Status anxiety

If the Sats-strike parents get their way only the poorer kids will suffer

These moronic, selfish middle-class warriors are entrenching class divisions

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

Tuesday’s protest against Key Stage 1 Sats was moronic on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, it wasn’t a ‘kids’ strike’. Did a national committee of six- and seven-year-olds get together and decide on a day of action? Even in Brighton, the centre of the boycott, that seems a bit far-fetched. The grown-up organisers of the protest clearly believed that was a cute way of packaging it for media consumption, but the thought of such young children engaging in political activism is actually a bit sinister. It’s like something out of a dystopian satire — a cross between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Then there’s the sheer selfishness of the whole thing. Thousands of parents get to indulge in a day of virtue-signalling while schools are left to pick up the pieces. Are the organisers aware that if unauthorised absences at a school exceed a certain threshold, that school is ineligible for an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ grade? Not only that, it could be plunged into special measures if its pass rate in the KS1 Sats falls below the floor standard. Schools live or die by their Ofsted rankings, particularly in middle-class cities like Brighton, so this protest could end up doing serious damage.

The organisers claim that child-ren find taking an exam at this age ‘stressful’ and worry about being branded ‘failures’, but that wasn’t true of my four kids. If only! Then they might have done some revision. This time last year, I asked seven-year-old Charlie how he thought he’d done and he looked baffled. He didn’t know he’d done an exam, and when I explained that he had, he exhibited no curiosity about the results.

That’s anecdotal, of course, but I’ve seen no evidence linking the KS1 Sats to elevated stress levels. And if they really do cause psychological harm, why protest now and not when they were first rolled out 25 years ago? The main difference this year is that the results are being externally moderated rather than relying on teacher assessment — which is a good idea, since numerous research studies show that teachers assess children from low-income families as being on average less bright than those from richer families. Not because teachers are snobs, but because they’re prone to unconscious bias, like most people.

If you accept that it makes sense to teach children to read, write and add up in primary school, the case for testing them is unanswerable. How are teachers supposed to know how much of the curriculum their pupils have mastered, and to differentiate between them, if they don’t have any test results to go on? Just as importantly, how will parents and Ofsted hold schools to account in the absence of this data? It’s no good just testing children once, at the end of their primary school careers, since how children perform in exams is linked to factors schools have no control over, such as IQ and parental socio-economic status. Much fairer from the schools’ point of view to test them at the end of KS1 and then again at the end of KS2, so you can measure how much progress pupils make, regardless of their different starting points. That also produces more useful data when it comes to assessing how effective different teaching methods are.

But listening to the protestors on the BBC news, it was clear that they don’t think primary schools should be teaching the three Rs. Their rallying cry was ‘Let our kids be kids’, by which they mean that children shouldn’t be taught anything at that age, just encouraged to express themselves and engage in ‘creative’ play. As far as they’re concerned, lessons should be fun, not difficult. The purpose of primary education is to produce emotionally well-adjusted, happy children, and anything which detracts from that, such as asking them to learn grammar and then testing them on it, should be verboten.

Trouble is, it’s kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who are penalised by this therapeutic approach. The children of the middle-class protestors will be fine if they spend all day finger-painting because they’ll pick up the basics at home; it’s their less affluent peers who will suffer. The point of the new, more rigorous primary curriculum is to reduce the yawning chasm between rich and poor children when they start secondary school. The anti-Sats brigade think of themselves as ‘progressive’, but if they succeed they will end up entrenching class divisions.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Polly Radical

    Toby, it’s the nature of the tests which is the widespread concern, not the principle of testing.

    It’s absurd to expect 10 yr olds to explain subordinating clauses and modal verb distinctions in English, which native speakers use automatically without the need of nomenclature.

    I speak as someone who has a 1st in English, is an English teacher and a professional writer.

    PS Just got my eldest into a grammar school by doing it my way.

    • Michael990

      I rather thought that it was the teacher’s job to replace the academic vocabulary defined in the syllabus with a day to day understanding of the way we speak and write. They are supposed to understand, and teach to, the syllabus but convert it to lessons meaningful to their charges. The problem seems to be that many primary school teachers are so dim they are not capable of this.

      • Polly Radical

        Indeed, they relish the chance to lecture the class about grammatical terminology as an easy substitute for teaching English.

      • Sandra Barwick

        The children are tested on the academic vocab. Madness. In London primary teachers in my experience are pretty good. You have to have at least a 2.1 now to do the teaching cert, and I’ve seen ads for secondary teaching assistants demanding first class degrees.
        Teach First has ensured that many now from Oxford and Cambridge go into teaching, which rarely happened in my youth.

    • Sandra Barwick

      I completely agree. It’s a waste of time which could be spent on useful learning. They’re going to be astonished when they get to university and discover that English is a living language, and when they start reading David Crystal on that subject.
      It’s especially disheartening for children who are not at the stage where they can handle this, through no fault of their own, and it’s a special waste of time for children who do not speak English at home, most of whom need a lot of time spent to improve their fluency and vocabulary.

