Are SATs closing the poverty gap?

Based on an elaborate formula invented by his officials, schools minister Nick Gibb is “proud we’re closing the gap between rich and poor pupils.”  A more straightforward measure shows that nothing has changed.

Last summer 54% of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) were failed in at least one of Reading, Writing or Maths. In other words, more than half of FSM-eligible pupils started secondary school with a label saying they were ‘not secondary ready’. The failure rate for other pupils was 32% – a gap of 22 percentage points. This gap was exactly the same as in 2016 and 2011.

An enquiry sent to the Department for Education has revealed that 1 in 4 FSM-eligible children were failed in all three subjects. This is twice as high as the average for all pupils.

The situation is even worse for boys. 45% of FSM boys were failed in the reading test, and nearly 60% were failed in at least one subject (reading, writing and/or maths). For younger FSM boys the failure rate is about five percentage points lower.


Research is urgently needed to show the impact on children during their secondary education. There is a serious danger of demoralisation for tens of thousands of young people.

This is the inevitable consequence of government decisions, under Nick Gibb and Michael Gove, that tests should become much harder. It results from their decision to set impossibly high targets for children’s learning. When designing the current National Curriculum, Gove’s officials laid down expectations that England’s children must hit targets a year or two younger than the highest attaining countries in the world.

Curriculum and the quality of education

As predicted at the time, the current National Curriculum has resulted in widespread cramming for tests. In practice, the curriculum has been narrowed to what is in the tests.

This is particularly damaging to children growing up in poverty. Even spoken language is sidelined thus removing the foundations for future success.

It could be argued that changes to curriculum and assessment are raising standards. In fact, the opposite is more likely as a result of curriculum narrowing, rote-learning and endless test practice.

It is also clear that the tests are not a good indicator of who has learnt what. The time pressure is acute. For Reading, pupils are confronted with three different passages, each very demanding, within one hour. They have to answer 40 questions, some in several parts.

The Maths tests are a race: Arithmetic is 36 questions in 30 minutes. The Maths Reasoning tests each present over 20 problems to solve in 40 minutes. There must be many children are know the maths but just aren’t quick enough to score the marks.

Teachers speak out

A survey carried out in 2015 by Professor Merryn Hutchings provides graphic accounts of the damage being inflicted on children.

“They are six years old, and all their school experience tells them is that they are failures (already) and have to be pulled out constantly to work on things their peers can already do, and miss out on the fun bits of learning.” (Primary teacher)

“I work with Pupil Premium children and often have to take them out of class when others are doing activities that they would like to do. They also miss assemblies, and I can see their agitation when they can hear laughter and singing while they are having to do extra work with me.” (Primary teacher)

“These children are pulled out of broad curriculum subjects to try to close the gap. Their experience at school must be horrible – in assembly they’ve got to do phonics intervention, then a phonics lesson, a literacy lesson, a maths lesson, lunch, reading, extra reading intervention and then speech intervention. What else are they learning about the world? They are six years old, and all their school experience tells them is that they are failures (already) and have to be pulled out constantly to work on things their peers can already do, and miss out on the fun bits of learning.” (KS1)

Stopping SATs will help remove these joyless experiences from our schools.

See also the earlier posts in this series
Stop these tests, protect the children
Primary school tests and children’s mental health

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