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Conor Heaven


  • Experienced Senior Leader and Teacher
  • Specialises in Primary Curriculum and Middle Leadership training
Key Stage,Curriculum

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Think you know this year’s SATs? It might be time to rethink whole school pedagogy

Multiple choice question – this year’s end of KS2 assessments were primarily testing:

a) memory,

b) deduction,

c) thinking in greater depth, or

d) all of the above.

The answer would seem to be all of the above, and we’ll explore that in more depth later.

In this blog post, I take a look at the issue of pupils having to be coached to achieve well in examinations that take up only four days of their Primary School experience. What with the accountability system often leaving schools sweating on their SAT results – it is often the place where attention is given first.

When asked about the importance of outcomes as a key component of Ofsted’s judgement-making, Amanda Spielman replied: “Ofsted … must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. [We should be] looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education – one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.”

This blog post explores how we have ended up in this situation and how schools are moving towards preparing their pupils for success in all aspects of life, not just for passing tests.

Setting the scene: How did schools perform in SATs this year?

Reflecting as Year 6 teachers and leaders of schools, this year’s national data[1] is useful to look at when considering successes this year. As a headline, pupils needed to get more marks in all three tested disciplines to reach the Expected Standard. The rise in percentage of pupils doing this in each discipline, and indeed when scores are combined, inform us that standards are rising nationally.

How can we reflect as schools?

A key question is to ask yourself, as a school leader, “how far WERE we from national last year – and how far ARE we from national this year?”  If you have got closer to, or accelerated away (above) national levels, then your school is progressing well. How as a school are we moving more pupils towards higher outcomes and greater depth? If your pupils have not improved to the same extent national results have, then there might be a cause for investigation, action and re-thinking strategies.

SATs: How did we end up here?

When the new curriculum was initially published with performance descriptors as our only guidelines in assessment, many a teacher was faced with a stark reality: an idea that our classrooms should become teacher-led with a focus on memorising facts and strategies. Messrs Gove and Gibb placed much value on a knowledge-based curriculum. Indeed, the rhetoric continues to inform us that fluency in arithmetic, decoding and identifying parts of a sentence are crucial to improving social mobility. This message is still enhanced through – and forgive my tone here – a potentially damaging, over-emphasis on the importance of enhanced test scores.

2016 and the first sittings of the newly introduced arithmetic and GPS papers demonstrated that in the time available, pupils would have to be able to quickly recall and use formal methods (without error), read quickly and comprehend (without error) and identify grammar (without error).

We work with many schools whose pupils have benefitted from a focus on recalling methods in maths, reading comprehension and grammar identification across all year groups. Teachers are better at teaching in these areas and pupils have spent more quality time learning these skills. However, one thing strikes me as an education consultant. For many schools we work with, it clearly isn’t quite enough. Excellent memory and recall of formal methods does not appear to lend itself well to success in the two reasoning papers. Many schools with pupils achieving very high scores in the GPS papers are not seeing a correlation with greater depth writing.

So should the over-emphasis lie elsewhere?

As opposed to looking for immediate ways to enhance test scores – which can lead to an over-emphasis test preparation – can we learn the lessons from the 2018 SATs and have a healthier over-emphasis on our school curricula and teacher pedagogy?

In the maths papers, over half of the questions tested content from Years 3 – 5. The GPS papers check application of rules that are learnt from year 1 onwards. We need to teach pupils well across the entire school. What is learnt in Year 3 for example, has to be fully retained but pupils must also demonstrate mastery-style behaviours with the concepts, knowledge and skills learnt. Schools need to carefully plot out their curricula, with a thought on pedagogy and knowledge.

Furthermore, the 2018 SATs for Year 6 and the writing assessment statements demonstrate that memory alone of core knowledge, concepts and skills will not be enough. The questions in all papers have moved slightly from simple recall to testing ‘actual fluency’ – an ability to know facts, relationships and information but also to be able to think with it, deduce from it, apply it in a range of situations.

Practical suggestions for schools

Amanda Spielman suggested in October 2017 that “good examination results in and of themselves don’t always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum. In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding.”

I have a sneaky suspicion that the test creators were listening and are getting smarter at planning questions and situations that check whether pupils have this flimsy understanding or actual fluency.

Below are four ways we suggest schools can move towards pupils receiving a rich and full knowledge from a curriculum:

1) Develop clear curriculum structures with thought given to conceptual relationships, and actual fluency based on mastery, with opportunities to use and apply skills across the curriculum sought and used. 

[Extract from TT Education KS2 2018 Reading Paper QLA Review] 


2) In all subjects and from an early age, make explanation, discussion and reasoning a set of core skills that all pupils must develop. They need to have it modelled to them before they practise and finally embed these skills. These processes are the exact same they need to be able to think with naturally.

[GPS SATs 2018 Questions Paper 1 Question 20]


3) Provide challenging situations in which pupils have to apply skills and concepts taught. Question 19 on reasoning paper 3 provides clarity that tests will check if pupils understand the relationships within mathematic concepts.

[Maths SATs 2018 Reasoning Paper 3 Question 19]


4) Ensure that pupils experience concepts, strategies and skills in a variety of ways. This will build up the experiences and frames of reference needed for pupils to connect concepts with new situations. The example below brings absolute clarity that they will be looking for flexible thinking as well as retained knowledge. 

[Maths SATs 2018 Reasoning Paper 2 Question 21]



Conor Heaven is School Improvement Partner at TT Education.

Our SATS Head Start Workshops enable teachers to gain a deeper understanding of your pupils’ experience of the 2018 papers and discover approaches and ideas to overcome any specific issues in preparation for 2019 and beyond. We focus on ways to address barriers to success by nurturing the important skills that children need, not just for SAT, but throughout their entire lives.