It is important to listen to expert opinion on primary SATs and school league tables

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I was excited when Layla Moran first spoke about setting the direction for our party’s education policy. Layla spoke about involving experts more in setting policy, about working with the Education Endowment Foundation and other bodies who do hard-hitting research, and about putting evidence above ideology.

The speech given to the NEU earlier this month was sadly not in keeping with this vision. While her comments on the need to lift teacher pay and school funding were spot on, the prescription for ending the ‘culture of accountability’ were not in keeping with expert opinion.

First, it’s worth pointing out that most do agree that the English school system has become overly stressful for school staff. The pressure head teachers are now under to deliver results is immense, with one bad Ofsted inspection or year of academic results capable of causing serious harm to careers. Inevitably this is filtering down to classroom teachers. Between this and the pay freeze endured over much of the last decade, it’s no surprise that retention in the profession is falling. That said, there are serious questions to be asked about two of the solutions to this problem which Layla is advocating.

Scrapping primary SATs, while no doubt appealing to many teachers (though not all), is far from supported by experts. The state should be able to measure whether schools are delivering the non-negotiable basics of education (literacy and numeracy), and the reality is that without external testing an objective understanding of this cannot be obtained. Calls for less external testing and more teacher moderated assessment also run into the reality that, being humans, teachers can be subconsciously biased against certain groups. There is a wealth of evidence that ethnic minorities, non-English background and female pupils would be poorly served by a move to more subjective teacher assessment (a more academic summary is available here). As researchers have pointed out this can have a real impact, as for schools that use setting, abolishing KS2 SATs would see these groups negatively affected in setting decisions.

Nor is there robust evidence that it would reduce stress and improve mental health; indeed OECD research suggests the opposite might occur due to apprehension over inherently more arbitrary marking by teachers. English research is no more damning; academic psychologists looking at KS2 SATs found some students had positive experiences with them, some negative. These researchers recommended that teachers avoid placing too much emphasis on KS2 SATs, as it is only when parents or teachers convey certain views on the need to perform in these tests that children experience high levels of stress. This suggests that rather than scrapping SATs, we ought to focus on policies that decrease the unhelpful stress experienced due to them. This could be brought about by offering more support to schools that experience dips in results rather than turning immediately to more punitive consequences, and by having Ofsted check that school leadership is not putting staff and children under undue stress on KS2 performance.

Doing this rather than abolishing SATs would not only save a useful measure of how our schools are travelling with regard to core skills, but it would prevent an increase in teacher workload. As the teacher union NASUWT pointed out, scrapping SATs will inevitably increase teacher workload as time-intensive teacher assessments replace them.

Similarly, parents should be able to access information about schools, and limiting this to reduce the production of ‘league tables’ as Layla called for is inherently illiberal. What’s worse, it’s not even evidence based. Limiting such information in Wales has been linked to lower attainment in schools, and in other contexts providing more information about schools to parents and communities is associated with larger learning gains. Alternative measures could include publishing performance data as a three-year rolling average to present a more rounded picture of performance and reduce the impact of year-on-year volatility.

Though the policy proposals Layla has floated are popular in the wider education community, of all parties the Liberal Democrats should be basing policy on evidence. After all, rather like the old quip about democracy, standardised testing is the worst form of tracking student progress, except for all those other forms that have been tried. I hope the independent Education Commission Layla has assembled will consider these issues further, and edge us closer to an evidence based education policy that capable of delivering for disadvantaged students.

* Dan Carr has been a teacher, school governor and education researcher, most recently at The Education Policy Institute. He is also a party member and on the board of Liberal Reform.

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23 Comments

  • This is one of the best pieces I have read on Lib Dem Voice.

    I think there is a real danger in someone like Layla Moran who has been educated at, and has taught at, expensive fee-paying schools such Roedean School talking about what should or should not be done in state schools. Quite frankly, she doesn’t have, and never has had, skin in the game.

    Unlike Layla I was educated in the state sector and my children are now educated in a state primary. Well-educated education-oriented parents like myself may see SATS as a nuisance at best. However, they are vital for accountability in school performance and for measuring outcomes and attainment. As the author correctly notes, we can see in Wales what happens when testing and accountability is removed. It will be the lowest income and most disadvantaged groups in society that suffer as a result.

