After Sats KS2 tests were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, four school leaders give their views on whether they should return. This article was first published by TES.

Ever since the Sats were first introduced in 1991, there have been many criticisms levelled at them.

These range from their alleged irrelevancy to the fact that some feel they force heads to pick between achievement and inclusion. Many have felt for some time that they simply do not work in their current form, while a new report by the Social Mobility Commission says they should be replaced with “an externally moderated digital portfolio of work”.

However, the idea of Sats never taking place again would have seemed unthinkable until the past 18 months and the impact of the pandemic, which has meant we have now gone two years without key stage 2 Sats taking place. 

So, now that we’ve actually had time away from them, what has this new reality been like? Do we want them back or have we learned that a new way is possible? Here leaders at secondary and primary school offers their thoughts.

Image supplied by TES

The primary school view: ‘Without Sats, our pupils have enjoyed broader learning’
Loren Tharme is vice-principal at Ocean Academy, a junior school in Poole, Dorset

When education secretary Gavin Williamson made his announcement earlier this year about Sats not taking place, our first thought was that we were relieved and pleased for our students.

It would not have been a level playing field for them. Some students have benefitted from working at home but for others the disruption and uncertainty caused by Covid to family life has impacted on them.

The absence of Sats for Year 6 this year has been a positive experience. April and May would normally see the students revising for exams and feeling pressure as these exams are high-stakes for them and for schools. Their results are sent to secondary schools and their final assessment all comes down to their performance on one day of tests.

Instead, our students have enjoyed exploring a full curriculum and have had a much richer and broader learning experience. They have spent more time on more creative activities, and have enjoyed woodwork and science experiments.

We have still used Sats papers because the questions are an excellent assessment resource, but we have done it in a much more relaxed way to inform a holistic teacher judgment.

The tests are not the problem, it’s the way in which they are administered and the fact that the results have to be published in national league tables that creates unnecessary pressure. I do like the questions that come with Sats but the pressure that the process puts on children is immense.

It would be great if children could sit the Sats and the results are simply reported to the government and used to inform teacher judgment.

The absence of Sats this year is an ideal opportunity for the government to have a rethink about the purpose of these exams and how they are administered. What this year has shown us that it is possible for children to have a fulfilling academic experience without the pressure that they bring.

‘Pupils were disappointed not to do Sats’
Claire Gallagher is a Year 6 teacher at St John’s CE Primary School in Bromley

When the DfE announced that Sats were not to go ahead this year, I (like a lot of teachers) thought this was brilliant. But in reality, I missed them.  

The Sats are an integral part of Year 6; they are a rite of passage to end their primary school career. Children arrive often knowing that the tests are going to happen, as they have friends or older siblings who have sat them. 

When I told my class they were not happening this year, the news was met with disappointed faces. They felt they were ready to tackle them head-on, showing what they could do and what they had learned. Seeing their reaction, I felt disappointed that they wouldn’t ever get that opportunity.

As a Year 6 teacher, the Sats in May provide you with a clear path and timeframe for the year; a goal to aim for. Without them, the time has somehow felt less focused, less pacey, less structured. 

For a group of children who are beginning to sense that their time in primary school is over, that structure would usually keep them focused. Without the prospect of a test, their learning seemed to feel less important to them as they didn’t have anything to strive towards.  

In previous years, I have always felt a huge sense of camaraderie between the children. Breakfast club before the tests with sticky jam faces while they quiz each other, and the “after Sats” celebration afternoon. They adopt an attitude that “we’re all in this together”, and this has really been missed this year.

Don’t get me wrong, there are downsides to Sats, but that is due to what is done with those test results rather than the test week itself. The tests themselves are an informative tool for the end-of-key-stage assessment and something that we need to ensure standardisation nationally. This is something we can’t get purely from teacher assessment. 

When the Sats do return, I think the time pressure of the tests should be removed. Why do we need to know if they can do each question in roughly two minutes, when the fact that they can independently answer the questions should be enough?

I’d also like to see the time of year change. Why May? Wouldn’t they be better timed nearer the end of the year? This would enable schools to keep a whole year of a wide, rich and varied curriculum, while removing the pressure that some schools feel to cram in as much English and maths as possible before Easter.

Sats tests approached in the wrong way can be detrimental to the children, but in the right way can be just a normal – dare I suggest – enjoyable part of primary school life. I hope they will return, but in a new and improved version of themselves.

The secondary school view: ‘Pupils have missed a chance to show what they can do’

Kathleen McGillycuddy is headteacher of Broadoak Academy in Weston-super-Mare

We use Sats to get a sense of where a young person is at – it is not the defining be all and end all, but it helps us understand relatively quickly where there are high prior attainers and those who may need additional support.

Last year we deliberately had fewer teachers in Year 7 so we could really get to know students at a deeper level more quickly – both academically and as fabulous little human beings, too! This was helped by transition data and info from colleagues in primary schools.

This year we have been involved in a large piece of work across our town where primary colleagues have provided very specific data about Year 6s, and pupils have also completed pupil passports about them as learners, and colleagues across all phases have been incredibly keen to make the transition as successful as possible.

Some students are relieved to not have had the pressure but others feel they have missed out on the chance to show what they can do. Looking ahead to GCSEs and Progress 8, I worry disadvantaged students might not benefit from a system in which there is not a keen light shone on how they have progressed.

‘There are different ways of assessing pupils’
Ruth Ashbee is lead practitioner (science) at Telford Priory School, Shropshire

We use Sats to set minimum expected grades for students for the end of KS4. We don’t share these with students as we know the calculations are not designed for individuals but for averages over large cohorts. We use them to track things like patterns in pupil premium underachievement, for example.

What would I want in any new version of Sats? I think it’s as much about how it’s assessed as the content. What I mean by this is, it’s probably most important that reading, writing and maths are the content of the tests, but I’m aware that there are some issues around the ways that marks are awarded that encourage quite poor writing in some ways, and don’t reward some writing of high quality.

So I’d keep the broad areas the same but explore different ways of assessing, such as comparative judgement. I’d like for science, humanities and computing to be assessed, too, but it’s very difficult to see how this could be made to work, given time constraints and variation in curriculam.