by any means referring to ‘emotional stress’ in a snowflakey way – we’re not talking about a few tears before bedtime here. We’re talking about doctors medicating children who can’t cope with the ridged nature of school , kids self harming because they can’t cope with the age inappropriate work, children talking about suicide if they fail the tests. This isn’t a problem created by snowflakes – this is an avalanche of pressure created by the Department for Education.

The DfE are fully aware of the concerns from both parents and professionals about the epic failures of their flawed curriculum. An Education Select Committee review concluded that SATs are pointless and damaging and yet the tests continue to take place year after year after year… the tests may provide a way for this government to claim that school standards are rising but at what cost to the mental health of our young minds?

Whilst the buck clearly stops with the DfE, we mustn’t let school leaders go unchallenged – clearly some schools handle the testing culture better than others. Rather than being merely footsoldiers following orders, more need to join the battle to fight the system they describe as ‘immoral’ and ‘bordering on abuse’. Headteachers have a moral duty to put the well being of children ahead of data collection. Bad things happen when good people simply follow orders.

Microwaving childhood might increase academic standards in schools – more 7 year olds may be able to recite times tables, more 11 year olds be able to spot a fronted adverbial – but the long terms costs are not worth the gains. Society needs to prioritise a ‘slow cooked’ childhood where children can develop their mental strength at a natural pace to prepare them for the challenges of the real world.

Yr 6 SATs 2018 – WITHDRAWAL LETTER

Increasingly parents are asking what they can do to protect children from the high stakes testing in primary schools.  There’s a mainstream awareness that the system is not fit for purpose and that the pressure children face in primary school is damaging.

It’s hard for parents to know what to do for the best.  Parents are very respectful of teachers and  headteachers and trust them with the well-being of their children.  However, parents are also aware that the teaching profession is speaking out against SATs and being ignored.

  • This Question Time clip shows the strength of public opinion against the high stakes testing and the frustration felt by the profession.
  • This article shows that MPs are aware of the link between SATs and mental health.
  • This report shows the severe impact high pressured testing can have on young children.

Everyone knows about the problem but no-one is taking action!  Many parents now feel they can not stand by and watch this happen any longer… they want to take action to effect change.

In the past couple of weeks it has come to light that parents DO have a power to act against the tests.  Research by Reclaiming Schools points out that “Heads are clearly expected to work in cooperation with parents and teachers.” and that “there is nothing in law to force a parent to submit their child to these tests”.   This advice is reiterated in an answer to a parliamentary question regarding withdrawing from SATs within which Anne Milton MP states that ‘Children attending school are not legally required to sit the national key stage tests’.

So… if you want to use your parent power to stand up for your child, you can do.  Read the research into the law, use this letter as a template if you wish… do what you think is right for your child, and all children, in a broken system.

Withdrawal Letter – Year 6 SATs 2018

Thoughts from a retired headteacher…

Teachers, headteachers, parents… use your power!

“I daily thank god that I am a retired teacher and headteacher. I simply could not ask my staff to persecute children with never ending ‘tests’ that do nothing to further any child’s education or ability to make sense of the world. I simply would have refused to cooperate with the idiots charged with designing our so-called education system.

Teaching used to be a joyous profession. Happy children, staff who didn’t dread walking daily through the school gates and heads who were left to manage their schools without the constant interference of people who couldn’t do the job themselves.

I used to be described as formidable by LEA officers, advisors alike. Yes I was. Formidable in my determination to do the very best I could for the young people in my charge.

Schools used to be about opportunities for social mobility- a chance for bright children to be picked up by insightful teachers and for the ones struggling to be identified and helped. Education has become a political football booted from one end of an uneven pitch to the other people many of whom are products of Eton Oxbridge and who haven’t got a clue about the real world.

How I long to meet whoever sits there and has a light bulb moment! It would not take me 5 minutes to make it clear why I was described as formidable, why I was much loved by students, staff and parents alike and why they should be out on their ear.

Fight for your children! You have more power than you know.”

We want ACTION not words… stop the SATs NOW!

“I want a system that measures the progress that children make throughout their time at primary school fairly and accurately, a system that recognises teachers’ professionalism in assessing their pupils, and a system which does not impose a disproportionate burden.” Justine Greening

https://consult.education.gov.uk/assessment-policy-and-development/primary-assessment/consultation/intro/

Tell her what you think lovely people…

“It is important that we have a proper, considered debate around these proposals so that we can move forwards to a stable, trusted primary assessment system which delivers strong educational outcomes for all children, regardless of their background, ability or any additional needs they may have.”  Justine Greening

https://consult.education.gov.uk/assessment-policy-and-development/primary-assessment/consultation/intro/