  • Ivory tower thinking. The reality is
    Schools teach to pass Sats.
    A relative works in a school it is outstanding, if you went by league tables you’d send your children there. In reality they cram for Sats and when the pupils move onto high school they invariably fail because all they have learned is rote learning. So no Sats don’t work all they give is a happy fuzzy feeling to people who like charts, they don’t actually set up our children to suceed in life.

  • Phenomenal piece of writing, it’s important that accountability is not lost and some of the blue sky thinking about education that Layla has been mentioning is flawed.

  • Nigel Jones 26th Apr '19 - 3:25pm

    The fundamental question about SATs is their purpose and Daniel Carr falls into the trap of assuming it is all about centralised assessment of school performance. They should be for the education of pupils.
    Teachers are constantly assessing their achievements in educating their pupils and the use of a standard test, done by them in appropriate ways can help with that, but not in the way it is done now.
    Our party policy passed at Spring Conference 2018 says “Scrapping existing broad mandatory SATs tests at KS2 and replacing them with a combination of moderated teacher assessment at the end of each phase and a lighter-touch standardised test to ensure consistency.”
    Issues around teacher workload and pupil stress have to be taken into account but assessment of the pupils is for the pupils and the teachers, NOT for government. The latter is done through the inspection system though again our party policy is to replace Ofsted with a better system.
    Paul Cappon, a visiting Canadian expert, spent time observing the English system and in a report (SKOPE Policy paper3, Sept 2015) at Oxford University department of Education, he said of our system “continuing to emphasise that very stringent individual school and FE accountability will lift the system performance–despite that there exists no real evidence that it has.”
    Finally, I know that heads of secondary schools sometimes say that KS2 SAT results are a very poor indicator of pupils’ knowledge and ability and this becomes obvious during their first year at their schools.

  • Steve Trevethan 26th Apr '19 - 3:47pm

    What are the definitions of
    “Expert” in this context?

  • Nigel Jones 26th Apr '19 - 4:14pm

    Expert means someone who is known for their experience in that area of study and in this case also approved by Oxford University as a suitable person to examine our Education system. His report was also presented to the Secretary of State for Education.

  • Our article-writer probably has a greater grasp of the issues than my MP Layla who (while having her heart in the right place) is not always inclined to take a nuanced view. Whether it’s Brexit or education, we need to engage in dialogue rather than lay down dogmatic options while pointing the finger at everyone else. Politics should be about negotiation, even for us LibDems, who (certainly in some of the articles here) keep playing the holier-than-thou, we’re-not-like-them card.

  • Liberal Reform… I might have guessed. Cui bono and all that…

  • John Marriott 26th Apr '19 - 5:20pm

    I was a teacher for over three decades (1966 to 2001) in secondary schools both here and abroad. I experienced the comprehensive revolution and so called ‘progressive education’, which had at their core the concept of child centred learning. There was a consensus back then that change needed to take place. Unfortunately politicians trusted the education establishment (Gove’s famous ‘Blob’) to deliver and, quite frankly, it made a mess of it.

    By the time politicians realised that the pendulum had moved too far in the other direction, (witness Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976), the baby had been largely thrown out with the bath water. Much of the education ‘free for all’ was ditched, attempts to assess what was being done were introduced, via SATs, the National Curriculum and a new exams at 16 and plus (a criterion referenced based GCSE and A Level).

    When I began my career, the public trusted its teachers TO TEACH, that was to exercise their professional judgement. ‘In loco parents’ was the watchword and still is, unlike in countries such as Germany. This appears to have been forgotten in some circles. Unfortunately it’s now in many areas a stick with which to beat teachers. Today, many are sadly not trusted anymore, which is a price they are paying for the mistakes of the past.

    The public has a right to know how students’ progress is measured. To revert to esoteric jargon, which the education establishment has often done when criticised, is to pull the wool over its eyes. The purpose of SATs should be purely diagnostic and should never be used in a competitive environment, where a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude now largely exists between state schools at all levels and where the fear of ‘failure’ is hardwired into the education psyche.

    Politicians like to treat students as commodities, while universities are increasingly looking at them as cash cows. Nobody seems to want to ask what our society actually needs from its schools any more. Around here there is a saying that you don’t increase the weight of a pig by just weighing it.

    We need a Royal Commission now before it’s too late.

