The disingenuous nature of empowerment in edtech


I originally wrote this piece for the LKMco blog, off the back of my attending Bett 2018. It can be found on their website here.

Technology is often presented as a means of empowerment within education, but we are in danger of actively holding pupils back by ignoring the inherent class bias of this narrative.

I recently attended Bett, a large educational technology expo held annually at the ExCeL London. There were many impressive products available to preview, from a broad variety of vendors, and a long list of speakers from the great and good of the edtech sector. I began my day at Bett by attending a talk by a headteacher and multi-academy trust leader, in partnership with Microsoft.

The talk was entitled A day in the life of a digitally enabled child. It featured footage of Beth, a Year 6 child attending a primary school in which every child is provided with a Microsoft Surface tablet.

“Technology is, as it has always been, a tool that is empowering the daily life of the children.”

This was one of the speaker’s opening statements, and highlights an issue that I would like to address both within the context of his talk, and in the wider sphere of educational technology. Personally, I’m quite picky about how we use words like “empower”, so it’s worth thinking a bit more carefully about how Beth and her peers are “empowered” by this particular vision of education. But before we do that, allow me to introduce you to another child. Amy is also in Beth’s class. She lives in a women’s refuge with her mother and younger brother. She has missed a non-trivial amount of schooling due to her circumstances at home, and has only recently moved into this unfamiliar area. Her mother works shifts at the local hospital. Let’s have a look at how Beth and Amy spend their day.

Beth’s day

Beth began her day by using her tablet at the breakfast table to check her agenda for the day using various pieces of the latest Microsoft software. In the car on the way to school, she accessed learning materials and games on her tablet. At school, she used the Accelerated Reader software, and worked on projects using more Microsoft products. An actual human teacher was very briefly seen facilitating the use of the technology (amongst a class of sixty children), but all tasks shown were being conducted on the tablets. Recorded video and written feedback were given remotely by the teacher, and Beth was able to review her targets on her tablet. Mum had reminded Beth to preorder her lunch at home last night, and Beth was able to feed back on the quality of her lunch whilst she sat in the lunch hall. Once home, Beth carried on working on her home learning projects through her tablet; reviewing and recording video responses to feedback from her teacher.

Amy’s day

Amy began her day by waking herself up, making her own breakfast and getting her school things together. There wasn’t much about for breakfast – they’d have to visit the food bank again later – but Amy made do with what she could find. Mum was very tired from her late shift last night, and was trying to manage Amy’s younger brother. He was having another meltdown and throwing objects around the room. After all, that’s the behaviour that Dad had always modelled to him in the past. Amy would be lucky to make it to school on time today.

Amy arrived late, not having seen an agenda for the day. The other kids all seemed to know what they were doing. Amy sat down and got out her tablet. Everyone knew which tablet was Amy’s. It was the one with the crack in the case from where her brother had thrown it at the wall a couple of months ago. She turned it on, and tried to load up the software. Amy hadn’t had much experience of using a tablet, so she wasn’t not quite sure how, and had to ask for help again.

An Accelerated Reader report showing pupils' estimated "Engaged time per day" (Image via Renaissance Learning)

Amy’s teacher wasn’t happy with how she had been progressing in her reading. Her ‘engaged time’ was low, and her quiz scores had been dropping. Mum had had lots of night shifts recently, and hadn’t been able to sit and read with Amy so much. Amy never found reading particularly easy anyway, and sometimes needed to reread bits of a book to make sure she had understood them. Unfortunately, Accelerated Reader’s ‘engaged time’ estimate didn’t show any of that.

At lunchtime, Amy had to wait longer than the other kids to get her food as she hadn’t remembered to preorder her lunch last night. When she got home, she tried to access her home learning, but needed help. Mum was at work again, so Amy tried her best but couldn’t do all of it. She was worried that she might have let her classmates down – after all, this home learning project was supposed to be ‘collaborative’. She looked at some of her teacher’s feedback videos, but didn’t quite get what they meant. She couldn’t ask a video for an explanation, and was worried about looking like she was being left behind, so she recorded a generic, “OK”-type response. If she was lucky, she would be able to have some time with her teacher tomorrow, but there were many other Amys, and only one teacher.

Of course, Amy is not a real child, but her experiences are synthesised from my own teaching experience. Yet her situation is not uncommon; certainly not uncommon enough to safely ignore when ‘innovating’ in the classroom. But let’s look at what the technology has done to “empower” both Amy and Beth.

