Jeremy Corbyn said yesterday that Labour would scrap the SATs taken by primary pupils to relieve the “extreme pressure” on children and teachers.
In a sign that education will be a key battleground at the next election, the Labour leader told teachers that the national testing regime for seven and 11-year-olds, which has been in place for almost 30 years, would be replaced by a more flexible system to “prepare children for life, not just for exams”.
A consultation over the summer will determine what sort of assessment system a Labour government would put in place instead. Party figures accepted that the end of national, externally examined tests would mean the end of league tables, which many parents like. Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, said she wanted to wean parents off tables that were based on “arbitrary high-stakes testing”.
The Conservatives said that abolishing SATs was a “retrograde” move and accused Labour of trying to “keep parents in the dark” about school performance.
English schoolchildren are among the most tested in the world and experts are questioning whether the pressure exams put on them is justifiable.
Mr Corbyn revealed his plans to a standing ovation from teachers at the National Education Union (NEU) annual conference in Liverpool.
Introduced in 1991, SATs were designed to test children’s progress in maths and English at key stages in their education, originally at ages seven, 11 and 14. They soon became heavily politicised with governments and education secretaries changing their format, difficulty level, pass marks and the way they were fed into league tables.
In 1997, David Blunkett, then education secretary, set targets that 80 percent of 11-year-old children should achieve level four in English. The target was missed.
In 2008, Labour scrapped the tests for 14-year-olds. The present government is to phase out SATs for seven-year-olds once a new baseline test for four and five-year-olds is introduced.
Teaching unions have long opposed the tests, saying that they narrow the curriculum and put too much pressure on teachers and pupils. On Monday, the NEU voted to ballot members on a boycott of the tests next year.
SATs supporters say they have driven up standards of literacy and numeracy, and help parents to judge school performance.
In his speech, Mr Corbyn said he had heard of pupils vomiting as the tests approach. “SATs and the regime of extreme pressure testing are giving young children nightmares and leaving them in floods of tears,” he said. “I meet teachers of all ages and backgrounds who are totally overworked and overstressed. These are dedicated public servants. It’s just wrong.”
He said an alternative assessment system would be designed to encourage a “broad curriculum aimed at a rounded education”.
“When children have a rich and varied curriculum, when they’re encouraged to be creative, to develop their imagination, then there’s evidence that they do better at the core elements of literacy and numeracy too.”
Scrapping the tests could help to alleviate a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. Forty per cent of teachers expect to quit the profession within five years, according to an NEU survey.
As well as ending SATs, a Labour government would abandon the Tories’ plans for a baseline test for children in reception. Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “Jeremy Corbyn gets it: he recognises the damage a test-driven system is doing to children and schools.”
The Conservatives said that scrapping SATs would affect standards. “These tests have been part of school life since the Nineties. They have been pivotal in raising standards. That’s why Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown supported them,” said Nick Gibb, schools minister.
“Abolishing these tests would be a terrible, retrograde step. It would damage our education system and undo decades of improvement in reading and maths. Labour plans to keep parents in the dark, to prevent parents knowing how good their child’s school is at teaching maths, reading and writing.”
Source: The Times