The Education Twittersphere exploded earlier this week, as it is wont to do, over Jeremy Corbyn’s newly announced policy to end SATs for KS2 pupils. No doubt with the best of intentions, Mr Corbyn wishes to remove the “extreme pressure testing” that causes stress in primary pupils, freeing up pupils and staff to pursue a “rich and varied curriculum”. For today, we’ll put aside the fact that such a curriculum would only further encumber teachers and drag literacy/numeracy rates lower. Let’s instead consider Labour’s central concern that examinations cause undue stress. Mr Corbyn, putting ideology before practicality, fails to understand that scrapping SATs would hit our most disadvantaged children hardest, limiting achievement and failing to hold primaries to account.
Examinations are a vital part of any education system. Paul Whiteman, General Secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers, has claimed this week that they tell us nothing we don’t already know, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are two main purposes of exams: in the first instance, they allow us to check whether pupils have reached the desired educational goals we set for them, and, in the second, as American Literary Critic E.D Hirsch points out in his 1999 book The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, they hold schools accountable for the quality of education they give to our children.
The latter should not be underestimated. After their introduction in 1995, KS2 SATs were vital in identifying the depth of failures in the education system. Andrew Adonis, Labour’s Minister of State for Education under Tony Blair has noted that in the first year of implementation it was discovered, “more than half of eleven-year-olds [more in poorer areas] were failing to achieve the standard expected of their age in literacy, with a higher failure still in numeracy” . Without the tool of standardised examinations, such failures in basic education would remain hidden, allowing standards to drop to those witnessed in the mid-90s – an unacceptable cost.
Of course, examinations do cause stress – this much is beyond doubt. The argument against exposing children to stress is an old one – reformer John Dewey argued in 1898 that teaching six-to-seven year olds to read “cripples rather than furthers later intellectual development”. Such a point strikes us as ludicrous today. We would not (I hope) consider ruling out teaching literacy to young children today on the basis of it distressing some. Risk must be balanced against reward. The same is true of examinations.
Primary pupils have little recourse to feel stressed over exams, outside of what parents and teachers place on them. They certainly have little conception of what their exams are for. Unlike GCSEs, SATs results appear on no CVs: they are used only as baseline measurements for secondaries. The person with most cause to feel stress is not the child, but the primary school teacher, who will feel the consequences of good or bad SATs on their career prospects. Teachers will, understandably, feel the pressure to get the best results possible, and this can lead to the “gamification” of SATs, where methods are employed to boost results which do not, themselves, improve the quality of learning for pupils. The level of exploitability in SATs incentivises teachers to use every possible advantage, a frustrating reality that undermines the central purpose of education, with the resulting stress of the educator passed onto pupils. We should not, however, throw the baby out with the bathwater. Examinations are far from perfect, and must continue to be refined, but we would do far more damage by replacing an imperfect system with no system at all.
What shocks me most is our national phobia of exposing children to stress. “Exams put pressure on children, and that is their great virtue”, writes Barnaby Lenon in his 2017 book, Much Promise: Successful Schools in England. He is right: in too great a quantity, stress cripples us. Day-to-day, it empowers us to reach our potential. Instead of sitting unaccountably idle, as many pupils would likely do, the looming reality of SATs encourages pupils to get their heads down and learn. The daily stress of potential failure compels me to do my best, as it does for us all in various spheres of life. Indeed, without undertaking a difficult task, laden with risk and potential failure, how would anyone accomplish something great? If we shield our children from this stark reality, we won’t liberate them; we will stunt them from the emotional development that will make them succeed. Twenty years down the line, they won’t thank us for it.
In recent years, our country has finally begun making great strides in reforming education, under both Labour and Conservative governments. Mr Corbyn’s archaic ideas on examinations are anything but compassionate, and threaten to take a step back towards low standards and low achievement, especially for society’s poorest. We owe it to future generations to reject them.