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One long Sats test

In this emotional indictment of our education system, the writer and teacher Francis Gilbert explain

The decision by the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, to kill off the Sats exams for 14-year-olds is arguably the most momentous decision taken by a politician since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Dramatic as it may sound, I believe the scrapping of these wretched exams will have far greater long-term repercussions than the bailing out of the banks.

As a middle-aged teacher who has taught for nearly two decades in state schools, I have had my life transformed. For 16 years, I have been penned up in sweaty classrooms drilling bored teenagers through the pointless complexities of the English Sats papers. I have watched some pupils bow their heads and scribble dutifully over them, while others turn them into paper aeroplanes. I have gone home every day worrying about how I might improve my results in this year's test. In my most depressed moments, my life itself has felt like one long, sad Sats test.

When the Education Act of 1988 introduced the concept of Standard Attainment Tests - Sats, also known as Key Stage tests - I, as a young teacher, cheered. In common with most of my colleagues, I support the notion of testing our children in a regular and organised way. In theory, Sats appeared eminently sensible: Key Stage 1 and 2 tests would assess seven- and 11-year-olds mainly in reading, writing and arithmetic, while Key Stage 3 tests would have equal components of testing in English, maths and science. Children would be assigned levels from 1-7, which were standardised across the whole age range, and therefore parents, pupils and teachers could see clearly whether students were progressing at the expected rate; if a pupil did not move up at least one or two levels between each stage then alarm bells would ring.

In practice, however, these tests have proved to be nightmarish failures. The Sats have not only led to a marked decline in standards, they have broken children's zeal for learning. They have alienated pupils, teachers and parents alike without making schools properly accountable. The root of the problem is this: the Sats have made children better at passing abstruse exams but in so doing have bludgeoned out all enthusiasm for learning, leaving them lacking in initiative, floundering when confronted with unexpected challenges, unable to construct sustained arguments and powerless to think imaginatively. At a stage in their education when pupils could be reading great literature in English, exploring the wonder of numbers in maths, understanding the forces of the universe in science, they have instead been plodding through tedious practice papers and learning the wording of the relevant mark schemes. They have not been educated; they have been trained simply to jump through the hoops of the exams.

How differently I felt in 1991. During that first dawn of Sats I was pleased, because previously there hadn't been any clear targets to work towards and no way of knowing what pupils had achieved before they came to you.

But as the Key Stage tests were phased in, it became increasingly obvious that they were failing to assess the essentials and, more disturbingly, were putting children off school. The KS1 and 2 tests were supposed to give accurate information about pupils' proficiency in the three Rs. However, as an English teacher who was expected to use the KS1 and 2 English scores to inform his teaching, I soon noticed that the levels the pupils were arriving with from their primary schools were inaccurate. More worryingly, the method of "teaching to the test" seemed to have sapped the confidence and passion of children as young as 11. I can vividly remember, five years ago, my new Year 7 pupils groaning when they saw that they would be reading a novel with me at the beginning of the year. "Do we have to read books?" a blond-haired boy named Liam asked me during the first week of term. I had never encountered such resistance to learning before. But then I reflected that he was one of the first pupils who had known nothing but Sats teaching since he was six years old. The effect was shocking: 11-year-old children, who had in previous years been full of eagerness, were now jaded and moaning about the work, fighting and giggling in class, writing only short answers and struggling to read anything that wasn't on a test paper. It was only when I set them a mock test that they shut up and got on with some work: it was the only form of education they understood.

Having been drilled to answer questions on little bites of text, too many children were unable to read longer books independently. Moreover, they seemed utterly disillusioned by the prospect of studying English. Liam sneered at everything put before him until he brought in his own crime novel from home. In desperation, I allowed him to read it even though it wasn’t on the syllabus. Although he was articulate, he was not cut out for taking these exams and achieved a shockingly low level in his KS3 test; in fact, he had regressed academically since primary school. The effect of the tests on him had been hugely damaging, demoralising him to such an extent that he felt there was no point ever trying at school. If they had been better structured, the story would have been very different; he could have written reviews of his beloved crime novels.

I felt I had failed: I had managed to foster a love of reading but this had been at the cost of his failing exams. Ultimately, Liam perceived that his new-found love of reading was disconnected from everything he did in school. Maths teachers report more or less the same problem: overtested and demotivated children are not ready for secondary maths in the way they were before the tests were introduced.

The Key Stage 1 and 2 tests are to be retained. Yet most teachers know that this is where the rot starts: primary schools are obliged to brainwash their charges with test papers in order to keep their school's position high on the league tables.

This is not to say that schoolteachers have an easy life, handing out test papers and asking the pupils to get on with the work in silence. Teaching to the Sats can be extremely difficult. Recently, the tests at all levels have become even more fiddly - and boring.

