SATS boycott hits, but not hard enough

Submitted by Matthew on 13 May, 2010 - 12:03 Author: An East London teacher

Standardised Assessment Tests for 10 and 11 year olds were supposed to take place 10-13 May, but have been boycotted by head teachers in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). An East London Year 6 teacher and NUT member explains the limitations and the importance of the SATs boycott.

They are boycotting the test in my school and in my borough. There is about a 50% take up of the boycott. My impression is that there are pockets where the take up is less than that and pockets where it is more. The information coming out from the NUT is a 50-70% take up rate.

I think it has been an effective campaign, as the idea was to screw the League Tables and we will achieve that. We only needed 20-25% of schools to operate the boycott to achieve that.

The only goal of the campaign is to spoil the League Tables. But then the campaign has been watered down. In the end only the senior leadership were involved in the ballot. And the wording on the ballot was that SATS puts “unreasonable stress” on the pay and conditions of senior management. The unions were worried that if they involved other teaching staff in schools in the action it would be illegal. And the thinking was that, in any case, as teaching for SATS only involves one or two people those people could have been left isolated.

But when the senior leadership team involved there is always a different agenda. Even in my school, which is quite progressive on this and other issues, there has been little filtering down from the management to teachers about the boycott, little discussion. Mostly senior staff agree about testing in general — they might say “let’s do this test a week later”. They don’t have to teach the test so they don’t really understand the issues fully. If the government had said they wouldn’t publish the League Tables then senior staff might not have gone for the boycott.

So there has been nothing in this campaign that has said this form of assessment is wrong.

The students in my school have been thrilled that we are not doing SATs. But I’ve explained why we are not doing it and in any case I haven’t been preparing them for the test! The more middle-class parents have also been very with it. Others are not so sure what is going on.

In some schools heads will do the test because it is expected. And children have been asking some heads to do the test — they’ve been working hard for the test all year and so they want to do it. But it isn’t compulsory for year six class teachers to “teach to the test”, they can continue with the national curriculum.

In fact it is technically compulsory for year 6 students to get a rounded and whole education, not just revision — that’s the national curriculum (kind of) and the only statutory thing we have to teach. But teaching to the test is so widely accepted, that no one thinks twice at students who after nine months of prep are disappointed at not being able to prove themselves.

If heads didn’t allow “teaching for the test” then they wouldn’t be in the position of feeling they have to do the test now!

Part of the problem is that this boycott has all been very last minute. The ballot was very late. Then the executives of the NUT and the National Association of Head Teachers met to decide what to do. Then the Headteachers in each area had to decide what to do and it was an autonomous decision for each head. My impression is that head teachers are not ringing each other, not speaking to each other.

But I do think it will have an impact. We will have to wait to September to see whether that impact is lasting. The Tories say they want to abolish SATs but we do not know what they want to replace them with. They will want to strengthen the testing regime in primary schools.

I think these tests are less about the students and more about controlling what teachers teach, about terrifying teachers, about saying “are you good enough”? “can you get your students up to level 4”? The subject matter is very functional.

In literacy the language is very class-specific. For instance in one test I saw, there was a story about an eco-warrior who went to build a tree house in his garden. My students didn’t know what a tree house was!

Year Six teachers really feel this pressure unless they are that kind of careerist-minded teacher who doesn’t mind ticking boxes and is happy not to use their imagination or powers of thinking.

At least this boycott will give teachers a taste of control, a sense of ownership over what we are doing. It’s of the moment, but it could be a big deal, it might lead somewhere in the future.

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