For Beth, the technology has enabled some new modes of learning. Some are improvements upon more traditional teaching methods; others are expensive novelties. She is tied into a particular mode of learning, in a school that has restructured its education to be entirely centred around a single piece of technology. What happens if she doesn’t get on with that way of learning? Luckily, Beth has lots of parental support at home, not least because her father is the headteacher of her school. If she struggles in school, her family can easily afford a tutor, or the time to sit and work with her.

For Amy, the technology has also enabled some new modes of learning, but many of them are very difficult to access for her. Many are reliant upon a level of home support that she simply does not have access to. She is marked out as different from her peers by the effect her home circumstances have had on her device, by the level of support she requires from the teacher, by her ability to engage in collaborative projects outside of school hours, and even by the lunch ordering system. Access to her teacher has been reduced by increasing class sizes and greater reliance upon automated ‘teaching’ methods.


verb [ T ]

UK: /ɪmˈpaʊər/

to give someone official or legal authority, or the freedom or confidence to do something

Cambridge Dictionary

Personally, I don’t feel that either child, particularly Amy, has been especially “empowered”, and we can’t assume that their school has been either. Their school is now committed to an expensive programme of subscriptions to proprietary software, and reliant upon a given class of device, which will need replacing for all pupils every few years. If they want to move away from this model, or even to another vendor, there will be significant and likely expensive upheaval throughout the school. They have also had to expend a significant amount of time and money training the staff in how to work in this new way. In the current climate of school funding, the girls’ school is really feeling the pinch. Maybe they won’t hire another teaching assistant to replace the two who left last term. Maybe they’ll only implement their teachers’ pay rise for a couple of pay grades, rather than for all of the staff. Maybe they can’t afford to move anybody up the pay scale this year, regardless of how well they’ve done. Budgetary issues such as these directly impact a school’s ability to put in place measures that may actually empower children like Amy, such as having enough support staff available to ensure that all pupils’ needs are met.

The false narrative around “empowerment” is sadly very common within the edtech sector. Vendors are all too keen to sell the next great educational innovation to cash-strapped schools as some kind of panacæa, a liberating force from some perceived yoke of tried and tested pedagogical methods.

It’s all very well promoting an organisation’s particular vision of the future, but what are the concrete material conditions that schools face? How will your vision be implemented in the current climate? How will the experience of your particular innovation vary between pupils of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds?

Only by unpicking how educational ‘innovations’ impact on different groups, both directly and indirectly, can we really empower everyone. Otherwise, we are just reinforcing existing inequalities. Expecting all pupils to have access to similar material resources, cultural capital and familial support belies a class bias that is endemic in the edtech sector. It is time for the voice of the educator, rather than that of the entrepreneur, to be given primacy in the discussion of how technology can empower our pupils in a meaningful way.

(Beth’s name has been changed to protect her identity)

Building critical consciousness through dialogic reading in the primary classroom


I originally wrote this article for the very first issue of Education for Tomorrow. The original can be found here.

IN HIS BOOK, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire defines conscientização, or critical consciousness, as “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”.1 This concept is at the very heart of Freire’s transformative, liberatory vision of education. For Freire, education is a collaborative act of knowledge construction between what he terms “teacher-students” and “student-teachers”, in which both parties strive to become more fully human through “working, [to] transform the world”.2 Freire proposed dialogics as an emancipatory pedagogy which combines reflection and action in a “radical interaction”3 with each other and which empowers learners to play a fundamental rôle in the transformation of their own conditions of existence. “If it is speaking their word that people, by naming the world, tranform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings.”4

Building on the idea of dialogic pedagogy, Ramón Flecha, founder of the CREA research community at the University of Barcelona, introduce the concept of dialogic reading.5 He identifies the ‘Matthew Effect’ – that the more of something (in this case, cultural capital and reading skill) one has, the easier it is to acquire more – as an unaddressed problem that excludes many learners from traditional literacy teaching, and proposes dialogic reading as a radical rethink of how reading is taught. Dialogic reading is based upon four key practices:–

  • Extending learning time
  • The ‘Parent Readers’ programme
  • The ‘Reading Buddies’ initiative
  • Dialogic literary gatherings

Although the primary focus of this article is upon the dialogic literary gatherings, the remaining three practices will be brielfy outlined below.

Extending learning time is a technique by which learning, and reading in particular, is made more accessible both to learners and to members of the community. Increasing the number of reading activities available outside school hours, and involving a diverse group of extended family members and individuals from the local community, facilitates more opportunities for reading. It also deformalises reading, removing the pressure felt by some learners, and also encourages families to form a habit of reading, even outside of the school environment.

Parent Readers is a volunteering programme in which the family members of the youngest pupils attend school with their children in the mornings to be able to read together within the school context. It not only motivates the pupil, but also serves to tear down the artificial barrier between home reading and school reading; the pupil is already used to reading in school with their family member, so reading naturally continues at home with the same person.

“These discussions are not dry academic exercises, divorced from reality, but are based upon the children’s own life experiences, and support them to develop their reading comprehension, oracy and emotional literacy.”

Reading Buddies is an initiative whereby older pupils are paired with younger pupils, reading together at different times and in different spaces. The older child interacts closely with the younger child, modelling and supporting good reading practice. This not only supports the younger child in their reading learning, but also reinforces good practice for the older child. It builds confidence, removes some of the pressure of the presence of an authority figure such as a teacher, and develops solidarity between pupils of different age groups.

Finally, the dialogic literary gathering, or DLG, is a particular way of conducting a reading lesson in which learners are encouraged to engage with a classic of world literature (or an appropriate abridgment thereof), which “address important topics that have always been important to human beings”, as one young participant noted.6 The universality of issues addressed by classic texts is a cornerstone of the DLG, maximising accessibility to pupils from diverse backgrounds. Students are each given a copy of the chosen text to read either at home or as facilitated by the above practices. The DLG itself takes the form of a weekly session, either as part of the regular curriculum or as a family, community or extracurricular activity, in which the teacher facilitates a discussion between pupils. Having chosen and written down an extract or extracts that they have found particularly meaningful, pupils share, discuss and debate parts of the text on the basis of egalitarian dialogue. The teacher does not prompt or lead discussion; their rôle is purely to establish expectations of behaviour, to facilitate speakers’ contributions, and to record brief notes on the discussion.

Through engaging with the universal experiences of characters in classic literature, pupils are able to analyse, debate and discuss situations that arise within the story. These discussions are not dry academic exercises, divorced from reality, but are based upon the children’s own life experiences, and support them to develop their reading comprehension, oracy and emotional literacy. They are able to tackle significant philosophical issues, and form and express opinions which must then be justified and defended. This level of engagement then motivates other pupils, encouraging them to read to be able to be involved in the discussion. The other three practices are especially valuable here, as they are able to provide support and opportunities for reading which may not be available to every child.

“[…] dialogic reading provides an eminently viable means of developing both reading skills and critical consciousness”

In the author’s experience of conducting DLGs over an extended period, pupils find them to be an enriching experience. This is partly due to the challenge (perceived or otherwise) of reading a classic of world literature, especially if the original text is able to be used, but primarily due to the nature of the discussions in the DLG sessions themselves. Over the period in question, reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis led to discussions around mental health and the experience of carers; reading Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band led to discussions around stereotyping and prejudice; and reading Homer’s Iliad gave rise to a heated debate about sexism, war and the responsibilities of deities. All of these topics arose organically from the discussion of eight- and nine-yearolds who were connecting meaningfully with a text.

This is very different from the reading pedagogy which has become accepted in so many schools, where teachers use questioning to check basic comprehension and to lead students to preprepared answers, based on an ‘authorised’ reading of the text. As such, it challenges the dominant ‘banking’ concept of education, in which teachers are expected simply to ‘deposit’ knowledge into learners as empty vessels.7 This is replaces with a transformative approach in which the teacher-student and student-teachers are engages in co-constructing meaning, working together, and, through that work, naming and changing their own lived experience.

The transformative aspect of dialogic reading was especially visible, as mentioned above, when reading the Iliad. In one scene, an irate Menelaüs declares that his fearful soldiers must be women, not men. This tiny quote ballooned into a huge discussion over whether or not it was right to use “women” as an insult, and what the implications of using it in that way might be. Several male pupils expressed views of women that could diplomatically be called ‘old-fashioned’, which propelled the discussion further, as more and more of their classmates joined in, bringing their own opinions and experiences to the discussion, and playing out hypothetical situations within the context of the story. The discussion segued naturally into discussing the rôle of women in ancient Greek society, and how attitudes toward women have changed since then. Pupils left the session still debating and discussing enthusiastically, and this was able to form the basis of several follow-up lessons in PSHE exploring women’s experiences in various fields, led by a diverse range of volunteer speakers from the community. From one small section of a DLG text, pupils developed their oracy and debating skills, were able to use the text to illustrate a point, and also to confront and challenge reactionary ideas within their own classroom.

