The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers have decided, by majority ballot, to 'frustrate the administration' of KS2 SATs this year - 2010. They have been preparing for this boycott since April 2009. When it became clear that the other teacher unions would not support this action I sent the following letter to the TES. The first two paragraphs were omitted when it appeared on 24 April 2009:


    Until now I’ve always felt that it was ridiculous for the national curriculum to spell out a canon of literature that every school should study. I’ve changed my mind. I think Aesop's fable of the Bundle of Sticks should be prescribed, not for the pupils, but for the teachers. Courtesy of Google, this is it:

    An old man on the point of death summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice. He ordered his servant to bring in a faggot of sticks, and said to his eldest son: "Break it." The son strained and strained, but with all his efforts was unable to break the bundle. The other sons also tried, but none of them was successful. "Untie the faggots," said the father, "and each of you take a stick." When they had done so, he called out to them: "Now, break," and each stick was easily broken. "You see my meaning," said their father.

    The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers jointly propose a SATs boycott in 2010. But: the NASUWT opposes this boycott and says that league tables are the real issue, not SATs; the Association of Teachers and Lecturers is opposed to SATs and league tables but won’t support a boycott; and the Association of School and College Leaders considers it essential to keep some kind of external assessment at the end of primary school.

    Ed Balls, having announced that it would be unlawful for heads not to deliver the tests (which the NUT legal team deny), said that he was “caught between a rock and a hard place”. Perhaps he is simply following Machiavelli’s advice that “a Captain should endeavour with every art to divide the forces of the enemy”.

While the evidence on this website is a powerful argument for abandoning SATs perhaps it is not clear what would happen in their absence.

Here I first set out evidence that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is very muddled about KS2 SATs and then show that the levels of attainment, measured ineffectually by SATs, are of immense importance to teachers when assessed by themselves because they monitor the educational progress of children in the key areas of English and Mathematics. But, at any point in time, whether a child has reached, or not yet reached say level four in reading, does not matter. What does matter is that his/her teacher is aware of where he/she is at, can discuss it with his/her parents when they ask how their child is doing, and is planning how to move the child on.

Levels of attainment at primary school are an entirely different form of assessment to say GCSE grades or university degree classes. Future jobs do not depend on them. Once the power of this is recognized (as it is in most schools but not by government) it comes self-evident that the national bureaucracy involved in SATs is irrelevant and can be scrapped. In other words the work load of teachers is reduced, the pressure to get good test results disappears and there is more time to devote to the whole curriculum. Presto!


The notes written for parents on the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families (http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Parents/Schoolslearninganddevelopment/ExamsTestsAndTheCurriculum/DG_10013041) about key stages tests are very revealing. They say this:

    (1) At the end of each key stage, your child's teacher will formally assess their performance to measure your child's progress.

    (2) Of course, your child's teacher will be informally assessing their learning at other times to help them plan future teaching.

    (3) They may, for example, listen to your child read or look at their maths work.

    (4) Some schools will also use optional tests to assess children's progress.

    (5) Your child will take national tests at the end of Key Stage 2. The tests are intended to show if your child is working at, above or below the target level for their age.

    (6) This helps the school to make plans for their future learning.

    (7) It also allows schools to see whether they are teaching effectively by comparing their pupils' performance to national results.

It is worth reflecting on these statements (the numbers are mine). The implication in (1) and (2) is that ‘formal’ assessment is more reliable than ‘informal’. This is contrary to the view of many class teachers that their ‘informal’ assessments, made from ongoing knowledge of a child over the course of a year, are a more reliable guide to the child’s attainment than the snapshot of a ‘formal’ externally-set test. This seems to be born out by the evidence that many secondary schools are unimpressed by the KS2 Sat external results and find it necessary to carry out their own measures.

Sentence (2) doesn’t seem to recognise that informal assessing is a continuous activity in a primary classroom and an essential part of planning for future learning.

But it is sentence (3) which is remarkable. ‘They may, for example, listen to your child read or look at their maths work.’ ‘May’? Whoever wrote this has not the faintest idea of what primary school teachers do.

‘Optional tests’, as mentioned in (4) are occasionally valuable for new teachers, or teachers with a different age group to their recent experience, in helping them to validate their informal assessments against nationally determined criteria.

In (5) the word ‘intended’ perhaps reveals uncertainty about the validity of the tests – which, of course, has been borne out by academic researchers. But the implication of ‘target level for their age’ is worrying for it presupposes that there is a rigid development of the individual year by year.

Sentence (6) is also remarkable. Since KS2 tests are taken by pupils at the end of their primary education it is difficult to see how the results can be used by the school to support their ‘future learning’.

Sentence (7) illustrates the erroneous belief that if a school’s results are below the national average it is necessarily the fault of the teachers because they are not working effectively – rather than the possibility that the children come to school from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Overall these few sentences suggest that the officials and ministers in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, have a scanty understanding of primary education.


The nation-wide introduction of levels of attainment in different subjects in the Education Reform Act of 1988, and their subsequent refinement into the present format, was the greatest step forward in education of the 20th century. Teachers now have a clear sense of the progression that they can look for in their pupils and something to aim for, child by child, in their teaching.