Overtested and demotivated children are not ready for secondary maths in the way they were before Sats were introduced

The English Key Stage 3 test, for which I have prepared pupils, follows a very set format: a reading paper, a writing paper and a Shakespeare paper. In maths and science, there is a similarly rigid rubric. At a glance, the English Key Stage 3 test looks quite easy to teach. With Shakespeare, for instance, it benefits the teacher not to read the whole play, because only two scenes are tested; it is far more effective to show pupils the film and then drill them into understanding the two scenes set for the exam.

“I’ve spent years copying this off the board and it makes me feel like a robot. Copy this, copy that. Do this, do that”

But the truth is that, while the examined texts are facile and unrewarding, the actual teaching is a complicated affair. This is because guidelines require that teachers teach every lesson to "learning objectives". At the beginning of each lesson the teacher writes at least one learning objective on the board, requiring pupils to copy it down in their books and focus on that particular concept throughout the lesson. The response of one of my recent pupils, Leroy, sums up the attitude of many children. "I've spent years copying this off the board and it makes me feel like a robot," he told me. "Copy this, copy that. Do this, do that. When are we ever going to do something we want to do?"

Leroy was a clever boy, but he messed around a lot during my Year 9 classes. In consequence, he achieved only an average Level 5 Sat, setting him up to achieve similarly undistinguished GCSEs. He should have gone on to do A-levels but didn't because he disliked school so much. The exam system was entirely to blame for his dropping out.

Another pupil, Nicole, who was aged 13, once looked up at me at the end of the lesson and said that her hand was hurting from so much writing. "This is all I do in every lesson, just fill in worksheets, but I never quite know what's important about any of this. Will I need any of this when I go to work?" she asked with sad resignation.

Nicole was a dutiful student and attained top marks in her Sats, but told me that she forgot everything she had learned a few weeks after the tests. It was an exaggeration, but it illustrated another problem with the tests: pupils didn't see that any of the skills they learned could be transferred to any other sphere. The Sats foster the belief among our students that school is abstracted from the world beyond the classroom, existing in its own tortuous bubble.

Why then, if I hate them so much, do I feel apprehensive about the demise of the Key Stage 3 tests? In truth, these tests are all I’ve known since I started teaching in the 1990s; they have provided a structure, a crutch, an easy if very mundane regime to impose on my pupils. Like many teachers, I perceive that we need a way of assessing schools’ performances so that failing institutions are identified. But this should be done separately from assessing pupils’ individual performances.

Needless to say, the scrapping of the Sats for 14-year-olds does not mean the scrapping of league tables or the measures that make teachers accountable for their pupils' results. While much is uncertain, it may be that teachers are scrutinised even more closely. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is piloting "stage not age" tests, which are rather like music exams - tests that are taken when the pupil is ready to take them. It seems certain that these exams will assess pupils' knowledge and understanding of the new National Curriculum, which, worryingly, looks even worse than its predecessor in its use of ambiguous jargon. Will the government never learn? What pupils and teachers need are clear, concise guidelines that give them freedom to teach as well as definite goals to work towards.

The government's refusal to countenance chang ing the format of the remaining Sats suggests that the system will continue to fail our children. All the Sats should be abolished now and replaced with simple, sensible tests. If something isn't done, and soon, we will produce another generation of dispirited and ill-educated children.

Francis Gilbert's "Parent Power: the Complete Guide to Getting the Best Education for Your Child" is published by Piatkus (£9.99)

A short history of British examinations

The Higher School Certificate was introduced in 1918 for school leavers, and was usually taken at the age of 18.

The eleven-plus was created as part of the Butler Education Act 1944; it tests verbal and non-verbal reasoning, mathematics and writing in order to see which 11-year-olds should go to grammar school.

O-levels (Ordinary levels) were introduced in the 1950s as subject-based qualifications under a General Certificate of Education, testing 16-year-olds on academic knowledge. The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was the school-leaving qualification awarded between 1965 and 1987 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the majority of pupils who did not take GCE O-levels. O-levels and CSEs were replaced in 1986 by GCSEs (the General Certificate of Secondary Education).

A-levels were introduced in 1951, replacing the Higher School Certificate, testing students in academic subjects at the end of the sixth form. In 2000, A-levels were reformed and AS-levels were created, testing students at the end of their first year in the sixth form. A2-levels tested pupils at the end of the sixth form. All A-levels became "modular": each A-level consisted of six modules, tested either by coursework or by examination, enabling pupils to retake modules if necessary. A-levels were reformed again this year, the number of modules being cut from six to four.

Key Stage tests and school league tables based on their results were introduced in the 1990s. KS1 tests for seven-year-olds are in reading, writing and maths, and also offer teacher assessments in science. KS2 tests (11-year-olds) cover English, maths and science, as did the old tests for 14-year-olds. In October, the government announced the end of testing for 14-year-olds, to be replaced by teacher assessments.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror