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Another voice joins the calls for primary assessment reform

A review of assessment commissioned by education business Pearson has produced an interim report which casts further doubt on the primary assessment system.

The report, Testing the Water, has found:

  • Teachers do not feel their professional judgment is valued highly enough and they are concerned about the impact assessment is having on the curriculum.
  • Children with SEND are put at a disadvantage by an assessment system which does not recognise their capacities and needs.
  • Teachers are concerned about the dominance of assessment-for-accountability.
  • Teachers, parents, governors and pupils all feel anxiety over the impact of high stakes tests.
  • The concerns of government are prioritised over and above the needs of teachers and pupils.

More Than a Score welcomes another voice calling on government to rethink current primary assessment policy. The chorus of unhappy voices continues to grow and the government must listen. The problems are much deeper than the chaos and mistakes of last year; delivering SATs this year without any administrative blunders will not address the problems with the system.

Read the interim report:
Find more coverage of the report in the TES:

More than a Score statement on the Report of the House of Commons Education Committee

Since the new assessment system was introduced last year, teachers, researchers and parents have been pointing out its deep failings.

Now the same concerns are highlighted at the top level of politics. Politicians have recognised the harm that a high-stakes assessment system is doing to pupils, teachers and the curriculum.

The report goes much further that the government’s current Consultation exercise.

MTAS welcomes the clarity of its criticisms, and the good sense of some of its recommendations. We endorse the report’s rejection of statutory tests in spelling, grammar and punctuation, its concern for creativity in writing and its commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum.

In some respects, its recommendations do not go far enough.

It is highly critical of baseline assessment, and its ‘potential harmful consequences’ – but still thinks it can be used as a starting-point from which to measure children’s progress.

It is concerned about the effects of high stakes testing at Key Stage 2, yet thinks that they can be dealt with by averaging out test data over a three-year period. But you can’t deal with a flawed testing instrument by averaging what it says over three years.

Overall, however, the impact of the report is clear. The government can no longer pretend that the problems of the system can be resolved with minor changes. Much deeper reform is needed, where assessment needs be rethought, in terms of supporting children’s development and well-being. With the publication of this report, that reform has come one step nearer.

You can read the Committee Report here

Sacrifice the semi-colon not the children

So, unbelievably, here we are again. In one week’s time, Year 6 children will take their Sats tests. Despite all the research and all the protests, the government persists with this ideologically-driven sham measure of educational standards. The tests have been made harder than ever before. Not only that, but children now have to prove themselves uber-humans, equally excellent at reading, writing and maths if they are to ‘pass’ and be deemed ‘ready’ for secondary school. It’s ok for George Osborne, former chancellor, and Nicky Morgan, former education secretary, to duck out of answering maths questions when in the media spotlight but it’s not ok for the nation’s 10-year-olds.

As a Year 6 teacher, I know exactly the effect these tests have on learning.  We are under unrelenting pressure to get as many ‘passes’ as possible. This means identifying the children who will definitely leap the hurdles in reading, writing and maths, the children who will definitely not and the borderline children who might … And who gets most of our attention for most of their final year in primary school? The answer is, of course – the borderline children.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily attention they welcome as they end up missing many PE, music and art sessions to squeeze in extra Sats revision. Some of them rebel. Frequently they look sad. A few of the other children wonder why these kids are getting all the help. It’s a miserable situation for everyone – well almost everyone.

There are people making a lot of money persuading academy trusts to invest in their revision packages. Schools are shelling out thousands at a time when Tory austerity means there is no money for trips, treats or teaching assistants, those overworked and underpaid heroes of the education system. And schools are paying all this money for what? To ‘pass’ tests that no one believes in, tests that damage children’s confidence and interest in learning never mind that of their teachers.

Plus, at the end of it all, the difference between a child ‘passing’ and ‘failing’ could be just a semi-colon. Courtesy of Michael Gove, former education secretary and ardent grammarian, children have to tick many boxes to achieve the ‘expected standard’ in writing. One of these boxes requires them to use a semi-colon at least once correctly in their independent writing. The semi-colon is, arguably, an almost obsolete punctuation mark. Certainly many Booker Prize novels have been written without its assistance. Yet the nation’s 10-year-olds are supposed to be able to use it correctly.  If they can’t tick that box, their writing won’t be at the ‘expected’ standard and, however well they do in maths and comprehension, they will be officially deemed as having ‘failed’ their Sats.

It is time that schools and parents said no. It’s not enough to wait for the government – at least not this government – to put education before winning elections. It didn’t with the European Union so it’s certainly not going to with schools. A testing regime that undermines the very education it is seeking to assess is desperately unhealthy. It’s not good for children, for teachers or for learning. Our children and our teachers need a new kind of school that protects learning and promotes mental health. We need safe schools – schools that offer a Sats-free education. Sacrifice the semi-colon; boycott the tests now.


Stephanie Northen is a Year 6 teacher, former education journalist and an author of the Children, their world, their education, the final report of Cambridge Primary Review, the most significant independent review of primary education in decades.

First responses to the DfE consultation document, Primary Assessment in England

Members of More than a Score give their reaction to the government’s proposals

Madeleine Holt, Rescue our Schools.

“Rescue Our Schools thinks Justine Greening needs to keep on listening.  If, as she claims, she wants a primary assessment system which parents and teachers can trust, then her priority must be to take their concerns seriously and act on them.

That means changing the whole framework of assessment, so tests genuinely help children’s learning. At the moment they are  too often age-inappropriate and they stress teachers and children in equal measure. They are leading to schools teaching to the test to the detriment of education.

