Long read: the town that boycotted Sats prepares for GCSE results day

Of the 600,000 pupils picking up their GCSE results on Thursday, almost a quarter missed out on taking national curriculum tests at the end of primary school due to a national boycott in 2010.

Five years’ on, with their final grades due, students and teachers from Hartlepool – the only authority where every primary joined the boycott – have spoken to TES about whether missing their Sats had any long-term impact.

And the response, in almost all cases, was that the action by headteachers who were members of the NAHT and NUT unions had a positive effect.

Mick Fenwick, assistant headteacher at High Tunstall College of Science, said the boycott had made it easier for his school to group pupils by ability.

“Because we based our original setting [for English, maths and science] on teacher assessment that year, we noticed that the year group had less changes between sets at the beginning of Year 7 than usual,” he explained.

“I think that is because the teacher assessment was more reliable than the tests. I always do take key stage 2 Sats with a pinch of salt and I have a great deal of respect for our colleagues in primary. Their judgement is a really important factor in ascertaining the starting points for students.”

One of his pupils, Kieran Emerson, now 15, remembers feeling pleased when he heard that tests had been cancelled at West Park Primary School.

“The headteacher told us in assembly that we would not be doing them,” he said. “I think I was relieved. I definitely think you shouldn’t have to do exams until high school.”

Jack Corbatt, 16, who also came to High Tunstall from West Park, agreed that formal tests were better postponed until students were older and “could understand the meaning of them”.

Michael Lee, headteacher of the English Martyrs secondary, said that having a borough-wide boycott made things simpler when it came to Year 7 admissions.

“If we had some schools who had done them and some who had not, that would have been a massive problem,” he added. “But because all the students came in with teacher assessments, it was all consistent, so that was not a particular difficulty. And our primary schools are particularly good at teacher assessment.

“In our experience teacher assessments are consistent with what students achieve in exams. I have another concern about the tests which is the hot-housing aspect of them, which can disrupt the curriculum or make it so unbalanced so everything is geared to the exam.”

The boycott was held in protest of the stressful nature of the tests. The NAHT and the NUT said the Sats, which were then taken in maths, reading and writing, were an unreliable way of assessing pupils’ progress and encouraged “teaching to the test”.

But the students themselves, unaware of the national turmoil surrounding the action, were sanguine about getting out of a week of tests while Year 6 pupils elsewhere had been answering questions about King Midas and his passion for gold.

“Our teacher came into class and told us that we weren’t going to do Sats,” said Robin Caswell, 16, a pupil at The English Martyrs School, who was at Holy Trinity Primary in 2010.

“A few of the girls had prepared for them and wanted to do them anyway, so we did them as mock exams,” he said. “I hadn’t prepared so I wasn’t bothered either way.

“In Year 6, when you are 11, I don’t think you need the stress. When you’re older and more mature you can cope with exams better.”

Zarron Barnes, 16, who went to St John Vianney Primary before the English Martyrs School, said that he remembers doing mock Sats among normal lessons during the test week in Year 6.

“I do agree that stress at that age isn’t very good,” he said. “I was relieved, as you would be, but it wasn’t that big a deal.”

Since the boycott, there has been change. When the Conservative’s Michael Gove took over the education brief in 2010, he set up a review of the KS2 assessment system which led to the abolition of the KS2 writing test.

However the coalition government has since introduced a new test for 11-year-olds: the grammar, spelling and punctuation test and next May, new, tougher, tests for 11-year-olds will be introduced to match the new National Curriculum which was introduced in 2014.

So while the boycott may be history, the debate on Sats continues.

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