The Cost of SATs

You might be forgiven for thinking that I wanted to write about this from the perspective of a teacher or parent and the impact these tests have on the style of teaching as the school years progress, or of the inevitable narrowing of the curriculum, or the stress they place on children, teachers, parents and Heads…but I think that’s pretty well documented. A quick search on the Internet or Twitter will find blogs galore looking at this from every conceivable angle. That’s not to dismiss this, there are many discussions to be had over this and often will contain a degree of personal experience and local knowledge of how things are done in individual schools, all of which are incredibly valid. So, if I were to ask two questions for you to ponder, I’d be interested in your response.
• What purpose are the tasks at KS1 and 2 SATs meant to serve? (I include KS1 as we know it is coming back.) Or indeed the phonics test – sorry, task! Not to mention the new EYFS tasks?

• Do they fulfil their purpose?

• Does the information we gain justify the financial cost? (Let’s leave the collateral damage out of it for this article!)

Don’t worry, I’ll come back to this; just keep the questions in mind…

In terms of how much SATs cost…well, I might argue that we have a cost to Government, which is quite a big number for most of us, but not so big when talking about deficit or department spending, but we also have a cost to schools or parents.

In terms of schools – this is difficult to establish, particularly after the advent of pupil premium, but schools desperately trying to raise their data standards in Year 6 will throw lots of resources at the children on the borderline of level 4 or level 5. If I was to be conservative, I would suggest a 1:1 teacher for 3 days a week minimum per school, so that would be approx. £27,000 a year based on an average teacher salary. (More than an NQT full time, but realistically, these tend to be experienced teachers, often post maternity.) And, I’m not even considering oncosts such as National Insurance or pension! Ah, go on then…add another 25% and your about right…so – approximately £31k per teacher for that. Assuming that all infant and primary schools do this and that some do more and others do less then with approximately schools, this equates to somewhere in the region of well, 68,000 x 31,000…

Parents are always keen for their children to do well… aren’t they? Well…the vast majority are, and some will spend huge amounts on tutors up to £40 per hour in London and other cities, but averaging £20 per hour elsewhere, so I would feel uncomfortable estimating a national cost, but do know that at least 20% of my daughters cohort have a tutor…either for maths or English or both…yet again, I invite you to reach for the calculator or your well oiled brains…

As for home tutoring…a quick stroll down an aisle at an major book sort evidences the anxiety that parents must feel, and I admit that I have added to this with homework books…ranging from a very reasonable £3.99 (my Help with Homework Books) to an exorbitant £9.99 ( I won’t shame them!) this is clearly a market that is only growing! If every parent of a primary school child bought just one of my books at £3.99 then it would total…well, at 4.2 million children, if they all bought my book and I received all the money paid, about handwriting aged 5 I wouldn’t need to be considering Insed on 3rd September…as for if they bought, reading or writing aged 5+ I would be laughing at the DFE, however you get the idea…It is seriously big money. (I seriously need to expand my portfolio and miss out the middle men!)  

               

This may seem a bit trite and flippant, but parents are increasingly anxious about how their children perform in these tests and whilst I won’t touch on how this impacts on children and families emotionally, at this juncture, there is a very clear financial impact and often upon families who cannot really afford this but are aspirational for their children and think that this will help.

 

Back to my questions now we have dealt with some small numbers in cash…
In terms of aims? Well, the DFE don’t see fit to publish the aims, just that they happen and a brief contextual explanation. I would suggest that they are meant to be there for a range of reasons; measuring attainment, measuring progress, to provide parents with a benchmark regarding these two points, to be able to use as part of a system to judge school effectiveness, (let’s leave CVA out of this for now,) to inform teacher assessment…

However, Ofqual state that there are two statutory objectives here: a) to give a reliable indication of achievement and b) indicate a consistent level of attainment over time; and to promote public confidence in National Assessments. That second clause of b) is interesting isn’t it??

Hmm, open to debate this one…I am not against testing and can see the full value of summative assessment as long as it goes hand in hand with formative assessment, which combined form a full teacher assessment. However, does it fulfil the above purposes…I think not. We all can quote instances where children attain higher or lower in the tests on any given day, the surprise child in Year 6 who pulls a 5 out of the bag or the child who has been doing brilliantly but stumbles on a question and falls to bits and completely misses what the level that a teacher has assessed them at. Does it work as a measure of school effectiveness? No, and I can say that as a year 6 teacher, a Deputy Head of two very successful schools and as an ex inspector. It works as a guide, an indicator, but one to be used with caution and in context and dialogue with the people who know those children best…not in a crude league table. (I’ll leave that too…for now!) anyhow, we all know that learning and progress isn’t linear, with nice clean lines @edudatalab demonstrates this beautifully with some graphs about progress (only 9% of pupils makes what might be termed linear or expected progress, again, I’ll leave that too…for now!) I’d also argue that tutoring is so prevalent in parts of the country that how much of the progress we attribute to the school or the tutor, or a child’s ability to perform in a test. What impact does the family have, an older sibling helping, the socio economic background, or you only have to look at your local bookstores to see them awash with study guides, 11+ tests or Help with Homework, (I know…I’ve bought them and written them!) Do secondary schools trust them? Please stop laughing at the back…I’ll leave that answer unspoken. Or why are we seeing more and more schools risking results being annulled and staff being disciplined/sacked because of maladministration?

