Monday, 24 November 2008

SATS: rumours of a death greatly exaggerated?
- Mark Taylor

For many observers, the scrapping of Key Stage 3 SATS for 14 year olds by Education Secretary Ed Balls finally ends the agony for a generation of stressed out and anxious parents, teachers, unions, academics, educational psychologists, government ministers – and of course children. A divorce even more widely predicted than the one between Madonna and Guy Ritchie has now taken place: the government and SATS have finally parted company. Moreover, government and opposition have united on the need for new and more enlightened forms of assessment pioneered by New York schools.

This simple educational parable, or a version of it, appears to be the common interpretation. But it bears a closer inspection.

Formally, according to Balls, Key Stage 2 tests remain in place for 11 year olds at the end of their primary school experience. However, many schools retest the children as they enter secondary school because Key Stage 2 tests are widely seen as unreliable and falsified. So, for many children, these tests never really existed in the first place.

Perhaps Balls is more accurate in regard to Key Stage 3? The immediate response of some teachers appears to be a genuine sigh of relief at their new autonomy. This indicates that there was some truth in the opinion that the SATS had become a caricature of real education, leading to various forms of ‘teaching to the test’. Still, a good teacher, the argument correctly went, could go beyond the tests if he or she wanted.

The starting point for other teachers concerns the way the minister conducts his business. To end these tests without notice might go down as decisive in a Westminster organic farmyard which does not currently know its capitalist egg from its socialist chicken. But it smacks of bad planning to teachers raised - admittedly unimaginatively - on a strict diet of aims and objectives. So Balls has failed in that regard as well.

However, interpretations that assume the tests were preventing genuine education or that Balls is simply an unprincipled opportunist only go so far. It is not even fair to labour the point that Balls is a bit odd, in a Midwich Cuckoos kind of way. These views all miss the wider context. Education has been massively reshaped in the last few years, and many previously intellectual aspirations for children have been subtly and not so subtly replaced by psychological and pedagogical tomfoolery.

Effectively, national subject examinations are being replaced by personal forms of self-assessment. SATS, being neither one nor the other, no longer fit in. But that is precisely the now pointless point. Education has been so transformed that psychological and social policy objectives such as personal development and community cohesion now constitute the heart of Ofsted inspection and school ‘self-evaluation’ criteria. In consequence, previously traditional subjects have been forced to adapt and make their subjects more ‘relevant’. And previously primary school type ‘subjects’ and ‘competences’ have arrived on the secondary school curriculum. This new educational landscape has come with its own ‘personalised’ assessment criteria which precludes any aspiration to a universal standard.

So have the SATS really gone? Far from it. Even an anti-education system requires some form of evidence of progress. SATS have actually mutated. Our children are currently studying for them in a process of generally continuing self-evaluation. Otherwise known as GCSEs.