UK SATs Changes: Ethical Dilemmas for Teachers

 This week, seven and 11 year-olds were kept home from school as parents protest against changes to Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) and the resulting pressure on schoolchildren.

But what exactly is the impact of increasing pressure surrounding SATs on teachers? We find out as part of our 21st Century Professionals series.

‘It was made very clear to us by the deputy and the head teacher that the children need to leave us being literate and numerate. Level 4 or 5 in the SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) was required otherwise they wouldn’t then go on to achieve GCSE’s and A Levels in secondary school.  It was our job to make sure that they got these levels.’

Jenny English (not her real name) currently works as an assistant head teacher in a primary school in South London. They have a high proportion of children who are eligible for free school meals and for whom English is an additional language. Many of the children also have special educational and additional needs.  Last year Jenny was in charge of a low-ability writing group of year 6 children: 10 to 11 year olds. She explained how she handled a particularly worrisome challenge to her professionalism.

‘On the run up to SATs the deputy head asked us to re-write the children’s ideas onto white boards for them to copy out into books as evidence of the children working at those levels. During the assessments we opened maths test papers early to work out the answers. So each teacher delivering or adjudicating the assessments had the answer sheets to get an idea of who was working at the level that they should be achieving, and who wasn’t. If we discovered children weren’t performing as expected we were asked to take them out to give them additional time.’

‘I had a big discussion with the year 6 teachers. We went to the deputy head and refused to do this, but the deputy head teacher did pull out children and we turned a blind eye.’

This placed Jenny in a difficult position. She was in charge of assessments as well as the curriculum. As she explained:

‘The SATs themselves are heavily monitored; you could have a moderation visit at any time. It was on my head if I was found to be doing something slightly untoward, so I lived in fear for that week. In the end we were incredibly lucky because they came before a test where we didn’t open the papers early. It was a spelling test, and they watched me and they saw everything as it should be.

But we actually did get caught out, which I’m quite pleased about.’

‘The deputy head changed marks that we had given. The books were taken for moderation and the assessors looked at the child’s work and said: “Hang on a minute, you’re saying that this child is a level 5, yet all of this work in her books seems to suggest that she is a level 4.” And I went back to the deputy head and said that I had presented this child as a level 4, yet somehow now she’s a level 5.’

‘But it is not straightforward. Three children in my group had a bit of a meltdown during some of the tests, ripping up papers, storming out of the room. I found them afterwards and once they were calm I gave them time to begin the test again. That’s not strictly allowed but I felt that I could justify that to myself because of the pressure, and I suppose the guilt that I felt by putting these children under such stress. Two children also fell asleep so I then took them out later in the day and gave them another chance to sit it again in test conditions. I felt that I could talk myself into giving them another chance as it wasn’t a true reflection of what they could do.’

The deputy and the head kept reiterating that every school does what we did and if we didn’t we would be selling ourselves short. And having spoken to secondary school colleagues I discovered most primary schools tend to send children up with changed grades. So they don’t take our grades seriously. They put the children through a series of tests and assessments as soon as they start secondary school because they know that what ends up on paper is not necessarily a true reflection of what children can do.’

‘It was in the national press, I think there were 400 schools in 2015 where they were recalling the test papers and they were accusing these schools of having cheated. When I saw that article I was worried that perhaps it might have been our school, but it wasn’t, luckily.’

‘I was aware that things were happening last year that didn’t sit well with me but I didn’t really act on it. I could’ve been a whistle blower, I could have dragged my school through the mud but I grappled with that at the time and I made the decision not to, whether that was right or wrong I don’t know. I sort of knew that the deputy head was leaving, I knew that thinking ahead things would get better and that we could maintain it. I want to stay to continue to make sure that our school is doing the right thing and following procedure and getting through this period by giving an education that is as best as we possibly can.’

Jenny mentions a Guardian Secret Teacher Article which can be found here

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