As early as 2008 a Commons Education Select committee raised concerns about the effectiveness of SATs, particularly, “professional abilities of teachers” we’re underused and that the high stakes nature of the tests led to” phenomena such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and focusing disproportionate use of resources on borderline pupil!” Oh, how things have changed…hmm. You will be pleased to note that Ofqual states, ” Over the past year there has been no issues of concern regarding the Agency.” Hardly the same thing as, “to promote public confidence in National Assessments.”

So to my final question? (I may renege on this…)

ARE THEY VALUE FOR MONEY? After all, this is the age of austerity, and we’re all in it together, unless you can afford a private tutor…well, consider this in May 2013, someone put in a FOI request regarding the cost of administering SATs in primary schools, date requested was 20th May 2013 and response was pretty quick, 11th June 2013. The STA responsible for KS2 tests and the Y1 phonics test- sorry, task, had a programme budget that year of £35.7m and an administration budget of £5.4m. So, in other words £41.1m. 

There is a breakdown available…but only for the 6 months October 2011 to March 2012. I’m sure you would like to see them… 

Now this was only posted on the http://www.gov.uk website in August of last year, and I have found the annual report and accounts for the financial year ending March 2015 they can be found here (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/standards-and-testing-agency-annual-report-and-accounts-2014-to-2015) if you wish to wade through a somewhat eyebrow raising report of how successful delivery of tests were…oh and it is 66pages long. Although not quite as dull as you might imagine.

In brief: expenditure was £46.2m as opposed to £46m the previous year and was slightly over the initial £44.5m. In fairness, this accounts for all the advice and organisation that comes with administering 3 and a half million test scripts etc (that’s just KS2). They do much more than this in terms of future developments etc.

However, I still struggle with the fact these costs are big…particularly in times when schools are making redundancies and leaking at the seams come autumn rains…and the fact that with increased testing at KS1, the introduction of the Early Years tasks and electronic marking, these costs will simply grow. And yes, I do appreciate that this is very small money when talking in terms of government spending and the fact that this accounts for department budgets for resources and payroll…
I’m not one for being negative, but even if we continued to test, but gave greater weighting to teacher assessment which was heavily monitored it would be a start, with teachers marking the tests and moderation of this…but then there is no trust, and there won’t ever be, because the outcomes are far too high stakes for teachers and for schools, so this will never happen. But the Dfe do need to ask themselves and perhaps ask the profession whether this is necessary and if so is it value for money? The new model of Ofsted may help to offset some of the high stakes nature of the testing, the fact that we are all singing off different hymn sheets regarding assessment and what progress looks like in data terms will also muddy the waters when comparing schools apart from at those crucial points where testing occurs. So yes it is needed. If not in the current or what seems to be future form, (I’ve seen the pilot maths tests and I hope they get amended prior to release!) is it really something we need to be spending £200m+ on over the next 5 years? 

How about we spend it on schools and in particular, children, training more teachers, or research into what really works- am sure ResearchEd could do with a boost and are doing a great job! Particularly what works with the pupil premium funding, David Laws has confirmed £2.545bn total pupil premium funding for 2015 to 2016…fantastic, but do we know how to best spend it or is it a scattergun approach…you know the answer. There was an evaluation done in 2013, with recommendations, which is interesting to read, as are works done by the Sutton Trust and John Dunford. However, it still might be wise for a further research project done as in 2013. 
There was announcement recently regarding Special Schools and their pupils inability to access the tests…”The executive headteacher of a leading special needs school will oversee a new review into how to assess accurately pupils with lower attainment, Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced today (13 July 2015).” There was an interesting response on Twitter from people who are much more informed regarding special schools than I, it was spectacular in condemnation. I will leave it to them to respond in written form. Needless to say, more testing ahead, because the teachers who work in special schools aren’t skilled or committed enough to teacher assess accurately…

Do I have any answers to what might improve this mess? I have a few ideas, but am sure that they are flawed and will be looking elsewhere across the globe for inspiration, but wary that ideas from other cultures do not always fit our own situation. But I will be writing about it when I have a clearer picture. Interesting that Scotland are now heading this way, I can only wince at the cost of setting this up, given how much we spend on developing and maintaining the system. 

As for the SATs, they’re here to stay, as are the league tables, let’s be honest, they are the only real lever on school improvement that ministers have and with the new curriculum and raised expectations this system will only grow…are they worth the money spent? I would love someone to research into just how effective they are as a way of raising standards, but then we would be asking once again which factors have most impact…one for discussing at ResearchEd on Sept 5th I think, however at this point, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions…

 

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