    • David Beard

      I don’t why you bother.

  • D J

    Maybe the Greens’ party political broadcast was not meant to be a parody.

  • quotes

    “Not because teachers are snobs, but because they’re prone to unconscious bias, like most people.”

    So because they’re snobs.

  • ladyofshalot

    Very well said! You make excellent point however in general the middle classes don’t care two hoots about the progress of the less affluent kids.

    • wibbling

      Why should they? They’ve parents of their own. Or would you make a parent responsible for every child? The state tried that, it failed. The only sensible approach is that two married parents, mother and father (as no other can have children) provide for the social and educational raising of their children.

  • David Beard

    Are the organisers aware that if unauthorised absences at a school exceed a certain threshold, that school is ineligible for an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ grade? Not only that, it could be plunged into special measures if its pass rate in the KS1 Sats falls below the floor standard. Schools live or die by their Ofsted rankings, particularly in middle-class cities like Brighton, so this protest could end up doing serious damage.

    So what’s the ‘threshhold’ Toby? For this to happen. For these so called middle class SAT warriors to have a school shut down or put into special measures. What’s the threshhold Toby? I doubtt you even know.

  • balls

    It’s the principle of the tests that are the widespread concern, not the nature of what is tested.

    If you want to be like South Korean drones, move to South Korea.

    • Tekknocrates

      Muppets on a sugar diet need discipline/burn it off. They fail at tests.
      Kids with brains need stimulation – tests don’t scare them.
      So who is it that is complaining here?

  • TheBigPBlog

    This is probably the worst example of journalism I’ve seen this year. Seen better written in graffiti on a park bench.

  • London teacher

    Your child did not do SATs, they did not exist last year. The main difference this year is NOT external moderation- SATs papers have not been produced for YEARS, teachers have optionally used OLD papers in non-test conditions IF they wished to do so (they basically meant nothing, hence no stress on the children) up until this year and the content of those papers was completely different, the expectation has now been raised to an utterly ridiculous level (you would know this if you had looked at one and then tried to prepare 30 six and seven year olds, special educational needs and all, for it). Many children are suffering through these ‘one size fits all’ tests. You can’t really comment on them if you don’t know what they are, can you? As you know absolutely nothing about teaching, you are also unaware that we ARE trained to assess children’s understanding of the curriculum without putting them through six hours of silent test papers, so no, they are not necessary. Do a bit of research first before you decide to write an article about it, speak to a few teachers and children who are actually going through this maybe. It is an absolute nightmare for everyone involved.

  • SENDteach

    Does Toby Young really think a primary teacher who has spent hundreds of hours with his/her class by the end of an academic year, ONLY then finds out how much they’ve learnt by testing them? His ignorance of the detail of teaching, formative Vs summative assessment, ongoing interventions to ‘narrow the gap’ and support SEND or under-achievers etc is breath taking. Last year (and the previous 24) KS1 SATs were based on teacher’s (together with their colleagues, carrying out joint moderation) knowledge of the child, using past papers if they wanted more evidence to support their judgement. This year’s KS1 SATs are formal, unseen, silent papers set at unrealistically high standards for the majority of 6/7 year olds. So little Charlie wasn’t stressed last year because the government hadn’t waded in and messed up his Y2 experience, last year. So your evidence of his lack of stress contradicts your main argument. If I knew this little about a topic, I wouldn’t talk to myself in the shower about it, let alone write a piece in the national press about it.

  • maic

    Toby, as a former primary teacher in another country I heartily agree with the premise that primary education should be rigorous. Schools should not be defensive about establishing learning priorities and assessment methods which accurately inform parents, education authorities and (equally important) the child’s next teacher.
    In my own country following the advent of a left wing government a new primary school curriculum was imposed which dumbed down standards and which discarded useful teaching resources. e.g. Maths text books.
    This was a classic case of fixing something which wasn’t broken.
    While classroom teachers rightly consider themselves to be professionals one would have to conclude that they do not all have the same levels of skill and experience. On occasions I had to discuss with parents why my Report grades for their child were not as high as those given by their previous teacher. It seemed to me that the previous teacher had been over generous in awarding top grades which in my opinion did not reflect the child’s actual competence.
    I suggest that in the basic areas at least there does need to be testing and assessment which can be relied on and seen as accurate. This includes reporting when a child is not achieving what the school wanted him or her to achieve. No fudging or hiding of results.
    All that being said I suggest that common sense be applied. It is in no one’s interest to overwhelm teachers and children with assessment. I imagine that this is where the main area of disagreement lies. Surely schools need to follow a moderate course not striving to assess every single thing but focusing on key areas of concern. (And let parents know what they are!)
    A message for educational administrators and Principals. Don’t ignore the workload pressures on teachers if you want them to do their job properly. Teachers need time to REFLECT on the progress of their pupils and this can hardly be achieved if they are rushing from deadline to deadline. Is it beyond the competence of human endeavour to construct a system which is fair and useful to all – the child, the parents and the people who fund the schools?

  • Jackthesmilingblack