17 April 2019

The real reason Jeremy Corbyn wants to scrap SATs


Back in 1991, when John Major was Prime Minister, there was an important breakthrough for parent power and a significant setback for the education establishment.

That year saw the introduction of Standard Attainment Tests. Children at primary school were to be tested to see if they were learning anything. At the age of seven we would see what had sunk in at ‘Key Stage 1’ – the early years at school. Then at the age of 11, before they moved on to secondary school, children would be tested again to see what they had learned at ‘Key Stage 2’.

Crucially, this meant that the overall standard of a school could be calculated and compared to other schools in a league table. Freedom of information was generally rather a popular cause for those on the left at the time – but the teaching unions fought bitterly against parents being made aware of how much school performance varied. Thankfully this method of accountability survived the long period of Labour government from 1997 to 2010.

But now Jeremy Corbyn has announced that a future Labour Government would abolish SATs. He says: “At primary school in particular, children need the space and freedom to let their imaginations roam. Instead, at the ages of just seven and 11 we put them through the unnecessary pressure of national exams. I think that’s wrong. And I think parents agree. They don’t want their children stressed out at a young age.”

I have a daughter who left primary school last year and another who is still there. They were not “stressed out” by SATs, nor were their friends. They didn’t even know they were sitting them at Key Stage 1. Nor do they know their individual results – unlike GCSEs, A-Levels and the 11 plus.

As former government education adviser Jonathan Simons said on this morning’s Today programme: “Crucially, they are not a test of the pupil. They are a test of how well the school has done after seven years of publicly funded education.”

If there are instances of children being stressed that is due to poor teaching rather than the tests themselves.

A clue to Corbyn’s real motive is the venue at which he chose to make his announcement. It was to the annual conference of the National Education Union, which was formed after a merger between the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. He told them: “We will consult with teaching unions, parents, and experts, and bring forward proposals for a new system that separates the assessment of schools from the assessment of children.”

Naturally they all cheered wildly at this utter capitulation to producer interests.  Easter is the traditional time for delegates from the teaching unions to make alarming utterances. As they have become more militant in recent years they have drifted to the political fringe. But now they have a Prime Minister in waiting keen to bow to their every whim.

While the teaching unions are pretty militant they are not entirely unrepresentative. If Corbyn makes it to Downing Street then the votes of hundreds of thousands of teachers will have helped him to get there. Whether they will still be so keen after years of a hard left government is another matter.

Take exclusions. In his speech yesterday Corbyn said an increase was “being driven in part by austerity”. Whether we like it or not, sometimes it is necessary to remove disruptive pupils from mainstream schools. Necessary for the pupils – who will need specialist help – and also for the environment for teachers and other pupils to be tolerable.

A return to “progressive” and “inclusive” education would mean a collapse in discipline and make schools frightening places where the bullies were in control. This would apply even if budgets doubled and class sizes halved. In any case, teachers dreaming of “an end to austerity” under Jeremy might be disappointed by how much money there was to go round once the economy goes into a tailspin.

And when it comes to SATs, teachers should be careful what they wish for. As a teacher called Solomon Kingsnorth noted in a Twitter thread this morning: “I guarantee that whatever they replace SATs with will increase teacher workload and will be as valid and reliable as a Soviet power station. My heart genuinely sank reading Corbyn’s comments on their new assessments….If this cuddly post-SATs paradise doesn’t involve some horrendous, turgid ticklist and evidence portfolios piled a mile high, I will eat my phone….Yes, there was a part of me that was excited at the thought of no more SATs. But this is the same part of me that doesn’t want to get out of bed when the clocks go forward. It’s tough getting your entire class to a good level. Huge case for reform but this goes too far.”

Then there is the prospect of replacement assessments will be used to ensure primary school children are indoctrinated with the basic tenets of Corbynista ideology – all in line with what the “professionals” in the National Education Union call for.

In some ways Labour has simply regressed. Until the 1990s, Labour would pretty much let the National Union of Teachers write the education section of their manifestos. Things started to change after the 1987 election defeat. I remember talking to Jack Straw at the Labour Party Conference in 1989 when he was the Shadow Education Secretary. He asked me about Pimlico School, an inner London comprehensive where I had been a pupil.

Straw was planning to send his children there. “Is it a good school?” he asked. That might seem an unremarkable question. But at the time it was almost a thought crime. To acknowledge that there could be any such thing as a bad school or a bad teacher was a heresy.

Much later I read Straw’s memoirs where he reflected on Lady Plowden’s 1967 report into primary school education. He wrote: “Plowden said that some use should be made of objective tests, but eschewed the idea that parents should be told about them for the most patronising of reasons: ‘The ability of a child as known to its teachers should not, in our opinion, be written down because his parents may in the future fail to encourage him.'”

The teaching of grammar was to be discouraged: “Although the committee was blind to what it was saying, to deny the mass of the people access to the formal rules of our language would be to inhibit their future economic progress and their social mobility. I bet they ensured that their own children learnt grammar. This was all for ‘other people’s children.’ Almost all the parents on the Plowden Committee had sent their children into the private sector, or to selective state schools, and would continue to do so.”

If anything, a Corbyn Government mission would be to make our schools even worse than the 1970s. After all, both the Labour leadership and the teaching unions are more extreme now than they were then. And as in that great egalitarian era, it would be the children from the poorest households who would suffer the most.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.