Labour has announced plans to scrap compulsory national tests for primary school children in England, with a promise to relieve pressure on overstretched schools and free up teachers to deliver a “rich and varied curriculum”.
Jeremy Corbyn chose to set out his proposals to abolish the regime of “extreme pressure testing” in an address to teachers gathered in Liverpool for the annual National Education Union conference.
In a speech warmly received by NEU members, who voted on Monday in favour of a ballot to boycott Sats tests next year, the Labour leader said: “We need to prepare children for life, not just for exams.”
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He denounced the high-stakes testing culture, complaining that children in England’s schools are among the most tested in the world, and pledged a Labour government would abolish Sats for seven- and 11-year-olds, as well as controversial plans for baseline assessments for reception classes.
Corbyn told the 1,500-strong audience that Labour understood teachers were overworked and overstressed. “Teachers get into the profession because they want to inspire children, not pass them along an assembly line,” he said.
“We will raise standards by freeing up teachers to teach. Labour trusts teachers. You are professionals. You know your job. You know your students.”
Speaking weeks before the latest cohort of 10- and 11-year-olds take Sats, Corbyn highlighted the pressure the tests put on young children . “Sats and the regime of extreme pressure testing are giving young children nightmares and leaving them in floods of tears,” he said.
The government tests have not only been unpopular with teachers; parents have also been concerned about the damaging impact of high-stakes testing on young children and many have staged their own Sats boycott by keeping their children off school.
Welcoming Labour’s announcement, More Than a Score – a coalition of parents and teachers opposed to overtesting – said: “It doesn’t have to be this way. There are more supportive ways to assess children and fairer ways to measure schools, without the need to turn children into data points.”
Labour would consult parents and teachers and come up with a more flexible and practical system of assessment, which is tailored to individual pupils, Corbyn said.
“Our assessment will be based on clear principles. First, to understand the learning needs of each child, because every child is unique. And second, to encourage a broad curriculum aimed at a rounded education,” he said.
“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.”
The announcement was welcomed by the NEU. Its joint general secretary Mary Bousted said: “The NEU has long advocated an assessment system that has the trust of teachers and school communities – one that will support children’s learning and raise standards of attainment in our schools.
“We look forward to the return of a broad and balanced primary curriculum and to the rekindling of the spirit of creativity in our schools. We welcome Labour’s commitment to work with the profession in order to develop these groundbreaking policies further.”
Sats were introduced in 1990 to hold schools to account and help drive up standards. Six- and seven-year-olds sit the standardised national tests in English and maths at the end of key stage 1 and again at the end of key stage 2, in their final year of primary school.
In 2018, the government announced KS1 Sats would be replaced with a new baseline assessment in reception (ages four to five), beginning in 2020, with KS1 Sats becoming optional from 2023.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, also welcomed Labour’s approach. “In reality, Sats do not tell teachers or parents anything they didn’t already know about their child or school, but have the negative unintended consequences of distracting from teaching and learning and narrowing the focus of the curriculum,” he said.
Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Sats are a flawed way of measuring the performance of primary schools and a new approach is long overdue.
“These tests cannot possibly reflect the breadth and richness of the curriculum and learning which takes place in primary schools, and can lead to an overemphasis on English and maths to the detriment of other subjects.
“And while they are intended as a measure of school performance, rather than pupil performance, the reality is that it is very difficult to hold a week of tests without a proportion of children experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety.”
Schools Minister Nick Gibb condemned Labour’s plan to abolish school testing. He said: “These tests have been part of school life since the 90s. They have been pivotal in raising standards in our primary schools. That’s why Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown supported them.
“Abolishing these tests would be a terrible, retrograde step. It would enormously damage our education system, and undo decades of improvement in children’s reading and maths. Under Labour, the government would simply give up on ensuring all our children can read and write by the age of 11.”
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