  • Nigel Jones 26th Apr '19 - 6:10pm

    John Marriott supports my view when he says that tests are for diagnostic purposes and I assume his reference to a competitive environment is between schools and overall between pupils. Some degree of competition for limited purposes can be a good motivator but in the way that SATs are now used with league tables as well takes the emphasis away from what Education should be all about and can be harmful. Hence the reference to a Royal Commission which should examine the purpose of what is done in our schools. Over my teaching career, I have seen a growth in the quantity of education, how much is sort of ‘learned’ and by how many people, but little growth in quality. There was good thinking in the so-called ‘progressive education’ but very many mistakes in its practice as well as some of it needing more resources than the nation was prepared to give, but now the pendulum is swinging too far the other way.

  • The real problems in education are clear to see and well researched. These are the links between the lives that children lead and educational outcomes.
    The most obvious are the very poor outcomes for looked after children. Educational outcomes are very poor. Life experiences after education are very poor. We have the figures and the research. We need to act.
    Next we look at children living in poverty. Again the outcomes are poor. A lot of research is there. The figures are not as clear – and this is probably because of the fact that the definition of poverty depends upon criteria which are based on using what is already available. However the evidence is there. We need to act.
    Measuring things does not change them.
    When considering testing we have to be careful to differentiate between what is statistically significant and what is educationally significant. Every measurement should be tested against its real significance in the process of education of children.
    Assessing educational outcomes involves a great deal of thought and discussion. Something clearly lacking in those controlling the system.

  • John Marriott 26th Apr '19 - 8:48pm

    @Nigel Jones
    Might I recommend that you get a copy of “Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools” by Robert Peal? This polemic, by an acolyte of Michael Gove, sums up many of my concerns regarding so called ‘progressive education’, although I do not share the author’s conclusions. In fact, it was recommended to me by a LDV contributor a while ago.

    I have aired my views on the state of English education in previous threads so I really don’t want to repeat myself or bore any fellow LDV readers in the process. As far as competition is concerned, as a former sportsman, I of course acknowledge its value. However the kind of competition that has been encouraged between schools has often ended in nothing short of a beauty contest, where rules are bent, through, for example, taking ‘challenging’ students off the register or, in the case of one of my own granddaughters, trying to poach students, who have already settled into their first school, having failed to get their first choice.

    Quite frankly, students, parents, employers and society in general have been badly served by ALL political parties – and I include the Coalition Lib Dems here – certainly since the 1944 Education Act was manipulated by post war governments. Had Technical grammar schools been introduced on the scale envisaged by RAB Butler, we might not have been faced with the inequalities of opportunity that led to the introduction of non selective secondary education and might have produced citizens far better equipped to maintain an industrial and manufacturing base, a base that we have largely lost.

    A Royal Commission should include in its remit a wholesale investigation into all levels of education, from Play School through Primary and Secondary School to Further and Higher Education. It needs to seek the opinion not only of educational specialists; but also employers. It needs to produce a plan that will bring order out of the present mess. It also needs to establish what rôle the private sector and the public sector need to play and whether the two can coexist in a level playing field.

  • @John Marriott may be surprised to learn that I do have some agreement with what he says!

    We need to both inspire children in an individualistic way and also to measure progress and ensure that teachers are imparting enough knowledge and education on the way.

    You have to say why might a child fail exams in a language but become a fluent linguistic as an adult as Paddy Ashdown did – failing his French O-level but becoming fluent in Chinese as an adult?

    Successful entrepreneurs have to be highly intelligent at figuring out how to make money with no solution sitting in the back of a textbook but often report being somewhat of a dunce at school. Alan Sugar was clearly far better at consumer electronics than Clive Sinclair – despite Sinclair being better educated. No-one taught Einstein how to come up with relativity which was achieved in no small part by flights of imagination and ditching conventional wisdom

    How do we produce the Ashdowns, Sugars and Einsteins of tomorrow?

    I was relatively OK at maths and physics at school but never inspired or intrigued by them but am by youtube videos about maths on fascinating aspects and quantum physics

    Sadly tests & exams are necessary as are passing them & doing well in them. We let down children (& often the poorest ones) if we don’t test measure progress and in part teach to the exam and the things needed to past exams. You need to be equipped with basic knowledge. And you do to measures that our schools are doing their job well. Equally I feel that most knowledge crammed into me, I made no use of in my adult life and much that would have been useful wasn’t.

    The good news is that our young people and teachers are doing a brilliant job so my thanks to John and Nigel and all of them. Young people are far better educated, more intelligent (google the “Flynn effect”) & achieving more than ever before.

