"At the moment you have tests which are taken at the end of primary school…and one of the many concerns that people have is that that completely narrows teaching during the final year of primary school."
So said a leading politician in June 2009, 10 years before Jeremy Corbyn announced, at the annual conference of the National Education Union last week, that a Labour government would scrap the endlessly-debated Sats tests for seven and 11-year-olds.
The suggestion, which earned Corbyn a standing ovation from the teacher attendees, was roundly condemned by Conservative ministers. But the identity of that speaker from 2009 gives a clue that the problems which the Labour leader – along with the Liberal Democrats - now seeks to address have been acknowledged, at one time or other, by all major political parties in England.
For the speaker was none other than Michael Gove. And, while the then-shadow children’s minister eventually backed down on plans to radically reform Sats for 11-year-olds after taking office as education secretary the following year, his comments reflected the widespread criticism which has dogged these tests for decades.
While many on social media welcomed the Labour move, there was some criticism of Corbyn for not setting out in detail what any alternative system might look like.
However, a better place to start this debate might be to acknowledge the central weakness of the current regime. Concerted effort should then be made to seek to navigate what is a complex policy structure in order to find a better outcome.
The key problem reflected in that quote from Mr Gove is that Sats results, though not very important in their own right for pupils, have been made vital to schools’ futures.
So we currently have league tables which revolve around them; school inspections also centre on them; teachers’ performance pay can be heavily influenced by them; and they can be pivotal to considerations as to whether institutions should be taken over by academy trusts.
Researching this subject for a book in the 2000s, I found endless anecdotes, as well as national-level evidence from government investigations, as to what went on, as children underwent months of often repetitive preparation in tested subjects, while subjects such as art, music and physical education fell by the wayside.
Sadly, the stories do not stop: this winter a friend bemoaned the fact that sports provision at his 11-year-old son’s primary school had been restricted to the pre-Christmas period. “Why does this happen,” he asked, “when the results in these tests do not matter to him?”
The stories over Easter about schools running “cramming” courses for the tests – unnecessary for the child; seen as important by the school - reflect the same problem.
The concerning truth is that schools do “narrow teaching” in year six not because this is the best thing to do for the child, but because it reflects the institution’s need for better results. To state this is not to blame the school, but to reflect the reality of a system which provides the wrong incentives to adults as to how to act.
The Sats-backed-by-high-stakes accountability regime we currently have does not even produce particularly useful data. I say that as a parent, and statistics nerd, who did not even think to look at local league table results when choosing possible schools for our daughter four years ago, knowing that they would tell me little beyond the social make-up of the institution. (And, sadly, I would be reluctant to take at face value any scores which seemed dramatically to break out of that pattern, given cases of institutional cheating in the past.)
It is true that the data-driven system through which English schools are held to account is complex and needs very detailed consideration in plotting a way to potential reform.
Any alternative structure which sought, for example, to replace Sats with teacher assessment while continuing to make the statistics generated by such assessments vital to the future of schools themselves would be vulnerable to the same worries about unintended consequences that have dogged Sats.
Concerns about test systems being fairer for disadvantaged pupils than alternative regimes should also be taken seriously.
But other countries do things differently, with England’s structure of seeing many schools spending months on test preparation in year six hardly an international selling point for our system. It is possible to imagine a test regime which produced reasonably reliable results for all children by removing the link between the results for the pupil and the high-stakes consequences for the school.
Above all, given the central weakness of our current regime and its impacts for pupils, it seems reasonable to expect policymakers to continue to strive for a better alternative. The opposition parties’ moves on this should be seen as valuable in re-invigorating this important debate.
Warwick Mansell is author of Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing (Politico’s, 2007)