Go to Main Website

Government fails the test


The hated SATs tests taken by 14-year-olds in England every year are to be scrapped – with immediate effect. So announced Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, on 15 October.

There’s been jubilation in classrooms and homes throughout the country. Margaret Morrissey, of parents group Parents Outloud, described the move as the “first sensible thing” Balls had done. Christine Blower of the NUT said, “Now I would like him to understand that the whole testing system needs fundamental change.”

The NASUWT said the decision would provoke a “deep collective sigh of relief” in secondary schools, while the National College for School Leadership described it as a “victory for professionalism”.

Balls commented that the decision to stop these tests with immediate effect was not a U-turn. Could this be the same minister who has repeatedly defended SATs as the cornerstone and public face of schools’ accountability? One week these tests were on and schools were structuring a whole year’s teaching and learning around them. The next week they were off.

Teachers have also long argued that the use of SATs results to produce school league tables did not help improve schools and was highly damaging. A report earlier this year – part of a two-year inquiry led by Cambridge University – found that English primary school children were subjected to more tests than in any other country.

So has the government finally listened and actually acted in the interests of working people? Or has it been forced into a U-turn by the failure of “market forces”?

In the past, SATs were organised by Edexcel, one of three main exam boards in England, but it lost the contract to ETS – a US-based company – last year. Disaster followed. The SATs results for 11- and 14-year-olds should have been sent to all schools by the start of July. But a series of blunders by the firm resulted in many schools still without pupils’ scores by September. Try explaining that to a stressed 14-year-old!

Errors included delays in training markers and faults to an on-line results system. Some pupils were marked as “absent” despite sitting the tests in May. Markers received incomplete packs of test papers, the wrong papers or papers arriving after the deadline for their marking. Some 100,000 English results – 1 in 6 – were not included in national figures. Around 36,000 maths and science papers were also missing.

Things got so bad that ETS’s five-year £156 million contract to run the tests was terminated. Two of Britain’s three examination boards said they would not take over the contract – hence Ed Balls’s announcement about the abolition of Key Stage 3 SATs. Those for Key Stages 1 and2 – for 7- and 11-year-olds – remain.