Thursday, April 15th

Anyone reading Tuesday’s Tory manifesto would be entitled to think that the party had done a U-turn on an “announcement” last summer that key stage 2 Sats were to be scrapped in favour of tests taken at the start of secondary school. But have they really?

The picture on testing may not to be as black-and-white as the 120-page document suggests. But I’m still not sure.

Last June, Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, excited a flurry of interest from newspapers and broadcasters after suggesting, on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning TV show, that Sats as they are currently known would go. (A transcript of the interview is here).

Mr Gove said: “At the moment you have tests which are taken at the end of primary school… and one of the many concerns that people have is that that completely narrows teaching during the final year of primary school and all the focus is on drilling children just for those tests.

“Now we believe that what we should do is move those tests to secondary school. And the reason why is that when we’ve talked to the best comprehensive schools, the one thing they tell us is that they don’t completely trust the SATs tests and they run their own tests anyway to check the literacy level, the reading age of children when they arrive, and also to check their knowledge and overall competence.

“And we thought, why is it the case that you need two sets of tests? If the very best secondary schools are running their own tests and the primary school tests are becoming increasingly discredited, why don’t we move to one simple, unified system of testing at the beginning of secondary school?”.

Later in the interview, Mr Gove referred to this as an “announcement”, and implied that part of the reason he was keen on the idea was that it could cut unnecessary costs, by removing the “duplication” of many children being set one set of tests in year six, and another early in year seven.

This was written up on the BBC’s website as :”The Conservatives have announced proposals to scrap all Sats taken by 11-year-olds in England at the end of their primary schooling.” Other papers, including the Daily Mail and the Independent (I am sure there were others but I can’t find the references at the moment) followed up in a similar vein.

I was surprised, then, to read in this week’s manifesto the following: “We will keep Key Stage 2 tests and league tables. We will reform them to make them more rigorous.”

This then, looks like a clear case of an about-face. Having been tempted to consider reforming the system because of the wealth of evidence thrown its way about some of its negative effects, the party has simply changed its mind.

It appears, also, to be a hardening up of the Conservatives’ position even since this January, when David Cameron released a draft education manifesto which said simply: “We will overhaul the key stage 2 tests.” No contradiction that I can see there, then, with last year’s statement on the Andrew Marr show.

When I put the apparent change of position between last June and now to a Conservative spokesman, this was the response:

 “Michael [Gove] never said that we would abolish external assessed primary tests – he just floated the idea of moving the tests to year 7. We still intend to pilot this idea but needed to affirm clear support for the existing tests in our manifesto because of the upcoming union action.”

This has left me confused, then. First, although Mr Gove could argue that he was just “floating the idea” of year seven tests last year, he did refer to this policy during the interview as an “announcement”, and said that this was what the “party believed it should do”. Nor was there any attempt, as far as I am aware, directly to correct the headlines which followed. (Although party press officers have since seemed quite keen to play down how concrete the idea was).

One could argue that the quote as it stands could be read as saying that tests sat in year 7 could still be called “key stage 2 tests”, and thus that there is no contradiction with what is being said in the manifesto: ie the timing of the tests could change but they would still be “key stage 2 tests”.

But they would not be key stage 2 tests as currently understood.

The second part of the quote is even more intriguing, the spokesman telling me that there were still plans to trial last year’s idea. But of course it begs the question: if that is the case, why was it not spelt out in the manifesto? The final part suggests fear that the party might be seen as soft on the unions, who are soon to announce the results of a ballot on industrial action around the tests, helped to explain this.

If the Tories are still taking seriously the weight of evidence about the side-effects of the current testing regime to investigate other test/accountability methods, then, of course, this should be welcomed. But, whatever their reasons, I am surprised that they are not being more upfront, in the manifesto, about their thinking on an issue which affects every primary school in England.

1 Comment

  1. As with so many issues, there is more to gain by raising it than by ignoring it.

    I wouldn’t necessarily use their quiet mutterings as a reason to criticise their commitment to addressing the problems caused by SATs, but it is clear that – as with university tuition fees – no political party wants to get themselves into an argument about this before an election.

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