The debate about testing in primary schools is usually dominated by teachers and unions – who decry the pressures associated with statutory test – and the government – who argue testing is necessary to hold schools to account.
The voices of one group – parents – are often overlooked. New research explores parents’ views in detail, however, with some interesting findings, which can be summed up by the phrase ‘Too many tests for no good reason’.
This phrase provides the title for the research, which was commissioned by the More than a Score coalition of education and parent groups. Their report is based on a survey of over 2,000 parents of children aged 3-13, conducted by YouGov. The results raise some serious questions for those who see the current testing regime in primary schools as fit for purpose.
First, the parents surveyed were unaware of the extent of testing in primary schools, and would prefer other ways of assessing children. Only 4% of respondents knew that there were statutory tests in five of the seven primary years (the multiplication tables test having added Year 4 to the list of years where testing occurs). Many (36%) thought there were tests only in two years, presumably the better-known SATs in Year 2 and Year 6.
When provided with the information that children are tested in five school years out of seven, 61% agreed there was too much testing in primary schools. Parents think that there are better ways to assess their children: 70% agreed with the statement ‘there are better ways to measure my child’s progress’. In contrast, teachers’ reports were seen as the most accurate source of information.
Second, the survey shows that parents are concerned about the impact of tests. Of those surveyed 73% think there is too much pressure due to testing. Parents are worried about the impact of a reduced curriculum, an increased focus on test preparation and children’s love of learning. Furthermore, the impact stretches well beyond the school: 30% of parents thought that Year 6 SATs had an impact of the well-being of their family as a whole. These findings echo the concerns of headteachers in my research (also funded by More than a Score), particularly in relation to children’s wellbeing and the impact on classroom practice.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, this report reveals that most parents do not use test results when selecting a school for their child. When asked what they look for when choosing a school, test results were only the eighth most important factor. Most significant was ‘teachers that care about their pupils and inspire them to learn”. This was followed by, in order of importance: instincts, other parents’ recommendations, Ofsted ratings, a wide curriculum, good pastoral care and good facilities for arts subjects and for sport. All of these were more important to parents than test results or league table position.
This raises serious questions about the purpose of tests, which are justified in policy terms by the need to provide information on the ‘quality’ of a schools, so that parents as consumers can choose wisely. If test results are not being used in this way, then the entire premise of improvement through competition is brought into doubt. Interestingly for policy-makers, the parents surveyed for this project would prefer for schools to be judged on how happy the children are and their progress over time (neither of which would be as simple as a standardised test).
As a researcher in this field and also a parent of primary children myself, this research demonstrates that my and other educators’ concerns about the impact of assessments are shared by more widely. A large body of teachers, educationalists and parents have very real concerns about the operation of the testing regime in primary schools. As this new report concludes, parents think that primary education should be about children developing a love of learning; they ‘do not want their children to be carrying the weight of an entire school’s performance on their shoulders’.