Consider the descriptions of levels 3 and 4 in Reading.

Level 3

Pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately. They read independently, using strategies appropriately to establish meaning. In responding to fiction and nonfiction they show understanding of the main points and express preferences. They use their knowledge of the alphabet to locate books and find information.

Level 4

In responding to a range of texts, pupils show understanding of significant ideas, themes, events and characters, beginning to use inference and deduction. They refer to the text when explaining their views. They locate and use ideas and information.

Levels are defined in terms of performance criteria, but they are deliberately vague. They depend upon the judgement of the assessor who has to decide, for example, what ‘fluent’ reading means. This is not rocket science. There are few obvious clear-cut boundaries between one level and the next.

The beauty of this system is that when there is uncertainty at a point in time as to whether a pupil is at level 3 or just at level 4 – it doesn’t really matter. Let me repeat that: it doesn’t really matter. Unlike boundaries at say GCSE between a grade of C and a grade of D, or at degree level between a II.1 or a II.2, which stays with the recipient for the rest of life, exact levels of attainment in the national curriculum are not only not measurable, but they don’t matter. What does matter is that the child is progressing and slowly extending her skills, moving forward and sometimes falling back, but overall on the upward march. It is very different from a 100 question multiple choice examination where whether someone gets 57% or 58% is clear cut.

So, the teacher might say to the child’s parents, or to another teacher, ‘He is approaching level 4 in reading and in a couple of months should be firmly at that level’ and then go on to give a couple of anecdotes to illustrate the point. I repeat, this is not rocket science and what matters is not the actual level of attainment at a point in time but the progression over the years. The levels are designed so that most children will move up one level every two years – with no fractions in between.

This is why it is daft for government to try to measure the success of a school by the aggregated levels of pupils in a year group at a point in time. Basing a league table of schools on the basis of such aggregations is even dafter. And when this happens it is inevitable that schools will focus much of their time trying to ensure that pupils get a high score on the test.

Of course parents need to know how their children are doing, but it is conversations showing how progress is slowly happening that keep them properly informed. They need to realise that tests are not only unnecessary but may not reflect the attainments of their child. Tests measure the success of the child in the particular test on a particular day - and a day which is stressful for some children and parents.


Critics have said that if the external testing is abolished it will mean more work for teachers. This is not true. Let’s spell it out.

Ongoing teacher assessment is now recognised as a fundamental part of teaching and learning. Day by day a classroom teacher is seeing the learning activity of her pupils and from time to time, in her own style, keeping notes relevant to the performance criteria of the attainment levels in English and Mathematics (and perhaps Science). The notes have two purposes, first to help with the planning of pupils’ learning, and second to prompt any discussion about an individual child’s levels of attainment – with parents or colleagues. That is an essential part of the work commitment in today’s primary school teaching profession.

So what gets abolished? This is where government needs to recognise that much of the data so diligently collected (but often of doubtful validity) will no longer be forthcoming.

    1. Children will not be externally tested at the end of KS2. Teachers will make their own assessments, using test materials if they deem necessary, so that they can communicate to parents and to secondary schools the levels of attainment of individual pupils at the time of leaving the primary school.

    2. Teachers’ assessments will not be collected, collated, and put into league tables by government or anybody else at either KS1 or KS2.

    3. Instead of preparing, printing, distributing, collecting, and marking test papers, collating results and publishing these results a small number of documents may be needed to assist new teachers to set their understanding of the different levels of attainment which they will use in making their teacher assessments.

    4. Value added assessments of schools will not be made.

    5. Ofsted will not be able to use assessment data as a surrogate for inspection.

    6. As a result of these changes schools will not need to prepare children for external testing in English and Mathematics – but can engage with the normal processes of teaching these subjects and the rest of the curriculum in an atmosphere untrammeled by preparation for testing.

    7. Also – at a time of cutbacks in government expenditure – there will be considerable savings on the public purse.

When the Sats for 14-year-olds (KS3) were abolished last year, the NASUWT found that some of its members experienced an increased work load - and that is the basis for this Union's opposition to abandoning SATs. Clearly something went astray. Whether government, local authority or headteachers were requiring teachers to engage in excessive testing activities is not clear but what is certain is that this should not have happened. Certainly at KS2 there should be less work, not more. Teachers, having spent a year working with their children, have a very clear idea of what level of attainment each child is at. This they should communicate to the parents - but not to any agency outside the school. It may be helpful for them to have available simple test instruments so that, from time to time, they can check on their own judgements, but this should not be made into a big deal.


For the individual school this is not a valid question because of the natural variation between one year-group of children and the next. Schools should collate the results of teachers' assessments at the end of each of the two key stages, and reflect on and evaluate any changes from year to year – but because of the natural variation to be expected in these figures, they should not be published outside the school, or collected by government agencies.

What is certain is that there will be an all-round improvement in the standard of education because teachers and pupils will be no longer constrained by the testing regime and so more time will be available for all parts of the curriculum.

Of course nationally government should know what is happening to the standards of education across the country. Instead of the phoney use of KS2 statistics, the careful testing of a randomly selected sample group of schools around the country, year by year, will indicate whether standards are moving.

Page modified 20 April 2010