In conclusion, dialogic reading provides an eminently viable means of developing both reading skills and critical consciousness. It is practical to implement without being resource-intensive – the primary resources are the teacher and the text, many of which are available free of charge online – and it gives teachers and students greater shared control over the education process. It empowers pupils, and effectively works towards critical consciousness, which is not only the overriding goal of education, but also the basis of liberation.


  1. Freire, P. (1996); Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 10th ed.; Ramos, M., Translator (Penguin Books); p. 17.

  2. ibid. p. 27.

  3. ibid. p. 68.

  4. ibid. p. 69.

  5. Flecha, R. (2014); Successful Educational Actions for Inclusion and Social Cohesion in Europe (Springer International Publishing); pp. 39–44.

  6. ibid. p. 42

  7. Freire, P. (1996); op. cit. pp. 52–53.

Educate, agitate, organise - the need for young NEU activists


I orginally wrote this article for the Morning Star newspaper, to appear in their special issue coinciding with this year’s NEU (NUT Section) Annual Conference. It appeared in the newspaper on Friday, 2018-03-30, and can be found online here.

The formation of the National Education Union is a historic opportunity to expand education trade unionism, writes PHIL YEELES

TWO years ago, I made a speech at the NUT annual conference, highlighting the need for the union to increase recruitment of young teacher activists.

Two years on, the need remains just as urgent, if not more so, as education in Britain continues to face crisis after crisis, from cuts to funding, to the creeping threat of privatisation, to the undermining of the philosophical foundations of public education.

Both the Southend and Sutton Associations will be presenting motions promoting recruitment of young teachers at this year’s annual conference. This article will summarise many of the issues raised, coupled with wider issues around union engagement.

Young teachers - in NUT parlance, that is members under 35 years of age - make up 33 per cent of the membership of the NUT Section of the National Education Union. Yet the average age of a union officer is 53, as of November 2017.

That is not to say that the union has not supported young teachers well in the past, having established several representative bodies within the union, but the time is ripe to push forward and specifically target young teachers to encourage them toward officer roles.

As a proudly lay-led union, it is absolutely vital that those who constitute the future of teaching take on leadership responsibilities.

This is, however, part of a wider problem with activist recruitment across teacher trade unions.

As the nature of teacher training changes, it has become more difficult for unions to make “first contact” with new teachers.

Last year, over half of newly qualified teachers undertook training other than through universities, largely severing the traditional route through which trade unions have been able to recruit new and student teachers.

As the Sutton Association notes in its motion, the average union recruitment of PGCE students is 95 per cent, whereas it falls to just 50 per cent among School Direct trainees.

This places a heavy responsibility upon workplace representatives, who must make the case for union membership directly, often to an audience for whom the trade union movement is entirely unfamiliar, and who may well be hostile to trade unionism, given its consistently negative depiction in the mainstream media.

This is compounded by the fact that not every school has a union representative; in my own area, Cambridgeshire, we have a significant proportion of schools with no union rep, and therefore no simple route through which to recruit new teachers.

This is detrimental to the entire profession, as trade union effectiveness is predicated upon worker engagement. Difficulty in recruiting members means difficulty in making gains for all teachers, including non-members.

But it’s not quite all doom and gloom. The formation of the National Education Union is a historic opportunity to expand education trade unionism, and one which the NUT has called for for some years.

Unity is strength, as they say, and the incorporation of the ATL and the NUT into a new education union can only help the cause.

The inclusion of teaching assistants and other education staff is also significant; after all, we are all on the same side. With more members, and more resources, the National Education Union will be able to expand recruitment in the coming years.

In an environment where teacher retention is, frankly, alarming (with 45 per cent of respondents to a recent union survey of young teachers saying that they were intending to leave the profession within five years) this will be essential in improving the lot of teachers and, by extension, pupils.