Nothing will change unless the government breaks the link between scores and accountability. As for baseline, it is utterly inappropriate developmentally to ‘test’ four and five year olds. It will be nothing more than a divisive judgement on parenting which will make some children feel like failures from the moment they start school.”

Wendy Ellyatt, Chief Executive, Save Childhood Movement

“The Save Childhood Movement (SCM) is committed to ensuring that the best interests of the child lie at the heart of educational policymaking. Although we welcome genuine and open consultation in this very important area, we will continue to contest any system that 1) ignores the vastly different backgrounds that young children start from 2) imposes statistically invalid forms of assessment 3) labels and limits children in ways that compromise their natural learning motivations 4) prioritises literacy and numeracy over the importance of social and emotional development and 5) negatively impacts on young children’s dispositions and capacities as joyful lifelong learners.

The most successful countries balance the importance of academic achievement with that of social and emotional intelligence, in recognition of the fact that it is the development of the whole child that is crucial if students are to prosper in a 21st century world. We very much hope that the consultation will herald in a new era where this is fully acknowledged and acted upon.”

Alison Roy, Association of Child Psychotherapists

“We welcome the consultation and ending Key Stage 1 Sats, although 2020 seems too far away if the formal tests are proving to be emotionally damaging for children. There also needs to be more thinking about how to assess children’s development and learning needs, in a way which facilitates a greater understanding of how to improve their learning environments and their overall experience of primary education, not in order to create labels of pass or fail for them or their schools, further down the line.

We would not support any kind of intense scrutiny of academic potential and falsely generated expected targets/grades for young children – be it through tests or teaching assessment, as developmentally it would not be possible to know what they are capable of achieving and that level of scrutiny as opposed to thoughtful understanding could well be restrictive and emotionally harmful to them. What we do know is that children are better able to think and therefore more likely to thrive when they feel secure and supported to explore and make their own discoveries.”

Robin Duckett, Sightlines Initiative

“Changes that reduce the testing at one stage would place greater pressure on others, particularly early years children and their teachers, and the options on the testing of times tables is simply what year the tests should be administered, not whether they’re a waste of time and money.

We seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The greater question of whether a regime of testing of this magnitude is ethically legitimate, given its impact on children, is given scant consideration.

We seem to be faced with the introduction of a new baseline regime or more detailed and specific criteria in reading, writing and maths at the end of Reception ( the very idea fills me with horror), no relief from the phonics check, mad as it is. There will possibly be some downscaling at the end of KS1 but at the expense of the younger children. Even then, schools would still be given the KS1 SATs as optional – and so many do other optional standardised commercial tests they’d probably use them anyway.

Reduction of teacher workload would occur through opting not to have teacher assessments rather than disposing of the standardised tests at 11.

This isn’t a consultation that gives us an option of addressing why school accountability is so massively predicated on an obsession with national testing and whether we need real and meaningful change in approach rather than more tinkering with an obsolete and failing system.”

The More Than a Score Alternative for Primary Assessment

Assessment – what we stand for. A Summary

Assessment: the alternative

The Government remains committed to the present system, even though its flaws are widely recognised: it narrows the curriculum, demotivates learners, greatly adds to teacher workload, and in some cases has serious effects on pupils’ mental health.

Drawing from international experience and research findings, More Than a Score has produced its alternative – an alternative that shows how assessment can support learning, and underpin a high quality system of primary education, without the negative effects of present arrangements.

Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the NUT:

“Our current system of primary assessment is in urgent need of reform. In summer 2016 nearly half the 11 year olds in the country were told they weren’t ready for secondary school. That wasn’t true – but it was deeply damaging. It’s a peculiarity of the English system that, despite the number of tests children face, none of them test how well the Government is doing at supporting learning. Testing random samples of pupils – random so the children won’t be crammed – will give a much truer picture of our education system.”

Madeleine Holt, Rescue Our Schools:

“It is easy to think that all countries put young children through high-stakes testing: they don’t. Parents need to know that England stands out for its punitive testing regime. Nor do the most successful education systems link scores with judging schools. More than a Score’s assessment alternatives rightly break the link between scores and accountability.”

David Reedy, United Kingdom Literacy Association:

“UKLA believes that the prime purpose of assessment should be to improve children’s learning. There is considerable evidence that the tests in Y2 and Y6 give a narrow and distorting view of progress in reading and writing and in what it means to be literate in the 21st Century. The changes advocated by More Than A Score would result in a more holistic approach to assessment across the curriculum, and provide a more valid assessment of pupils’ progress and achievement. UKLA strongly supports this campaign for a fundamental review of current primary school assessment in England and the UK.”

Alison Roy, Association of Child Psychotherapists:

“We want to see assessment which involves parents and teachers working and thinking together about how to achieve the best possible outcomes – an assessment which supports a broad curriculum, enabling children to find out what they are, or can be good at and allowing every child to gain a sense of achievement.”

“Experience, backed up by research, indicates that children who are happy and emotionally secure will be more resilient and much more likely to succeed academically. They will also be much less likely to exhibit challenging and antisocial behaviours, or drop out of the school system completely.”

“As child mental health specialists, we are supporting the MTAS campaign and we are joining with the many parents, teachers, researchers and specialists who are calling for this change.”

Nancy Stewart, TACTYC, Association for Professional Development in Early Years:

“Teachers’ constant assessment – noticing what children understand and can do as they observe and interact – is crucial to providing the best support for learning.  This is quite different from external imposed testing which measures a narrow range of items out of meaningful contexts.  Good gardeners provide young plants with attentive care and the best conditions for growth; they do not keep pulling them up to measure their roots.”