Tuesday’s protest against Key Stage 1 Sats was moronic on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, it wasn’t a ‘kids’ strike’. Did a national committee of six- and seven-year-olds get together and decide on a day of action? Even in Brighton, the centre of the boycott, that seems a bit far-fetched. The grown-up organisers of the protest clearly believed that was a cute way of packaging it for media consumption, but the thought of such young children engaging in political activism is actually a bit sinister. It’s like something out of a dystopian satire — a cross between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Then there’s the sheer selfishness of the whole thing. Thousands of parents get to indulge in a day of virtue-signalling while schools are left to pick up the pieces. Are the organisers aware that if unauthorised absences at a school exceed a certain threshold, that school is ineligible for an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ grade? Not only that, it could be plunged into special measures if its pass rate in the KS1 Sats falls below the floor standard. Schools live or die by their Ofsted rankings, particularly in middle-class cities like Brighton, so this protest could end up doing serious damage.
The organisers claim that child-ren find taking an exam at this age ‘stressful’ and worry about being branded ‘failures’, but that wasn’t true of my four kids. If only! Then they might have done some revision. This time last year, I asked seven-year-old Charlie how he thought he’d done and he looked baffled. He didn’t know he’d done an exam, and when I explained that he had, he exhibited no curiosity about the results.
That’s anecdotal, of course, but I’ve seen no evidence linking the KS1 Sats to elevated stress levels. And if they really do cause psychological harm, why protest now and not when they were first rolled out 25 years ago? The main difference this year is that the results are being externally moderated rather than relying on teacher assessment — which is a good idea, since numerous research studies show that teachers assess children from low-income families as being on average less bright than those from richer families. Not because teachers are snobs, but because they’re prone to unconscious bias, like most people.
If you accept that it makes sense to teach children to read, write and add up in primary school, the case for testing them is unanswerable. How are teachers supposed to know how much of the curriculum their pupils have mastered, and to differentiate between them, if they don’t have any test results to go on? Just as importantly, how will parents and Ofsted hold schools to account in the absence of this data? It’s no good just testing children once, at the end of their primary school careers, since how children perform in exams is linked to factors schools have no control over, such as IQ and parental socio-economic status. Much fairer from the schools’ point of view to test them at the end of KS1 and then again at the end of KS2, so you can measure how much progress pupils make, regardless of their different starting points. That also produces more useful data when it comes to assessing how effective different teaching methods are.
But listening to the protestors on the BBC news, it was clear that they don’t think primary schools should be teaching the three Rs. Their rallying cry was ‘Let our kids be kids’, by which they mean that children shouldn’t be taught anything at that age, just encouraged to express themselves and engage in ‘creative’ play. As far as they’re concerned, lessons should be fun, not difficult. The purpose of primary education is to produce emotionally well-adjusted, happy children, and anything which detracts from that, such as asking them to learn grammar and then testing them on it, should be verboten.
Trouble is, it’s kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who are penalised by this therapeutic approach. The children of the middle-class protestors will be fine if they spend all day finger-painting because they’ll pick up the basics at home; it’s their less affluent peers who will suffer. The point of the new, more rigorous primary curriculum is to reduce the yawning chasm between rich and poor children when they start secondary school. The anti-Sats brigade think of themselves as ‘progressive’, but if they succeed they will end up entrenching class divisions.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.