    By & large one thing gets corrected for and may be goes to much the other way. A large degree of “child centred” education was needed. Children learn through doing, experimenting, “playing” with the world, investigation, questioning, being inspired, nurturing their imagination and creativity etc. as we all do after we leave school and are more important than ever before in this world – but which are tough to test for. But you also need basic maths, English etc.

  • The current accountability system in Education relies too much on test results and an over-centralised inspection system. It is simplistic to say that we must have accountability when it is crucial how that operates, because it can be counter productive, not least in providing the education that is needed for life and for our economy. Daniel Carr’s article hints at the need to remove the negatives of our current system, but there is a need for major change.
    Comments above refer to the particular needs of pupils from poorer or disadvantaged backgrounds. Daniel refers to the Education Policy Institute, who I think make a contribution to the debate and it is significant that in spite of the present system of high stakes accountability, two of their recent reports show that the gap in attainments has generally not narrowed and in some places has widened. David Laws, who is their director recently admitted at a conference meeting that the system has been relying too much on what can be measured by numbers.
    I am convinced that one major factor in the lack of progress by disadvantaged pupils is what goes on outside the schools, but nevertheless it also shows that the current system of accountability is not doing what it was meant to achieve for people’s lives.

  • John Marriott 27th Apr '19 - 8:42am

    Yes, ‘Michael 1’, tests and exams ARE necessary; but they should never be regarded as the be all and end all of the education process. Those so called experts that used to write volumes in the TES (Times Educational Supplement) about mixed ability teaching, the supremacy of pastoral care etc in the 1970s have a great deal to answer for.Some are still around, occupying senior positions in the education establishment.

    The word education comes, I believe, from the Latin verb ‘educare’, which means roughly to ‘lead through’. The idea of FOFO (too rude to elaborate), which teachers were often reduced to saying to inquisitive students as they were overburden with trying to keep a semblance of order, doesn’t really sit well with this concept. I could go on; but my wife is awaiting her early morning cup of tea!

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Apr '19 - 11:14am

    I agree that performance at school should be evaluated but this doesn’t necessarily mean by testing. In adult life educational achievement seems to me to be less important than people skills because it’s vital to be able to persuade, cajole and inspire. I think we have an excellent example of this in the present Prime Minister. By returning to old fashioned memory tested A levels rather than group project work politicians are ignoring the requirements of modern life and also its benefits. We are living in a technological age where memory is probably less important than it’s ever been.
    The other thing is the value of the academic skills Sats are testing. Some of these seem to be esoteric points of archaic grammar which most of us would take one look at and run screaming from the room. IMO the results from this kind of test aren’t worth the mounting stress levels of pupils or teachers.

  • Thanks for all the interesting comments to date. A few responses:

    @Rob Cannon:

    yes, I think different experiences in schools can certainly shape views here. I’ve worked as a teacher and been a school governor in quite disadvantaged intake schools (one very poor and rural, the other inner city with quite low-income recent migrant children) and both schools didn’t seem to mind SATs at all, and took pride in getting children to reach a good standard in their numeracy and literacy. Never once saw evidence that the tests themselves or preparation for the tests caused a great deal of angst among children, though teacher friends in posher areas have told me this happens more in their schools.

    It’s easy to forget that many schools will have to work very hard to build up students to have the literacy and numeracy necessary for secondary school success, and success in later life, if you’ve mostly been involved in the private school system, where the student intake comes from a wildly different background.

  • @Nigel Jones:

    You’ve made a few interesting points:

    ‘The fundamental question about SATs is their purpose and Daniel Carr falls into the trap of assuming it is all about centralised assessment of school performance. They should be for the education of pupils.’

    I find it rather infuriating that people claim SATs are for the benefit of teachers in the same way that formative assessment is. This kind of claim is made frequently by those in government promoting SATs, so I can’t really blame those opposed to SATs for saying it’s a load of BS, but still in a serious debate sense the utility of SATs really is restricted to a system level intelligence gathering sense. As you say, teachers can and do draw on standardised tests to inform their practice (such as those GL Assessment produce), but setting a single test nationally for formative purposes is a bit bonkers in my view (not that you said this should be).

    On the inspection regime, I’m quite skeptical of its utility and see it as even more stressful for school staff than SATs. Few (if any) other countries have a system like Ofsted, and no countries are moving towards developing one for good reason. The work of Becky Allen (Education Datalab) and Jo Hutchinson (EPI) on the relatively low predictive power of inspections is worth checking out. I’d have liked our party policy to go even further on this front and suggest largely getting rid of an inspectorate, with some reserve of the practice confined to a team at DfE who could be sent out to schools where there concerns were raised by parents, the LA, school staff or others.

