When I wrote about our intention to boycott SATs over a year ago, the tests themselves seemed very far away (even if my child was already talking about them a lot). This week we find ourselves in the middle of the boycott and of a surprising twitter storm!
We went in at the beginning of Yr 6 to meet with his headteacher and Year 6 teacher and found them both supportive and welcoming. They fully understood our reasons for wanting to leave and although they did ask a couple of questions about whether I understood what it might mean for him at secondary school, they didn’t stand in our way at all. In fact, while the head explained that she could not give an authorised absence for him on the days of the tests, she would happily have him back in for the afternoons so that he accrued only four half days of unauthorised absence. This meant less time off work for us and that we wouldn’t be eligible for a fine so we felt grateful for their support.
A month before the tests, I wrote a more formal letter. To cover the school in case they were asked to administer the tests on his return, I made it clear that he would have access to the internet during his time off so that the school could not legally administer the tests (this is a DfE rule). Here is the letter I wrote:-
As discussed previously, I’m writing more formally to let you know that we will not be entering Sam for SATs this year and intend to keep him at home on the morning of the tests. We know and understand that you cannot condone or authorize this absence and accept that it will go down on his record as an unauthorized absence.
We want to make it clear that this is in no way a reflection on you, the school or on Miss … He has been very happy in Year 6 and it has become clear that you are doing all you can to ensure that SATs don’t become stressful for children. It’s also clear that he’s enjoyed as broad a curriculum as possible during SATs year.
Our concern is around the way that data from SATs is used in secondary education and particularly its impact on GCSE data through comparative outcomes. We don’t want our child’s targets and progress through the rest of his academic life to rest on predictions based on performance in a single test when he was 11. We want him to be assessed on present merits as he goes through school.
We will keep him off for the tests and during that time, he will have access to the internet and to his peers. We cannot guarantee that he won’t see or hear the content of the tests from others, which means he legally cannot sit them at a later date.
We also want to thank you for all you have done at … School to make Sam’s primary education a joyful one. He’s had a wonderful time and we’ve appreciated the access to music tuition and to excellent teaching and emotional support throughout his time with you.
With very best wishes
While we were able to keep him off for the tests, there did remain the question of what to do with him while others were doing the practice papers they started after Easter. Liaising with his teacher, we set up a number of independent tasks for him. Some were on DoodleMaths, others were research projects. For example, he very much enjoyed putting together a presentation on tectonic plate movement and how the continents of the world have shifted over time. He also spent some time learning new languages on Duolingo – Russian became a firm favourite.
We’re now into our second day of him being at home for tests. One of our ‘rules’ was that he’d stick to a school timetable at home – same start times, same break times – and that this wouldn’t be seen as time off. That way he could explain to his peers that he wasn’t having a holiday while they worked. In fact, yesterday one of them laughed and said he’d had to work harder than them. After their 40 minute test, they’d played on the field all morning! He’d put in a solid three hours.
While this has been happening, there has been a fair amount of both support and criticism on twitter as well as a number of questions. I’m going to try to tackle some of that here in the hope it allows other parents to inform themselves.
- But why? There’s no point – he’ll have had to learn all the stuff anyway!
I never had any problem with him learning the content. Well maybe with elements of SPAG, but otherwise, not. It was the emphasis on testing and the stakes attached to them that bothered me. So I didn’t mind him learning English and Maths – he needs that knowledge to do well in secondary school. So when the others started doing practice papers, he just did his own thing, still writing extended texts, learning far more about grammar through MFL than the SPAG would have taught him (including prepositional cases) and he did the same kinds of Maths questions online. It worked for us.
Where our main area of concern lay was in the way SATs scores are used as shorthand modes of prediction for future outcomes. Since 2016, GCSE grade boundaries have been set in line with them for example, and secondary schools are held accountable even in unrelated subjects such as Art, for outcomes based on performance at the age of 11 in English and Maths. This worries me for two reasons – it fixes children, assuming no potential for growth at a national level, and at a school level, it can lead to assumptions and confirmation bias being applied to a child’s progress based on expectations rather than reality. I know first hand the frustrations of trying to make secondary pupil’s spreadsheets turn the right colour for progress monitoring – leading to all kinds of data and marking contortions, rather than focusing on the most simple thing – where are they now? What is their next step?
