Institute of Education


Primary headteachers condemn the negative effect of SATs on pupils’ wellbeing

21 September 2019

Over 80% of headteachers agree that SATs have a negative effect on pupils’ wellbeing, new research by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) reveals.

Primary school girl in orange

A survey of 288 primary school headteachers and 20 in-depth interviews were conducted by Dr Alice Bradbury for the campaign group More Than A Score from March - June 2019. Her findings reveal the high-stakes nature of SATs - tests taken by 10- and 11-year-olds in schools in England - is at the heart of much of the criticism. 

Dr Bradbury concludes, “For many headteachers, SATs are an indication of a system which has the wrong priorities, with negative effects on children, teachers and the curriculum and pedagogy.” 

According to the headteachers, preparation for SATs, and the tests themselves, have negative effects across all year groups, not just Year 6. Ninety per cent of respondents indicated that the curriculum is narrowed to prepare for the tests in Year 6 and 52% agreed it was narrowed in other year groups too. One head commented that “preparation starts as soon as the three-year-olds step through the door” while another said the curriculum is “strait-jacketed by the need to prepare the children for the tests.”

Almost three-quarters of heads (74%) admitted to ‘teaching to the test’ with one head commenting:

“For those children in year 6 […] it’s intense, it’s grotty. It’s just reading, writing, maths, pretty much and I wouldn’t choose that for any child, particularly if they’re not very good at reading and writing and maths. It’s fairly horrendous for them to have to do that all day, every day […] In an ideal world I would not want to ever put a child through this.”

The report also acknowledges the varying levels of preparation undertaken by schools. Test preparation varies widely and is based on a variety of factors including a school’s current Ofsted rating; the socio-demographics of their location or parents’ expectations. In many heads’ views, this leads to a ‘gaming’ of the system and raises questions about the reliability of the test data.

Impact on teachers

Nearly all heads questioned (99%) agree that SATs put pressure on teachers. The con-sequences of this can include the rise of the specialist Year 6 teacher, a role which demands specific skills and experience. This can create a hierarchy of teachers, with Year 6 being the highest status but also the most pressured year group. 

Many heads also commented on a biased allocation of resources towards Year 6. One said, when it comes to Year 6, “basically I just throw all the staff there”.

Another participant said:

“When we look at staffing, the starting point is Year 6 and you want strong teachers in there. So, the demands of the curriculum now means you’ve got to have really strong and intelligent, able teachers in that year group.”

Changes to SATs

Additionally, an overwhelming majority of heads are critical of the changes made to the content of Key Stage 2 SATs in 2016: 91% believe that they have not improved the assessment.

One headteacher said:

“Despite format changes, they have not added to our knowledge of what the pupils can and cannot do and whether they are prepared for coping in Year 7 and beyond.”

There were also specific comments about the content of the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test (or GPS or SPaG) and the removal of the ‘calculator paper’ from the maths test, which was seen by many as ‘a backward step’.

Sara Tomlinson, a spokesperson for campaign group, More Than A Score, said: 

“The stakes around primary assessment are so high that the negative effects are inevitable. It’s wrong to test 10- and 11-year-olds under exam conditions and it’s unjust to use those results to measure a school’s performance as a whole. It’s time for the government to listen to those who know children and schools best and put an end to this broken system.”