Dear Gavin Williamson, claw back some respect by pausing Sats, league tables and Ofsted

I think we are getting a good picture of what kind of secretary of state for education you are. You completely messed up last year’s GCSEs. Now there are big question marks over whether you have made schools safe from Covid-19, with many parents afraid to send their children in. You’ve told schools they must do online teaching, without any extra money for it. To top it all, you and your schools minister, Nick Gibb, voted against Marcus Rashford’s idea of providing free school meals for hungry children.

Perhaps it is time to claw back some credibility. One way would be to start listening to teachers and headteachers who are calling for Sats to be suspended. They have also called for Ofsted inspections and league tables to be postponed because of the trauma on schools and children from the pandemic.

Whatever virtues year 6 Sats tests may have, when they are used as a big stick to coerce and bully teachers and to set school against school, they lay anxiety and stress on children and parents at the expense of teaching and learning.

Teachers urge suspension of English school league tables in 2021

Amid all the pain of this pandemic, if you were to follow headteachers’ advice it would give us hope. It would signal to primary school heads, classroom teachers, parents and children that this year they could lay to one side the usual Sats stress. Schools could instead take positive elements from the Sats curriculum and build around them seven months or so of learning, fitted to the situation we find ourselves in.

As you know, Sats are a form of “summative” testing – that is, they test students on what they do and don’t know at the end of a period of teaching. Every form of assessment has an inbuilt implied effect on the teaching and learning in the time leading up to that test. In the case of Sats, it is a very narrow range of learning. In the area I’m best acquainted with, Sats have reduced the delights of language and literature to formulas and stock answers.

The pause headteachers are proposing would allow schools to try out other forms of assessment. These could be, for example, a mix of “formative” assessment – assessing work as students learn, through teacher-pupil dialogue, use of portfolios, monitored research etc – and teacher observation, alongside shorter and less stressful summative assessments based on shorter units of work. This could take place without the pressure of Ofsted and league tables, allowing teachers to broaden and vary the curriculum. There would be much less need to reduce education to right/wrong answers.

What is more, this breather would enable schools to claw back time for arts education, an area of learning that has been squeezed out because it cannot, or should not, be reduced to this type of testing.

Of course, behind the argument for Sats is the fallacy of the level playing field. Schools do not have equal facilities, equal supply of the best-qualified teachers, or equal levels of support from parents and their community. The pandemic is creating another unevenness. The kindest and most rational response would be to suspend Sats, league tables and Ofsted. What do you think?

Yours, Michael Rosen

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