    On points you raised re EPI’s work, yes some of the research I and others did there shows the rate at which we are narrowing gaps to be slowing. I agree that with child poverty increasing, it’s hard to see how we can continue to narrow the gap further (I’m don’t take the Tory view that it’s just the school system that ought to ‘fix’ these gaps).

  • @Tom Harney:

    ‘Measuring things does not change them.’ – indeed, measurement is a necessary but not sufficient tool for creating good education policy. But in the UK we do now have a very firm understanding of where in our system pupils are struggling, and I hope further policy development from our party and others can draw on this knowledge base to craft better solutions.

    @John Marriott:

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said re the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction after the excesses of the progressive education movement (I also enjoyed Peel’s rather polemic but interesting book on the subject).

    On SATs and assessments more generally, I agree we shouldn’t view them as the be all and end all. I’m not in favour of doing any centralised assessment in areas outside of core numeracy and literacy for this reason, as individuals will have different trajectories and interests and I don’t think it’s that helpful for the state to craft detailed policy on ‘team work skills’, ‘creativity / problem solving’ and other things like this that some are now agitating for tests to monitor. But the government is right in taking an interest in monitoring whether children are getting to a literacy and numeracy standard that is basically a prerequisite for success in no matter what walk of life you choose.

    @Sue Sutherland

    On the compulsory KS2 SATs, I don’t think they are testing too esoteric topics. And we also need to remember we are talking about one central test over the entire course of primary school – there is still group work happening in primary schools across the country, despite what some more apocalyptic commentators are saying!

  • Nonconformistradical 28th Apr '19 - 8:18am

    @Daniel Carr
    “But the government is right in taking an interest in monitoring whether children are getting to a literacy and numeracy standard that is basically a prerequisite for success in no matter what walk of life you choose. ”

    But what are the literacy and numeracy standards supposedly preparing children for?

    Employability (I recall in the past reading about numerous complaints from employers about having to teach basic skills to school-leaver employees)?

    Ability to understand and manage a household budget – without the use of anything more complex than a simple spreadsheet – and without resorting to some external organisations harvesting one’s personal data?

    Ability to exercise common-sense?

    Ability to coexist in reasonable harmony with the rest of society?

    Ability to bring up children in a safe secure environment?

    Ability to go on learning throughout one’s life?

    Do Ofsted and the SATS regime contribute in any meaningful way towards enabling people to leave secondary school equipped with these abilities?

    I ask because (writing from an elderly perspective) my impression is of all too many people leaving school unable to exercise common-sense and seriously dependent on the state and/or other organisations to organise their lives for them.

  • Mick Taylor 28th Apr '19 - 8:53am

    @Daniel Carr
    But where is the evidence that this heavy handed and top down approach is yielding results?
    When I started teaching and later when I became a university lecturer I was initially able to use my skills and judgement as the how I taught the curriculum and in what order. The prerequisite was that I got my students to a point where they could pass the exams.
    Then was the years rolled by I, along with everyone else in teaching/lecturing. was more and more circumscribed in what I did to the extent that I was told what to teach on a week by week basis and I had to record progress or otherwise on an almost daily basis. Did the results improve? No. Did my students numeracy improve? No. All that happened was that the students became more and more stressed as a result of an ever increasing load of tests. I think I was a pretty good teacher and a compelling lecturer and when I was allowed to use my initiative and teach to the students’ skills and abilities excellent results were forthcoming.
    The problem with education ‘experts’ is that they have as many opinions as I have hot dinners and they change their minds over time. So the best approach in any one year is often different from what is expected only a few years later.
    Of course we have to educate our young people to high standards, but if you tightly proscribe what teachers can do – as the current regime does – and if you reward teachers on the basis of the results of fairly spurious tests, then can you be surprised if teachers teach to the tests and don’t have time for all the good parts of education as outlined by nonconformistradical?
    The answer to the problems of education isn’t to listen to the experts. It’s to produce highly educated and skilled teachers who will be motivated by the job to give of their best and provide excellent student centred education that brings out the best in the students they teach

  • Perhaps we should separate the testing of schools from the attainment of pupils. We can test teachers and schools by using samples, leaving teachers not affected to do what they’re trained to do. Parents need to trust teachers and schools to do their best for their children without relying on constant testing and individual scores.

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