The future of Key Stage 2 tests

Do SATS ‘turn schools into test factories’? Frances Mwale, Prep Headmistress at Farlington School, discusses the merits of abolishing SATs


A recent Radio 4 Today programme featured an interview with a researcher from Education Datalab who had been part of a study looking into the ‘Kent Test’ results: essentially their 11+ examination. They had shown that the majority of candidates from the maintained sector and receiving the Pupil Premium (the less well off), who did well in Key Stage 2 tests, did not pass the Kent 11+. The interview essentially argued against the current government policy of creating more, selective schools and that selective grammars are missing out on a large group of very able children, through a lack of accessibility to these tests. They concluded that for these pupils, ‘Taking the 11+ is like rolling a loaded dice’.

Having worked in various different schools for quite some time, I have experienced teaching towards both the 11+ and the Key Stage national tests: they are extremely different and require a very different teaching and learning focus. I would indeed concur that a child who has worked for four years towards the national tests, then entered for the 11+ possibly with only a few months’ preparation, is likely to be set up for a fall. 

The Times Educational Supplement’s article 10 reasons to abolish SATs, argues that SATs are unable to raise standards, have a negative impact on learning and wellbeing and drive our nation’s preoccupation with league tables that are ultimately meaningless.

At Farlington Prep, we have stuck with the tests once again this year. In part, this is because of our need for scores by which national comparisons can be made. Pupils also need a summative assessment – rite of passage perhaps – at the end of their time in Prep, before moving on to Senior. It is not high stakes for them, as they already have their senior school place confirmed, but they nevertheless want to do their best.

In the past, SATs data has been useful to affirm the girls’ achievement and to remind the teaching staff what a great job they are doing. However, since the abolition of Levels, the results we receive are less motivational: with 100 being the expected score, we see if girls are above or below this. With small classes, strong parental backup and – most importantly – excellent and dedicated teaching, our girls almost all attain expected or better in all areas of English and mathematics, despite the school being non-selective. But when there were Levels, our high and middle achievers were really spurred on towards gaining Level 6: this incentive no longer exists.

Over the past two decades, hasn’t education been about encouraging different ways of thinking?

In our second year of working towards the new Key Stage 2 tests, our curriculum has inevitably been moulded more, to a more fact-filled one requiring a great deal of rote learning. This is then regurgitated rapidly, in order to gain the highest marks. Over the past two decades, hasn’t education been about encouraging different ways of thinking? Of developing creativity and originality and not primarily focussed on knowledge retrieval: now easily accessed even through our watches? The new National Curriculum is a retrograde step for us, and we find increasingly that it holds us back from the really exciting parts of mathematical and English learning in which our pupils ought to be engaging. I mean, Roman Numerals are an interesting detail of Classical studies, but why test them on a maths paper? Yet it would be a disservice not to prepare the candidates as fully as we can and so we inevitably teach them how best to jump through the hoops.

With a whole range of other standardised testing available out there, we are seriously wondering why we should stick with the Key Stage 2 tests when working towards them is driving our teaching in a direction juxtaposed to our educational philosophy and vision of learning for the school. We are fortunate in the Independent Sector to be able to vote with our feet!

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