2. This is an insult to teachers who have worked hard with your child all year.
It’s not really for me to say whether a teacher might be offended by a parent withdrawing a child from a test, but if so, it does throw up some interesting questions about professional identity. Have we really become so bound to testing that a rejection of that is a rejection of our sense of self? In his essay on Societies of Control, the French philosopher Deleuze discusses how , if we’re not careful, we can become the system of surveillance and control that we operate under, policing ourselves and others on behalf of a system designed to control us. I’ve seen a lot of that in the past few days. Products of the system that are no longer able to separate themselves from the constraints they are bound by. We really like Sam’s teacher. We like her because she is kind, funny, knowledgeable, thorough – for all kinds of reasons. Not because she’s the administrator of a test. Thankfully she fully appreciates this and we fully appreciate her.
3. How dare you use your child to make an ideological point!
Choosing to have him in a hospital was ideological. Choosing to breastfeed was ideological. Choosing his nappies was ideological. Choosing a local school, closest to home was ideological. All parenting is ideological people! An ideology forged in what a parent considers to be the best interests of their child, is still an ideology. I don’t want him measured. I don’t want his SATs results to go into a statistical pot that pits state educated children against privately educated pupils. If the system decrees that based on 70% of children reaching expected standard in English and Maths in SATs, 70% will pass at connected rates of progress, in order for one child to improve, another has to fail. How is that in any ideological sense right? Yet if you have no SATs data, your GCSE results are based on you meeting the standard already established by the SATs kids. 100% of kids without SATs data can pass if they meet the grade boundary. That’s just not fair. And so, yes, that’s ideological.
4. What does he think?
He’s been conflicted throughout. He didn’t like the idea of being separate to his class. He felt guilty that he was ‘getting off’ tests. He didn’t think he had the right to take part in their fun day on Friday. And he actually likes doing tests. But these are his words now:-
“If I’d done them, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I have now and I don’t think the school would have given me an authorised absence to go to Germany to do the ISTA theatre festival I did last week and that was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve now got friends from Vienna and Budapest and Moscow, I’ve learned some German and improved my Russian and I learned loads about Leipzig and the protests and the Berlin Wall. I wouldn’t swap that for anything. And like, yesterday, they did a test then played out, but I did loads more. And no-one has been mean to me. Miss took me aside on Monday and said “Sam, someone told me you were feeling bad about taking part in the fun day” and I said “I feel guilty because I haven’t done the SATs” and she said “this is for working hard all year Sam. You’ve worked hard all year – you deserve it as much as anyone” so now I feel better. And sometimes, you’ve got to do what’s the right thing, even if you think it’s hard. I learned that in Germany and now I’m having to do it.”
6. You’re letting the school down. Their data will be poor, Ofsted will fail them, teachers won’t get their pay rises…all because of YOU!
Woah. Am I alone in labouring under the misapprehension that schools are there for the children and not the other way round? It is not my fault that the government does not allow an absence code for parental withdrawal. In spite of their rhetoric about parent choice, they’d rather use school’s fears as a lever to limit the choice of parents. That’s on them, not me. And Ofsted have already said, quite clearly, that a school will not be penalised for this – the school, of course, needs a nice letter from you to prove it when the inspectors come trotting in. I was more than happy to supply that. And finally the pay rise of a teacher is at the head’s discretion. If there is good reason across a whole range of evidence (including, incidentally, my letter praising the teacher), then that shouldn’t happen. Unless the head is truly awful. That’s on them, not me.
5. You have a duty to uphold the policies of the government because this is tax payer’s money.
I’m a tax payer too. And I did not vote for this shower of spite I see in government.