To date, standards in primary schools have been measured through two instruments; SATs scores and Ofsted inspection outcomes. Both measures have been critiqued by some in the sector who argue that they have a negative impact on teacher workload and a lack of recognition of pupil demographics (e.g. levels of deprivation or additional educational needs). Both measures are also high stakes for schools; and SATs results are (in normal years) published and used to create “league tables” and can trigger Ofsted inspections.
Some stakeholders, including school leaders, teachers and parents, also have concerns about the efficacy of SATs and the extent to which the continued focus on test scores as a measure of school standards risks displacing a broader and more balanced evaluation of both pupil and school achievement. There are further concerns that SATs, though intended to be low stakes for pupils, have unintended consequences including an effect on wellbeing and impact on breadth of curriculum through a heavy focus on preparing for tests.
The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ white paper, published in February 2022, set out its ambition for 90% of pupils to achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by the end of Key Stage 2, by 2030. This target was reached by just 1% of schools in 2022.1 The 2030 cohort of primary pupils will be starting Reception in September 2023, meaning that it now seems timely to ask: what do high standards really mean in practice?
In spring 2023, the Education Policy Institute partnered with More Than A Score to conduct two roundtables to discuss whether the current use of test scores to evaluate primary school standards effectively meets the needs of pupils, schools and the system overall and if not, what reforms to the system might look like. This summary paper outlines the key topics that were discussed across the two events, including the current approach to standards setting in English primary education, the impact on pupils and education staff, the role of Ofsted and whether further reform is needed.
Read the summary paper in full here:
The discussions across the two events covered a large amount of ground, touching on our standards system, the efficacy and impacts of primary assessment and links with Ofsted and the accountability system. When considering how standards should be defined and measured, the panel ultimately returned to fundamental questions of what we want children and young people to learn and how the levers of assessment and the accountability system can support that.
As the paper outlines, there was considerable debate, but consensus was generally reached on:
- the need for clarity on the purpose of assessment, particularly at the end of primary
- the fact that the current system has resulted in unintended, negative consequences
- the need to consider, alongside whether SATs need reform, what role Ofsted inspections should play.
While opinions on the nature of reforms differed, participants felt that any reforms must take into account the need to prioritise closing the disadvantage gap, recognising that any assessment system that relies on support outside the school day is inherently unfair and that when we judge schools, we are also judging society as poverty, housing, mental health support and other contextual factors all have an impact on performance. Therefore, changes to the assessment system need to work alongside and take into account these underlying problems.
Secondly, any reforms should consider the already significant burdens placed on teachers and school leaders and be implemented in partnership with the sector, rather than imposed, to ensure that the system is able to cope.
Finally, that our current interpretation of success, defined largely by SATs, is considered to be a narrow one which jeopardises the development of a broad range of knowledge and skills.
This event series and summary paper has been produced in partnership with More Than A Score.