So here is a call to action: get involved and build your union. If you are a young teacher, you are the future of the union and of the profession, and future gains will only come with passionate activists willing to work for the benefit of teachers, schools and, crucially, children. Become a rep. Join your local committee. Become an officer. Get involved in local campaigns. Spread the word about the union to new teachers within your school. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat: remember that we’re all in it for the betterment of education, of our working conditions, and of our pupils’ learning conditions. If we don’t do it for ourselves, it won’t happen.

Phil Yeeles is a primary school teacher in Cambridge, and president of the Cambridgeshire Association of the National Education Union (NUT Section). His blog can be found at

Addendum to A Primary Assessment Primer


After a great discussion at tonight’s NUT Section general meeting on primary assessment, based upon the previous post, I thought I would explore in greater depth a few issues that arose, plus a few that I left out of the original piece.

Developmental differences in Reception

First of all, it was noted that, at the beginning of the academic year, summer-born children are almost a full year younger than those with birthdays in September. Proportionally, this means that children entering Reception may only have had 80% of the life experience of their peers (i.e. comparing a 4-year-old to a 5-year-old). This is one of the key factors affecting the reliability of Baseline tests: how can we meaningfully assess the development of children through a standardised test when many children have had significantly less time to develop? Quite apart from the fact that the child development is inherently uneven across children, this just does not make sense as a proposed metric.

Assumptions about the acquisition of knowledge

Much of standardised testing, particularly at the primary level, makes assumptions about the acquisition of knowledge that are not in line with reality. The kind of assessment we have been discussing assumes that knowledge is acquired linearly, and thus that children can be graded along a fixed path of knowledge which they should have acquired by a certain point in their schooling. Unfortunately, real life does not work in this way. The acquisition of knowledge is a complex and many-faceted process, affected by many more factors than simply what has been taught and what has been remembered, and thus assessment that is based on this kind of assumption is not useful as a tool with which to measure children’s development, and especially not as one with which to decide the fate of teachers and schools nationwide.

What is ‘progress’?

The previous section raises, then, the following question: What is ‘progress’? Assessment is entirely focussed on measuring progress, ensuring that children are making progress, and judging teaching and school effectiveness on the amount of progress being made. Sadly, this idea of ‘progress’ is not well-defined. Again, child development is a complex set of processes that is entirely unique to each child, and what may constitute an important educational step for one child may not for another. Hence, a system constructed on oversimplified numerical measures of ‘progress’ (that is to say, a value-added score based on performance in standardised tests) is meaningless as a means of actually charting pupils’ development. In fact, most, if not all, teachers and teaching assistants are very much aware of the real-terms progress that each child has made through their daily interactions with them, rather than through performance on a test, or against an arbitrary list of criteria. Can little Alex use a relative clause yet? Well, no, but in the last six months she’s learnt how to form all of her letters properly, can now write in sentences, has written some of her most imaginitive stories yet, and has overcome her separation anxiety issues in coming to school. But that, seemingly, is not ‘progress’, at least not in any manner that would look palatable to Ofsted.

Teacher assessment

From the teacher’s perspective, such a flawed system of assessment is also problematic as it exists to assess not only the pupils, but also the teachers (and, to a large extent, the school). With the advent of performance-related pay, many teachers are required to meet targets related to children’s performance at assessment, and ‘progress’ as evidenced by this assessment. Unfortunately, as discussed above, the entire model of assessment and ‘progress’ is based upon flawed premises, and thus the system becomes yet another stick with which to beat the teacher, or, in the case of judgments made by Ofsted, the school. In a climate where the Government actively favours forced academisation, we cannot afford to be subject to flawed measures of school effectiveness.

Assessment and social class

The class nature of assessment is also something that should not be ignored. Of course, socioeconomic background has a significant impact on performance in tests, but more insidiously than that, the way in which assessment data is used inherently classist. Assessment data is already used to construct league tables of schools, and this will only be exacerbated by the introduction of Baseline testing. League tables, as mentioned in the speech in the previous post, encourage ‘free-market’ competition between schools, with consumers (i.e. parents and carers) hypothetically able to take their business elsewhere should a school not meet their expectations. The idea is then that this will eliminate underperformance in schools in a somewhat Darwinian fashion. In reality, such a process is inherently discriminatory against the less well-off, as those can afford to move to better-performing schools leave behind those who can’t, concentrating less fortunate families in underperforming schools. This effectively leads to quality of provision being determined by socioeconomic background, or, to put it much more bluntly, those who need high-quality education provision the most become those who receive it the least. Rather than encouraging all schools to improve, it entails the ghettoisation of public education, and is, as such, inherently classist.


