A Parliamentary Spat Over SATs

A Parliamentary Spat Over SATs

Education Committee Chair insists SATs “are absolutely for the children. It is nothing to do with the schools.”

What’s been said?

Anyone who has listened to the Education Committee Oral Evidence Session on 23 March or read the transcript cannot fail to have noticed the seven minute exchange when Chair, Robert Halfon, repeatedly interrupted Education Otherwise’s Wendy Charles-Warner. Throughout Q97 to 103, he protested Charles-Warner’s assertion, “How do we know that a child in school is attaining their individual potential in literacy? We simply don’t.” (Watch this section.)

Halfon’s attitude to the session was unusual. His mind did not appear to be on the matters in hand. It could be speculated that he felt what was intended as a quick fire inquiry, perhaps all done and dusted by the end of December, was now dragging on. This, without doubt, was one result of home educators providing “over 900 submissions” to the Committee, which consequently pressed them into holding a second Oral Evidence Session.

The Chair’s mind was certainly distracted. He opened the session with two questions about an essentially unrelated matter, and forgot to ask the witnesses to introduce themselves at the start of the meeting.

Despite his lack of focus, something which Charles-Warner said clearly got under his skin, causing him to interrupt her repeatedly. At one point Halfon jumped in with both feet to defend the school system, insisting (Q98):

“You do know, because you have SATs and other assessments. You do know how children are progressing in schools. That is not the case. That is completely misleading.”

Charles-Warner repeated her point that there is a difference between a child progressing and them reaching their potential, but Halfon was deaf to her logic. So much so that at one point he asserted “There is a minimum standard that they have to reach.” [Emphasis added] To which Charles-Warner simply responded, “Exactly, yes.” The irony of her comment was lost on the Chair, who pressed his point that if schooled children are assessed with SATs, why shouldn’t HE children be?

His argument climaxed with:

“They are absolutely for the children. It is nothing to do with the schools. It is for the children. Of course, the schools have to pass Ofsted and so on, but these assessments are for the children.”

Why does it matter?

It has to be asked if Robert Halfon became so hot under the collar on this point because he sees SATs and other national testing as the foundation for his previously declared desire to impose registration and monitoring on EHE children. Did he not want his colleagues, other politicians and the public to hear that children outside school could be doing much better educationally than those in school?

Whatever the reason, in his haste to defend the system he has so much invested in protecting, he demonstrated his lack of knowledge. Note his declaration that SATs have “nothing to do with the schools.” [Emphasis added]

In April 2019, Education Secretary Damien Hinds wrote a Sunday Telegraph article entitled, “It’s our duty to check if children are progressing in school – scrapping SATs would leave no way of doing so.” The title may mislead you into thinking Hinds concurred with Halfon’s argument. The same day, however, the Department for Education published a more detailed briefing which included this statement:

These tests do not exist to check up on our children. Our national curriculum tests (often called SATs) exist to check up on the system – and those who oversee it on your behalf.” [Emphasis added]

Matter settled then! Halfon misspoke, probably out of his own confusion. Not quite, for even the DfE is confused about the purpose of SATs. Less than two weeks before Hinds’ very clear statement, his Department published “Information for parents… key stages 1 and 2… tests.” The second paragraph reads:

“The tests are a tool for teachers to help them measure your child’s performance and identify their needs as they move into key stage 2. They also allow teachers to see how your child is performing against national expected standards.” [Emphasis added]

In June that year a similar document was published for “results at the end of key stage 2.” Again, the focus is not on the progress of the school, but on the child’s abilities:

“The assessments are a way of making sure every child has mastered the basics when they leave primary education. The results help teachers to identify where children may need extra help or support as they move into year 7 and begin their secondary education.”

The group of teachers and tutors behind the SATs Papers Guide website spell out what this means more starkly. Their page “How are KS2 SATs results used?” begins:

“These are sent to each child’s secondary school and so are of great importance because they are often used in part to help decide who goes into top sets.”

It seems that somewhere along the line the DfE, and those who comment on its behalf, are being economical with the truth and confusion reigns as a result. One moment SATs are all about schools rather than children – the next they determine children’s educational futures!

Charles-Warner’s initial point however remains solid whatever the purpose of SATs. Collective education and testing can never determine whether a child is achieving their full potential. At best it can only determine if they are gaining sufficient benefit from the education they are receiving to meet standards set by adults who, it seems, cannot agree the purpose of those very tests!

What can I do?

This is not a campaigning matter, but perhaps understanding the official confusion in this area may help equip you to defend your increasingly imperilled responsibility to determine the nature of the education your children are provided with.

It has long been argued that state education has more to do with grading children than helping them reach their full potential. As we all know, a year of lockdowns has precipitated interest not only in “home-schooling” but also in on-line tutoring at home. (No doubt this is now a significant element in what the DfE bundles together with elective home education.) The “World’s first fee-paying virtual school” was launched recently. Speaking to iNews, its Chief Executive, Mark O’Donoghue, said:

“We want to break away from the Victorian model of education, which was designed to produce workers for factories. King’s College Online aspires to empower individuality and ambition.”

The factories may be long gone, but as O’Donoghue implies, the Victorian ideal continues.

One person who spoke out clearly about the way schools dumb down future citizens and so prevent them from reaching their full potential was the late John Taylor Gatto. If you are not familiar with his insights, a good place to start would be reading the transcripts of the two talks he gave in 1999 as the keynote speaker at HEC’99 held in London. The first was called, “The Fourth Purpose” and he abandoned his notes to speak from his own experiences in his Closing Address.

Has the time arrived for all parents, not just HE ones, to take Gatto’s insights seriously?