Thousands of primary schools' rankings upended by new Sats

School leaders say volatile results have vindicated their concerns over rushed implementation of tough new exams

Thousands of primary schools across England, along with local authorities, have seen their league table positions upended as a result of tough new exams last summer, with school leaders saying the volatile results have vindicated their concerns over rushed implementation.

The official statistics published on Thursday bear out predictions that the new standardised tests, Sats, for 11-year-olds at the end of primary school would be disruptive. Many schools stumbled while adjusting to the more challenging tests for reading, writing and maths but with many still managing to show good progress among their pupils.

At local authority level the new exams have shaken up positions compared with the previous system, with the distribution of results resulting in fewer areas receiving top results, and many more clustered around the national average.

Redcar and Cleveland’s position dropped from sixth in the country in 2015 to 22nd this year, while Hounslow fell from 11th to 26th. St Helens tumbled from 33rd to 84th, but Sunderland rose to 18th compared with 35th last year.


Despite the tougher tests many headteachers will be relieved that fewer schools than feared have fallen below the government’s new two-pronged floor standard. Just 665 out of 13,000 eligible schools – 5% of the total - failed to meet the official benchmarks for results or progress, fewer than the 676 that failed to meet the previous standard in 2015.

Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, bluntly dismissed the results: “This data is not worth the paper it is written on,” he said. “This year we saw the Sats system descend into chaos and confusion. Delayed and obscure guidance, papers leaked online, mistakes in test papers and inconsistent moderation made this year unmanageable for school leaders, teachers, parents and pupils.

“We warned the government that publishing this data in league tables could lead the public and parents to make poor judgments about a school’s performance but it has still chosen to do so.”

But Nick Gibb, the schools minister, defended the new system, based on the more demanding national curriculum introduced two years previously.

He said: “This year’s Sats are the first that test the new primary school curriculum in English and maths that we introduced in 2014. This new curriculum raises expectations and ensures pupils become more accomplished readers and are fluent in the basics of arithmetic.

“Many schools have responded well to this more rigorous curriculum, supporting their pupils to be leaving primary school better prepared for the demands of secondary school.”

The results from the Department for Education, which rank schools based on their key stage 2 results, show many previously high-performing schools falling below the government’s floor target of a 65% pass rate, while more than two out of three overall also failed to reach the exam floor standard.

In most cases the schools were saved from facing government sanctions, including academisation or management change, by the improvement in their pupils results compared with the same year group’s performance in earlier key stage one exams.

While many high-performing primary schools continued to do well, the new tests shuffled the order dramatically in some cases. Elham Church of England primary in Canterbury went from a perfect 100% in 2015 to a respectable 76% this year, and Whitefriars school in Harrow, north-west London, dipped from 98% under the old system to 77%.

In some cases, schools that had been well below the government’s 65% floor target last year rocketed up. Hill Avenue school in Wolverhampton went from 55% to 81%, and St Bartholomew’s primary in Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire, leapt from 40% to 78%.

Under the DfE’s new two-pronged assessment system, schools must either achieve 65% or more in attainment in reading, writing and maths exams, or they must demonstrate a sufficient rate of progress in the results achieved by their pupils in the three subjects.

Hobby said: “Parents should not be distracted by the 65% attainment benchmark, which is based on badly designed and rapidly changing tests.” He called for the government do a better job at explaining the new assessment system.

Because of concerns before the exams, the DfE had already promised to limit the rise in the proportion of schools falling below the target to a 1% increase. But the results meant it was not required to use the cap.

One of the worst performing schools in the country, the Steiner academy in Frome, Somerset, was able to avoid the DfE’s sanctions despite just one of its 27 pupils getting pass marks in the three tests.

Because the free school, which adheres to the unorthodox Steiner education principles of not teaching pupils to read or write until the age of seven, did not take part in the earlier key stage 1 tests, it was not required to meet the floor standard.

Just 47 schools managed a perfect pass rate, including a number of small rural schools. Of those closer in size to the national average, Tennyson Road school in Luton got 100%, while Scotts school in Havering and Lower Kersal school in Salford got 100% pass rates and showed remarkable rates of progress in reading.

The 2016 key stage 2 tests also included a new exam on spelling and grammar, which was exposed online by the DfE’s contractor. A similar test for key stage 1 pupils was accidentally posted online by the DfE.


Richard Adams and Helena Bengtsson

The GuardianTramp

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