Finally, a very short note to say that the trend towards a neoliberal, business-oriented model of education is very much part of the Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM) which has plagued public education systems across the world for the last several decades. I won’t go into depth about it here, as an explanation of the GERM and its effects will form the basis of an upcoming blog post, so stay tuned!

A Primary Assessment Primer


This blog post is a transcript of a talk I gave at an NEU (NUT Section) general meeting in Huntingdon, Cambs, on 2018-03-14.

Welcome. I’m going to run through the current state of primary assessment from Reception to Year 6 as diplomatically as possible, and talk a little bit about the problems that it entails at each stage. Finally, I’ll discuss more general issues around the assessment of young children, and what is being done about it.


OK, so let’s start off with Early Years. No doubt most of you have heard the term ‘Baseline’ being thrown around a lot recently, but what exactly does that mean? Essentially, the proposed Baseline tests are a means of giving schools a numerical benchmark against which to measure children’s progress throughout their school careers. They are planned to involve language, literacy and numeracy elements (and possibly “self-regulation”, whatever that actually means), and will be conducted at the start of Reception on children as young as four, beginning with a pilot in 2019 before full deployment in 2020.

This all sounds moderately reasonable until you consider that we have no useful, reliable way of accurately testing four-year-olds in these areas, let alone in such a way as to produce a useful statistic from which to calculate value-added scores. Using this, therefore, as the basis upon which to measure a child’s progress, as well as school effectiveness, is frankly ludicrous. Early Excellence, one of the most popular (or should I say least unpopular?) providers of Baseline testing when it was attempted in 2015-16, has come out as openly sceptical of Baseline testing as demanded by the Government, claiming that such tests will “provide data that is meaningless”. Clearly, an irresponsible initiative from a statistical viewpoint. But this is not even to mention the effect on the children involved, who miss out on teacher contact time right at the start of the school career, at a time that is absolutely formative for the teacher-pupil relationship. It also puts undue pressure on very young children, at an age when most of the rest of Europe haven’t even begun formal schooling, and encourages even further narrowing and formalisation of the Reception curriculum. Finally, and I will move on after this, it also represents a significant workload increase for Reception staff. Absolutely inexcusable, and the fact that it is still being pursued so enthusiastically by our current Government must surely highlight their complete unsuitability to be responsible in any way for something as important as our children’s education.

Key Stage 1

So, after being formally tested in Reception, children are then subjected in Year 1 to the phonics screening check, about which it is claimed that “It will identify pupils who need extra help to improve their decoding skills.” The test consists of 20 real words and 20 “pseudo-words” that children are expected to read aloud to the teacher. If they do not meet the required standard in Year 1, they are then expected to retake in Year 2.

Again, the phonics screening check puts undue pressure on very young children, who are not yet emotionally equipped to deal with such situations, and also represents a significant workload for Year 1 staff. It eats a huge chunk of time which could have been spent teaching, and, really, apart from anything else, what is a “pseudo-word”? Surely, expecting our young children, many of them still inexperienced readers, to try to decode nonsense words and to avoid the temptation to make them into something intelligible is just wrong-footing them.

In addition to the phonics screening retake, Y2 is also the year in which children first encounter SATs. These are high-stakes formal examinations: one in grammar and punctuation, one in spelling, two in reading, one in arithmetic and one in mathematical reasoning. The results are used to measure children’s progress as part of their end-of-year assessment, and are also significant to Ofsted as a means of measuring school achievement. Combined with the Baseline, they form the next step in measuring children’s progress numerically.

Once more, undue pressure, this time not only on the children, but also on the staff - SATs results are generally regarded as top-priority by management due to their impact on Ofsted’s view of a school. This often leads to the narrowing of the curriculum, and, out of desperation, teaching to the test. After all, if your success as a teacher is primarily dependent upon the SATs results, why teach anything else, especially as our pay is performance-related? The marking of the SATs tests is also highly problematic, but I’ll return to that in the next section, when I’ll cover the Year 6 SATs.

