I posted something on twitter today – a sort of rhetorical exhalation on the subject of SATs ‘boosters’ during holidays. It’s received plenty of responses so I feel I must expand on this now and finish with (possibly) a controversial conclusion.
One of my recent blogs championed the primary school as a place full of soul, joy and fun. For me, it is not a workhouse of 1% gains. It’s not a vehicle for schools to plaster banners outside celebrating the ‘best results in school history’ or ‘top pupil premium progress in 2019’. That’s just my strong belief, and I’ve no problem with people disagreeing with me – it would be boring if we were all the same!
So if, like me, you believe that over-testing, and increasing competition in primary schools is a bad thing, I think that we need a more nuanced view on who is to blame. In fact, it would be better if we avoided blame, instead focusing on a positive renewal of the primary system.
Blame seems to go in three directions: Ofsted, the DfE or school leaders. I think it’s unfair to lump it on each of them.
First in the blame game is Ofsted. This is an easy attack (everyone blames Ofsted) and there is certainly criticism (not least from themselves) that accountability has become far too hostile and fear-inducing. This is on the change thankfully. But credit where credit’s due; often Ofsted’s reports have praised a school despite low attainment, because the leadership is improving the whole school, not just Y6, and this takes time. Where leaders are committed to a clear vision, taking people with them and supporting a local community with major challenges, they will be praised.
So I’m not sure that they’re really to blame for schools doing booster classes in holidays.
Then we have the DfE. Here the criticism is much more resonant. An obsession with trying to copy Asian education systems is a great error – we are yet to fully see the consequences but they have led to perverse incentives (holiday boosters being one of them). Pursuing a competitive, high-stakes, regressive examination agenda is exactly what the very same Asian countries are now trying to change. We are way behind; it’s just that Brexit has shifted the focus away from the folly of this, and other public service reforms.
But in all fairness to the DfE, they have not actively recommended holiday tuition or extra revision classes.
Then there are school leaders. They have the power to make these decisions, or not to. To lead or to follow. For new headteachers in particular, it’s an unenviable position.
I know that many leaders feel an intense pressure to show that results are improving. I feel it too – our results are not great. Leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
But we have to run our schools according to our beliefs, not because of the DfE or Ofsted. Leaders can choose.
So I salute all the school leaders who have sent their children into the holiday with a skip and a smile, full of a love of learning, maybe with advice about books to read, or research to pursue, museums to visit, or sports clubs to attend. I really respect them.
In doing so, they are sending a message to a the current system and helping to bring about change. That’s why I said that holiday classes are counter-productive – because they perpetuate this system. They do this by signalling the importance of SATs tests through actively putting on classes, revision etc etc. It legitimises the importance of these wretched things. It devalues other subjects. It makes them seem more important that they actually are.
And don’t get me started on private tutors for primary school children.
Yes, there are leaders who are opening up in the holiday for classes, mixing them up with PE lessons and fun breaks etc. That’s fine, but call it what it is – it’s called school! It is just extending the term and gaining a 1% advantage. Next we’ll be advising children which pillows to use in order to get a good night’s sleep before the SATs.
I mean, where do we go from here? All schools copying each other until there are no holidays at all? Just so we can beat the school down the road?! What on earth are we doing?
The only way to reduce the importance of SATs is for school leaders to signal their minimal value within a far wider set of school improvement priorities. SATs are one small part of a school’s self-evaluation and pupil assessment toolkit – no more and no less.
Enjoy your holiday.