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Heads need to come together to end SATs

Rescue Our Schools recently received an anonymous message from a parent whose son was about to sit SATS. His grandparent had sadly passed away during SATs week. The family told the school. What did the school say in response?  Please delay telling your child about their grandparent’s death until SATs are over with, in case it affects their score.  The parent was rightly disgusted at such a suggestion.

Over the last few weeks we have received other stories like this. Another parent told us that her child had become ill with chicken pox, but the school offered to send someone round to administer the test at their home.

The heads in these cases are giving very dodgy advice: the guidance on SATs, limited as it is, makes clear that heads in are in loco parentis. If children are upset or unwell, heads have a duty of care towards their students – in other words they shouldn’t put them in for SATs.  This is a safeguarding issue. Above and beyond this, parents have the legal right to withdraw their children from school  – whether that’s to avoid SATs or any other reason. They may face a fine, but we know of no case yet where that has happened.

Why do some heads do this? We all know the reasons. We have an utterly punitive accountability system, in which schools are judged by their SATs results. A couple of children withdrawing from SATs can affect their data, bump them down the league table, trigger an Ofsted inspection, and in the worst case lead to the head being forced to leave, and forced academisation or a new sponsor taking over.

No other country in the world puts these pressures on headteachers.  Those pressures are passed on to staff – who can be paid according to the results they get from their class – who in turn can very easily pass it on to the children in their care. It’s only human to do this. Once you understand the high stakes environment in which heads are operating, you understand why some of them behave the way they do.

But we know from survey after survey that the vast majority of heads think SATs are damaging to both children’s education and their wellbeing. They don’t like doing them. Nor do teachers. So in this sense they are collaborating with a system they fundamentally oppose – and they have that on their conscience until SATs are got rid of.

For children this means that too many of them are suffering in so many ways. Most of the parents who got in touch with us wanting advice on withdrawing their children were doing this because they wanted to protect their children.

Protect them from the unhappiness they thought the tests would unleash. Isn’t that what any caring parent would do?  Some parents had assured their children they wouldn’t be sitting the tests, only to be told at the last minute that boycotting would harm their school. With a heavy heart they sent their children to school. We know that some of those students were upset and even crying at doing tests they thought they would avoid. What kind of system is this? It’s a hostile environment not just for learning but for happiness.

We can’t carry on like this. So how do we change the system? One strategy is to encourage more and more parents to boycott SATs next year if they think this is the best thing for their child.  That’s assuming this government is still in power, which is a big if.  It’s worth remembering that they are now the sole defenders of SATs – the Lib Dems, Greens and now Labour all oppose them.

But a much better way forward would be for heads to come together and vote to boycott SATs en masse next year. That requires the unions to come together on this – in particular the NAHT, which has the greatest number of primary heads.

The NEU, meanwhile, has just opened its ballot on a boycott. We would urge as many members as possible to vote. Under the government’s tough new rules unions need to get more than 50 per cent of members participating in a ballot for it to have any validity. Of those, 80 per cent (yes, it’s that high) need to vote for a boycott.

The stakes are high. – just like the system we must unravel. Winning a vote for a boycott will be extremely tough. But this is a critical moment. NEU members, when you receive your ballot paper, please think of the thousands of children who are being damaged by SATs. Then cast your vote accordingly.

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