This morning, 60 beloved children at Christ the Sower, hard work and excellent teaching behind them, are starting to tackle the English and maths test-papers that together comprise the statutory assessment tests (SATs) that all 11 year olds take in England. They will do so well fed (many gathered together for breakfast with us this morning) and confident in their teachers’ skill and their own willingness to work hard and master the content that they have been taught. They will do well, and most of them will do their very best.
However, these tests are a farce, and a farce in which I have been complicit for far too long. They represent a classic statement of instrumentality. Children do not gain in anywise from these tests; the tests are not for them, nor for their parents. Children and parents already know which schools they are going to, and those that have elected to seek entry into a private or selective school will already have had their places offered on the basis of the 11-plus. The government, or its proxy, OFSTED, is really not very interested in the children as children. It uses children’s safety and their progress as instruments of control: in this case, in exercising control over primary schools and their teaching and learning, a teaching and learning that has to be geared to producing more and more children who meet the (ever shifting) “expected standards” in English and maths.
This is a well known point of view and the arguments frequently raised against it, in support of these tests (often by the DfE and its predecessors and by those schools who gear their definition of successful schooling around test-significance) are widely deemed specious. We are playing a game, and everyone knows it. People who bang on about “damaging children’s education” and “parents having the right to know how well their children are doing” are generally self-deceptive. It is not very hard to refute, nor does it take a searing intellect to undermine, these types of argument.
As I have argued elsewhere, children can use the training for SATs to gain learning, to have a chance to put into practice things that they have been taught, and in fact, many children really enjoy them: these are useful parts of learning and may be a source of confidence and encouragement to children. My prayer for them is that they are. We all need the encouragement and confidence that comes from testing out our learning in a new way.
However, the KS2 SATs, fatally, do two things that need immediate and serious revision. Firstly, they heavily distort a curriculum that is already over-prejudiced toward the duller parts of the English and maths curriculum. This just does not help anyone. Children across England have their curriculum reduced in areas that are not maths or English, and it is rare to find a school that ignores this completely (we try, but are not entirely free of the virus). Secondly, they use children – children! – as instruments of policy to judge schools by. This ascribes an agency to children that they neither need nor deserve. If it is acceptable to judge a school by the outcomes of the children that attend, it is dubious when the proxies for that judgment are honed onto two subjects. It is completely iniquitous then to treat children simply as percentage-parts of a statistical calculation that allows the inspectorate an easier time when coming to look at schools. Boring children is a crime in any school system.
Lest anyone think that this is just the murmurings of a head who does not care about standards, let me state clearly: standards are not too high in this country, they are too low. In fact, they are too boring. We need a curriculum that is richer in content, more focused on the Western cultural learning we have already attained, taught by teachers who are more able, generally, than the current crop, and ones who are devoted to deepening their own learning not about their own pedagogy, as important as that is, but about their inheritance as humans. We need a deeper and richer awareness of the significance and authority of literature, of the arts, the sciences and the humanities – not just the facts, but the significance of what we have learnt. On Sunday, I was treated to a tour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Whitehall, and in one corner of this stupendous building, built to intimidate with the power of empire, was the library and the office of the FCO Historians who root current diplomatic and intergovernmental understanding in a strong sense of what went before. I had not expected this, and was delighted to see it. That we have historians informing our fly-by-night ministerial team of the significance of their actions and how they are rooted in the policy of the past seems to me to be fundamental. A delight in learning will have been at the root of all historical research, and that delight, I firmly maintain, is rooted in a broad and intellectually willing outlook on life that cares not a whit for video games and soap operas, but can be trained to discern what matters from what does not, and can take a rich pleasure from amassing knowledge of and building upon that knowledge of our culture’s learning in order to advance it.
SATs will simply not do that, nor contribute to it.