Key Stage 2

The big one for KS2 is the Year 6 SATs at the end of primary school. These are results upon which schools are judged by Ofsted, and, as such, are considered to be particularly high priority, often to the exclusion of other areas of the curriculum. The Year 6 SATs consist of a reading paper, a grammar and punctuation test, a spelling test, an arithmetic test and two mathematical reasoning tests, and, in some schools selected for sampling, three science tests. There is also talk of introducing a times tables test. In each subject, a pupil’s “raw score” is scaled to account for fluctuations in difficulty between years, and then compared to a national standard (a “scaled score” of 100), which a child will either have met or have not met. The results of the Year 6 SATs are commonly used to inform setting at the start of secondary school.

The Year 6 SATs in particular exert such a huge amount of pressure on pupils, who are highly aware of the impact of their results on both their own and their school’s future, and the impact on children’s mental health is well-documented, as is the narrowing of the curriculum and teaching-to-the-test that is entailed by such high-stakes examinations. This also has an impact on pupils’ mental health, as subjects such as Art gradually get stripped away in favour of more exam preparation. To add to the emotional strain, the “scaled score” system clearly indicates to pupils whether or not they are “good enough”, causing them to label themselves as failures for not meeting a fairly arbitrary criterion. This is especially cruel when you consider the content of the tests, most infamously the grammar and punctuation test, with its focus on obscure linguistics concepts, the teaching of which has not been shown to improve writing skill in the slightest. I encourage you all to visit and try the 2017 grammar and punctuation test for yourselves to see how much of it you can actually do.

Of course, as the stakes are so high for the Year 6 SATs, there is a booming industry of SATs-alike preparatory tests for the rest of KS2. These are unregulated, expensive, cookie-cutter assessment solutions, designed to get children used to taking exams in the SATs style. In many schools, these become the primary means of assessment, once more putting undue pressure on pupils, or they are used to “inform” teacher assessment, or, in other words, double the assessment workload. The sheer monetary cost of such tests is also inexcusable, given the frankly alarming funding situation in UK state schools at the moment.

General Problems

As you’ve heard throughout this talk, a key issue at the heart of the primary assessment debate is pressure. We put our young children through such stressful situations, testing them and grading them and comparing them to a ‘standard’. It’s no wonder that many of them, scoring less highly than they’d perhaps hoped, label themselves internally as failures, which has a lasting impact on their self-perception. How cruel to enable such a thing for no discernible gain, other than to generate some flawed statistics by which to compare and punish schools. However, it suits the ideology of our current Government to ‘measure’ education in this manner, as a simple, quantitative scale of success or failure allows school to compete as business units, trying to outperform each other for potential customers (i.e. parents). Such a ‘market’ model of education is inherently flawed; whatever your views on free-market economics (and I think mine are probably quite clear from the tone of this section), attempting to distil such a complex and nuanced process as education into a few numbers is foolhardy, and the measures being adopted to do so, as we have discussed, are frankly laughable.

What is being done about it?

So what can we do about all of this? Yes, it’s a fairly dire situation, but there is hope. More Than A Score, a coalition of organisations dedicated to fighting Baseline testing, have recently produced Baseline Assessment: Why it doesn’t add up, a paper available on the NEU website that sets out a clear opposition to Baseline assessment, which I strongly recommend you share around as much as you can. Leave the in the staff room, give them to management, build the opposition to Baseline. More Than A Score are also planning a “parent-friendly” event in May, to coincide with a day of action called by the National Childhood Movement, which we will be disseminating the details for as and when they are made available to us. There may also be an event in May or June in conjunction with the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

In terms of SATs, we are in a considerably weaker position. Although opposition to the SATs is widespread, there has not been a coherent boycott movement for some years. It will take some time and effort to build such a movement, but talk to the staff involved in your settings, and any sympathetic management, about measures to mitigate the stress of exams, and to ensure against the narrowing of the curriculum. Try to organise a ‘You Can’t Test This’ day, celebrating skills that are not formally assessed. No doubt SATs opposition will come up again at this year’s NUT Section Annual Conference, and again, we will keep you informed of any developments. In the meantime, your best bet is to try to minimise the impact on pupils’ wellbeing as much as possible, whilst raising awareness about the issues raised in this talk.


In summary, we are stuck in a system where we exert too much pressure on our children too early in their school careers (and lives!), and it is up to us not only to campaign against it, but also to raise awareness amongst our colleagues and the wider school community. If we can build a movement, we can successfully oppose these initiatives. The campaign against Baseline testing in 2015-16 was successful in stopping it, and only similar mass action will improve the lot of teachers, children and families nationwide.


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