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SATs: Pressure on Students

Volume 662: debated on Monday 24 June 2019

Assessment means that we can ensure that pupils everywhere are getting the standard of education that they should. Of course we want pupils to do their best but that should never be at the expense of their wellbeing.

Congratulations, Mr Speaker.

I recently visited a primary school in my constituency rated good by Ofsted since 2005. The headteacher brought to my attention the level of difficulty and stress that key stage 2 children face when undergoing SATs. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can minimise exam stress for young children and would he like to complete one of the old tests with me?

I am not just saying this, but as it happens I last did one of the SATs papers—SPAG, or spelling, punctuation and grammar—on Thursday or Friday last week. As I said in an earlier answer, the point of the assessments is to assess schools and make sure that wherever children grow up they get the standard of education that they deserve. The SATs are not about testing children, and they are not public exams that will stay with children into their adult life. They are not like GCSEs: nobody in a job interview will ever ask, “What did you get in your SATs?” We trust schools and teachers to administer SATs in an appropriate way so that stress is not put on to children. I meet many teachers who do exactly that.

I also offer my congratulations on your decade in the Chair, Mr Speaker. Interestingly, it is children born since you started sitting in the Chair who are coming up to taking SATs. I have heard countless stories from teachers up and down the country that they have kept children in during break times or sacrificed time that they would have otherwise spent on other subjects to prepare for SATs. Does the Secretary of State take no responsibility for that stress put on teachers, which inevitably filters down to children? Frankly, is it not just time to scrap SATs?

No, it is not. Notwithstanding the hon. Lady’s clever linking of your decade in the Chair with the age of children doing SATs, Mr Speaker, it is common practice around the world to have standardised assessment of one sort or another in primary schools. That was not always the case, but more and more countries—including most of the high-performing ones—recognise that they need a standardised way to assess children’s progress in different parts of the country. It was Government policy when the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Conservatives and, of course, it was policy when Labour was in government.

Is there any way to see whether pupils are being let down by their schools, other than seeing that they are not getting up to certain standards?

No, not in the same way. Standardised assessment is part of a suite of methods that we use, and Ofsted inspection is, of course, another very important part. The fact is that before we had standardised assessment, there were individual schools and, indeed, substantial parts of the country where children could have been let down not for one or a few years but for many years, and nothing was done about it, starting with the problem that nobody knew about it. SATs are a very important part of our architecture to raise attainment and, critically, to narrow the gap in performance between the rich and the poor.

I congratulate you on your 10 years, Mr Speaker. Sir Thomas More, who held your fine office, went on to become both a martyr and a saint. [Laughter.] I clearly hope it is the latter for you, Sir. And after this, maybe we could have a discussion about which moisturiser you use.

England’s schoolchildren are among the most tested in the world. Headteachers are telling us that high-stakes examinations are associated with increased stress, anxiety and health issues, but the Secretary of State has let the cat out of the bag: we are staying stable in the programme for international student assessment rankings. That was the gold standard that this Government were going to be tested by, but that is sophistry, for standards have gone nowhere under this Government. The pressure and workload of the existing school assessment regime have also led to teachers leaving the profession in droves. Labour’s pledge to scrap key stage 1 and 2 tests has been universally welcomed by teachers and parents alike. Given that the Minister for School Standards was already consulting on scrapping key stage 1 tests, is it not now time for the Secretary of State to make the same commitment?

It is not. May I in passing acknowledge that Robert Bolt, the author of “A Man for All Seasons”, was, I think, a constituent in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency? It is not and never will be the time to get rid of standardised assessment at primary school. As I said earlier, more countries around the world are seeing the value and importance of it. We do not know what the Labour party’s alleged replacement for standardised assessment tests would be, but we do know two things about it: first, it would be less reliable; and secondly, it would require a lot more work for teachers.