Across England, parents of children in Year 6 are getting to grips with the fact that the assessments that their children will be sitting in just a fortnight will be the educational equivalent of injecting dubious substances in guinea pigs in a hermetically-sealed laboratory. Except, as we have seen in the recent KS1 spelling paper debacle, this particular lab is not so hermetically sealed. It is in fact, just plain leaky. The way that parents are reacting here (at least) has been troubling and disturbing to behold.
We invited parents a week ago to sit with us for an hour while we explained exactly what it is that their children will be tested on; we explained the differences, the way that standards have been artificially raised; the way that best-fit understanding of children’s learning has been scrapped in the interim assessments; the way that the content of the grammar test has been expanded to include a range of terms with which the parents were utterly unfamiliar; and the way that the tests will be reported to parents. We did not want to scare them, but you could see, while watching, the blood drain from the faces of some parents, and their anxiety visibly rise. Others, often from cultures where their schooling was couched wholly in a pass/fail mindset, made internal decisions about the language and pressure that they must now use to get their children to the “expected standard”. I have had two conversations with Y6 parents since yesterday morning, and in both of them I am hearing the fears that parents have that their children will see themselves as “failures” because they have not got the “required standard” in one or other subject. Another child I know has been threatened with being sent back to their country of origin if they do not “pass the test” – as though it were a school entry qualification!
We made it absolutely clear to parents last week that we could not under any circumstances follow what several other schools (I am sure) are doing, and abandon large chunks of the rightful educational entitlement of Y6 children for the sake of boosting their learning only in English and maths. Such a policy is iniquitous and a mark of craven cowardice, placing the school and its standing above the needs of the children they are called to serve.
The level system of assessment used before 2015 had serious flaws, and was not a particularly useful tool for comparing children with the same level of attainment. However, it had one inestimable advantage over the new interim framework being used by Y6 teachers in preparation for the SATs: it was “neutral”. Yes, we all knew that there was a national expectation and there were some ridiculous schools that said stuff like “level 4 is a right for every child”. But it meant something for a child who was struggling to “make it” to Level 3 from a year working in Level 2, or to get a Level 5 after a lot of hard work by everyone in the family and class. Whether or not it was terribly accurate (and bits were not) it provided a range of attainment for children: there were lots of hurdles to surmount and celebrate, and children (except in the most draconian and unwise of schools) did not in any way see the word “failure” as attaching to any particular outcome, unless they themselves had set targets that they were focusing on – and in that case, the psychological fallout is easily dealt with.
Not here, not now. This current system is appalling, no matter how willing we all are to embrace higher standards. On that subject, by the way, the government will always push the button of “you don’t want higher standards for your children” for those of us that believe that this testing is ill founded and poorly argued. It is a false argument, making a serious category error and confusing our desire for a challenging curriculum with a decent, fair and low-stakes way of measuring progress in it, with a view of the profession that does not want to be held accountable. What this could easily be, if schools are not pastorally very well equipped, is the psychological blow to a child’s confidence in writing or maths (even strong achievers may well fall short) that would affect their learning from here to whatever passes for GCSE by the time these children reach 16.
History will judge this paltry SATs effort as just that – a pathetic attempt at braggadocio over standards by an inept and intellectually-challenged government. The deep pity is that children and their parents will be the lab rats used to prove that.