With the annual joy of SATs just around the corner, I thought now would be a good time to write this blog post, which has been floating around in my head for some time. There is a much bigger story behind this post which I might well write about in years to come, but with the memory still painfully fresh in my mind, now is not the time.

The basic premise of my post is this: SATs scores are not worth the paper they are written on because the integrity of the process is, in a variety of ways, being undermined.

One of these is the manipulation of access arrangements for pupils sitting the tests. The guidance paper (which can be found here) would seem to be reasonably clear. Of particular interest though, is the note on the use of readers. The document stipulates that readers may only be used if a child has a reader as part of their normal everyday classroom routine, and advises that schools may be asked to evidence this if they receive a monitoring visit during the test week. I would have thought most schools are rather short of TAs who are able to go around reading instructions to Y6 children on a daily basis . Reasonably, I’d expect only children with an EHCP specifying 1:1 assistance, or children in classrooms which are abundant in support staff to have access to an adult reader for all learning tasks, despite the fact that justification could probably be made for a far greater percentage of the class receiving this support.  There’s a pretty strong argument that – particularly for the maths reasoning papers, which can be quite wordy – children should not be disadvantaged by being poor readers.  So, it would only seem fair that schools are deciding to use readers to support these children in the tests, regardless of whether the school would or could provide this support in class. I think this is a rationale many schools are using, and I’ve witnessed it first hand at two schools I have worked in.

Reading further through the guidance paper, it states that – in the maths papers (but interestingly this year, not the SPAG paper) – a question may be read to an individual pupil if they so request it. Well, there’s not much to stop a child asking for every question to be read to them, especially if they have been encouraged to do so. And we all know, it DOES make a difference if a child has a question read to them – even if that is the extent of the assistance. For a child who reads at around the expected level but not particularly well, those subtle nuances in the question are much more easily interpreted when the question is heard rather than read.

And then of course, there’s just plain over-assistance. How many of us have witnessed or even been a part of the circus that sanctions the blatant handing over of a rubber, the suggestion to ‘have another think about that one’, the nod or shake of a head? I’ve seen it, and on odd occasions I’ve been an active part of it. I’ve never given a child an answer, but I know I have definitely strayed from the guidance notes. I’ve been uncomfortable doing it, but (and this does not excuse it) I’ve known it has been what was expected of me as one of the bodies in the room. In fact, I’ve worked in more than one school with this kind of expectation. The example has been set by the headteachers themselves in their conduct during the tests.

The really sad thing about this is that it really is not benefiting the children. What is the point of them having false impressions of their ability, and then going on to secondary school and then constantly playing ‘catch-up’ as they fail to meet progress targets? It certainly doesn’t benefit our secondary colleagues either, as they bang their heads against the wall trying to achieve unattainable progress measures. They know they have to take SATs scores with a pinch of salt, even though these same scores are driving their pupil targets for GCSE.  I’m amazed they don’t make more fuss about it.

On this note, I can think of several examples of children a few years back who have achieved ‘miraculous’ scores on SATs papers. For example, I once taught a lovely, witty girl whom we desperately wanted to achieve a level 4 in reading. Unfortunately, despite several attempts at reading interventions, she remained clueless at anything other than basic fact retrieval. In practice past papers, I desperately tried to get her to focus on the multiple choice, ‘drawing lines’, tick-boxes and one word answer questions, in the hope I could scrape her the 19 marks or so which would guarantee her the level 4 the school needed for the data (and herein lies the real problem). However, I couldn’t get her within 3 or four marks of the score she needed. Not to worry in the end though, as incredibly she romped home with a level 5 in that year’s reading test (and this was nothing to do with me – she was in the hall which was staffed solely by the headteacher).  Good luck to her secondary in building on that success!

I really believe it is wrong to over-assist children in these tests. But, I fully understand why – in our culture of ultra-accountability – headteachers and other test administrators continue to do it. Every year, heads across the country lose their jobs as a direct result of poor Y6 data. It’s even trickier for schools in deprived areas who are having to chase the same floor targets as the affluent school across town. The incentives to ‘cheat’ (or disincentives not to) and the slim chance of being caught seemingly make it a no-brainer.

If you think this doesn’t happen at your school, ponder on it again and ask yourself if you are really, truly certain.  If you’re still convinced your school plays by the rules, then I congratulate that school on its integrity.  I hope too, that someday the playing-field is levelled so that being honest and fair does not mean we lose effective and brave leaders who have refused to cheat the system.

I’ve often thought that one way of ensuring this level playing-field is to administer the tests at neutral venues (such as local secondary schools), using secondary staff and invigilators to oversee, rather than the primary headteachers and year 6 teachers who might seek to benefit from assisting their own pupils. I wonder if there will come a time where the government recognises the problem and sees the need to introduce such a measure.

If you’re involved in SATs administration this year, I urge you to follow the guidelines set down by the STA. Headteachers, think about whether or not you can convincingly justify giving a child a 1:1 reader. Think before passing a child a rubber, or frowning, nodding  or winking at a child’s answer. Yes, you’re unlikely to be caught, but I’ve seen it happen and the consequences can be devastating.