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Assessment in primary schools: reducing the ‘Sats effect’

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 June 2024

This is the final in a mini-series of blog posts about primary education from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) at IOE. Each post addresses key points that are included in a new HHCP briefing paper written to inform debate about education in England as we approach the general election. The four posts are:

      1. In the hands of new government: the future of primary education in England
      2. Children, choice and the curriculum
      3. Hands on learning: a progressive pedagogy
      4. Assessment in primary schools: reducing the ‘Sats effect’
Students sitting at their desks taking exams. Credit: Cavan for Adobe via Adobe Stock.

Credit: Cavan for Adobe via Adobe Stock.

Alice Bradbury

Assessment plays a key role in any teacher’s work: through formative assessment, teachers understand what children can do and what they need to learn next. This guides how learning is planned and what is taught. However, the current assessment landscape in England is dominated by statutory, summative assessment, where the purpose of the assessment is not to help children learn, but to measure what they can do. This is one part of the education system which, as we in HHCP argue in our new briefing paper, needs a different approach.

The statutory assessment system in England is extensive and burdensome, as there are statutory assessments in Reception, Year 1, Year 4 and Year 6. The ‘Sats’ tests taken in Year 6 (at age 10-11), in particular, have come to be a dominant force, affecting pedagogy and the curriculum, as well as teachers’ and children’s wellbeing. Recent IOE research conducted with Year 6 teachers found that Sats preparation dominated Year 6 from September to May, impacting which subjects are taught, how children are organised into groups, and where staff are allocated. Laura Quick’s report explains how the ‘Sats Effect’ means children get bored and some are anxious, according to their teachers. Teachers are left feeling exhausted and conflicted about putting children through something they do not believe in. Importantly, teachers identified how Sats affect what kind of learning is valued, because being able to work fast and answer test-style questions becomes as important as learning test content.

This work builds on an extensive body of research conducted at IOE and elsewhere which has identified the negative impacts of high stakes tests. We know that if a school is going to be judged on test results, teachers will often end up narrowing the curriculum to the subjects that are tested, and ‘teaching to the test’. Assessment impacts all areas of school life, as each area needs to be optimised to make the most difference to the test results. We see these impacts in all year groups where there are statutory assessments, including Year 1, where there is extensive preparation for the Phonics Screening Check. Even the youngest children are involved, as Reception children at age 4 and 5 are assessed in their first six weeks of school through the Baseline assessment.

This distorting effect created by inappropriate high stakes assessment processes matters because it affects many primary children in England, who spend two terms of their last year of primary education focused on test preparation rather than experiencing a broad and balanced curriculum, or exciting and inspirational pedagogy. In our work chairing the Independent Commission on Primary Education (ICAPE) we drew on extensive existing research and two new surveys of parents/carers and educators to explore how assessment could be reformed so that the focus would be on helping children to learn, rather than holding schools to account. This work found a high level of discontent from both families and educators: for example, in the survey of 536 parents/carers, 82% of respondents were dissatisfied with the current system. Following a review of different assessment models internationally, we made a number of recommendations for reform, including using a model of national sampling to monitor overall standards, as proposed in a 2021 report for the British Educational Research Association. This would free up schools to engage in formative and summative assessment practices which they identify as helpful, though we accepted that the change would need to be gradual, and plans for reform would need to be developed in collaboration with the sector.

Assessment has always been a feature of education, but it has become an even more dominant feature, not just in Year 6 but in Reception, Year 1 and Year 4 too, as children experience more frequent external assessments and teachers experience more pressure to produce the right results. If assessment doesn’t change, practice, pedagogy and curriculum will not change either, given the way in which test results drive the system. Lowering the stakes, and reforming the system so that it focuses on helping children learn rather than competition and judgement, should be major priorities for any incoming government.


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