What will replace abandoned SATS?

3 June 2009
The Western Daily Press
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Teaching to the SATS tests can be murder. Recently, they have become more and more fiddly – and more boring.

In English, there is a complicated reading paper, which consists of lots of small questions that pupils have to answer precisely to get a good mark, a writing paper which never seems to test writing, and a strange Shakespeare paper that hardly requires the pupils to read the play.

If you want your pupils to get fabulous marks, you have to spend the whole of Year 9 teaching to the test.

As head of English at an over- subscribed comprehensive, I have to buy in thousands of pounds worth of books and resources so we can hit the tough targets required by my head teacher; I have to arrange revision lessons, Shakespeare workshops and make sure no teacher deviates from the set curriculum.

It can make for some deadly dull teaching going through test after test paper, ensuring pupils are aware of the relevant mark scheme, and checking they are answering a question using the correct terminology.

The teachers who get the best results are often the ones who spoon-feed their charges with jargon and have done loads of mock papers.
At a time when pupils could be reading great literature, exploring the wonder of numbers in maths, understanding the complexities of the universe in science, they are, throughout the country, being trained like good little lapdogs to jump through the hoops of the exam.

So, why do I feel apprehensive about the demise of the SATS if I hate them so much? In truth, the SATS are all I’ve known since I started teaching in the 1990s; they have provided a structure, and an easy, if very mundane, regime to impose upon my pupils.

Now that they are going, I will have to chuck out all my text- books, rewrite all my lesson plans and rethink how I teach.

At a recent department meeting, we began to discuss what we might do now all our revision guides were redundant; lots of airy ideas started floating around; we would get the pupils reading this and that, doing this terrific project and so and so forth… It all sounded great, but, as a head of department, I felt an overwhelming sense that this could turn into a free-for-all, with no standardised procedures.

Other new initiatives could exacerbate this sense of drift. The Government’s latest ruse, the new national curriculum, which was introduced to all 11-year-olds this September, could cause even more chaos because it is so woolly; there are no real set texts, no specifics about what we should teach, only lots of vague “lesson objectives” – which, to be honest, a lot of teachers don’t quite understand – myself included!

Call me old-fashioned, but I quite liked it when I knew I had to teach a classic work of literature, instruct the pupils how to write a formal letter, guide them to structure a critical essay.

There is not much of this in the new national curriculum, only a lot of guff about “enabling” and “facilitating” pupils to progress with their creativity, their cross- cultural understanding, blah, blah, blah. It gives me a headache just to look at all the grids of objectives we have to teach.

F urthermore, I am worried the SATS will be replaced with something even worse; the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, is promising to bring in personalised tests throughout all year groups. This sounds to me like more exams, not fewer. As yet, no one has explained how these new tests will be administered.

I have a feeling the exam boards will be rubbing their hands with glee because schools may well be forced to make pupils sit exams every day of the year. The idea is that once a pupil has finished a unit of work and is ready to be tested, he or she should have the right to do so.

The Government’s love of modular tests, which can be sat and retaken at different times of the year, means this happens quite a bit already. These modules are a nightmare for schools to administer – sometimes pupils are sitting so many that they have clashes, being asked to sit two or three exams at the same time.

This means the exams have to be staggered for them and the pupil has to be supervised by a teacher to stop him or her learning about the exam that has already taken place.

In our school, some pupils’ clashes have been so bad that we’ve seriously had to consider having them sleep overnight at school under teacher supervision.

But, in truth, no one knows what is going to happen – least of all those in the Government.

In the meantime, pupils and teachers are left in limbo; we’re all prepared to teach to the SATS at the end of the year. Are these now to be abandoned? This is not clear at all.

It’s a very familiar story; yet more chaos in our class- rooms, more meddling from a Government that can’t leave schools alone.

Ed Balls shouldn’t have scrapped these tests until he had a clear idea about what was to replace them.

At the moment, his proposals for their replacement are inchoate at best, and terrifying at worst. It almost makes me want to shed a tear for the death of these miserable exams.

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