“. . . in the very torrent, tempest, and . . . whirlwind of passion, you must beget and acquire temperance . . .” – Hamlet

The Conservatives’ plan to require re-sits of the KS2 SATs for those who ‘fail’ has prompted a backlash of sizeable proportions. This backlash is powered by some very deep emotions, and it reveals deep divisions in educational thinking, as well as in wider society.

There is a widespread view that SATs testing is a poor instrument for measuring the success of a student’s primary schooling. Suggesting that those who find it most difficult should then be exposed it to for a second, and possibly a third time, is a frustrating – and, for some, infuriating – proposal. This blog post by @DisIdealist, passionately articulating his anger at the injustice he felt it did to his children, went stratospheric, clocking up over 300,000 views in a day.

The post you are reading is not a defence of SATs. It is a comment on the reasons people have given for objecting to the SATS re-sit plan. I am not in favour of the form of current SATs tests. I think that we could do a better job of measuring students’ progress through straightforward, standardised tests in reading, maths, and spelling – and probably writing if we wanted to.

Having said that, it is apparent that at age eleven or even ten, the tests do not have to be seen as high stakes for students. The blame for the anxiety that parents and children feel lies squarely with schools and teachers, who have perpetuated a narrative that SATs are evil because of their emotional impact – a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves the schools’ needs to meet targets.

Back to the backlash. For example, this post opposed the re-sits idea by posing the analogy of a child being asked to tidy their room. There might be many reasons, the writer mused, why a child might not do this. Should they then be prevented from playing until it was done? I found her reasoning alarming, not least because I would have expected her to realise that an analogy is not an argument.

Then there is the analogy itself. The writer provided (by my count) fourteen reasons why a child might not tidy up their room. None of these reasons seemed to me to be a justification for not teaching them to do so. Is it reasonable for a parent to accept that a child hasn’t taken responsibility for an age-appropriate task (presumably the analogy is still being applied to eleven-year-olds) and not to do something about it? If the child is allowed to go out to play, what happens to the room? Does the parent tidy it up instead? What does this teach the child? There is an implicit idea that even logical consequences are a punishment, and therefore should be avoided. Is it an intentional consequence to communicate that such irresponsibility is perfectly OK?

Lastly, and most concerning for me, everything was considered but improving the quality of the training. At no stage was there any suggestion that the parent might have a responsibility to prepare the child better, and so to ensure that he or she is successful. I doubt that she meant it this way, but the piece was wide open to the criticism that the list of reasons actually amounted to excuses, since the parent could have made appropriate responses to any of them, but apparently stood by helpless – before, presumably, tidying up the room herself.

But of course the real issue is not tidying a room, but checking whether the child has developed certain reading, writing and mathematical competencies that are essential to success at secondary school. The role of the parent in the analogy above is in reality that of the teacher, who is accountable for ensuring that the student has developed these competencies. There seems to be a widespread consensus that some children must inevitably fail, without any suggestion that the teacher might have done something different. It seems much more acceptable to define the activity at which they failed as unfair.

This seems to be the tenor of the Disappointed Idealist post that struck such a chord. (For the purposes of this post, I am not focusing on the writer’s vitriol for those with whom he disagrees politically. But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, or that the acquiescence to this – even celebration of it – by his readers isn’t alarming.)

The writer’s rage was prompted by the inference, presumably drawn from the Telegraph article that he used to illustrate the piece, that his children would be ‘mediocre failures’. What the Telegraph actually quoted was ‘zero tolerance for mediocrity and failure’. The statement was about mediocrity and failure of schools, not children. No politician in their right mind, not even a Tory education minister, would use such language about children in the middle of an election campaign. But no matter – the damage was done, the outburst was made, and a flood of sympathy – or rather, antipathy – crashed over the internet.

The writer said much in praise of his children’s school, but this also is troubling. How is it that both parents and teachers have such limited expectations – NOT of children, but of our teaching? Why do we think that being ‘endlessly patient’ is a virtue, when what we are doing is clearly not working? Would you want your doctor to be ‘patient’ if they were not resolving a health problem? Would you want your car mechanic to be ‘endlessly patient’ while they kept tinkering without success? We may not pay the bills directly in state education, but we are paying – not just through taxes, but through the consequences our children experience for OUR failure to teach them well.

At this point, some readers may be feeling offended or dismissive. Am I really suggesting that it is possible to teach all children? Surely there must be an acceptance that some children are not up to the challenge? And isn’t this just support for the Tories?*

It is possible to teach nearly all children to read, write and do mathematics effectively (Binder, 2003). Dr Louisa Moats (1999) puts it this way: “Thanks to new scientific research—plus a long awaited scientific and political consensus around this research—the knowledge exists to teach all but a handful of severely disabled children to read well.” I recognize that the culture in the UK has been to smother anything that can be ascribed as a learning difficulty under a large ‘SEN’ label, but the bloating of the SEN register to 27% of the country utterly discredited that practice. And if it’s now possible to teach children to read whose characteristics were considered ineducable forty years ago, what about ‘regular’ children? Don’t they all have a right to effective teaching?

Are all children up to the challenge? It depends on whether we know enough effective ways of teaching them. All teachers should have a repertoire, but the practices in this repertoire must be effective and teachers must know what they should do when one approach isn’t working. Just trying something else isn’t sufficient. And nor is compensating for the problem, with coloured overlays, large print, dumbed-down language and simpler vocabulary. Like tidying the child’s room for them, we are just putting off the problem, and it will be harder to fix in the future. Unlike tidying a child’s room, the level of technical expertise required of the adult is significantly greater. It is the kind of teaching, not the compassion of the teachers, that needs attention.

And so my question is, why are we angry at the Conservatives for suggesting that we teach our children well? Is it really punishing children to insist that schools do something – something effective – if we know that there is a problem?

While I don’t think SATs are the right way to go, we need to hold schools to account for progress in such essential skills. At the moment secondary schools are completely off the hook for five years. To the extent that they have to do something about the problems that they say they inherit from primary schools, checking on progress in Year 7 is a good thing. Just don’t waste everyone’s time by trying to do it with SATs.

I applaud the passion of the Disappointed Idealist. We need parents who can articulate empathy and indignation on behalf of their children. But I would be happier if he – and the thousands who cheered him on – were directing their anger at the education establishment’s assumption that we will always have children who fail. It’s a false assumption, as is the emotional caricature that those advocating for more accountability for children’s progress care less about the children. I have worked with SEN long enough to know that the most deadly poison is sympathy. It kills by paralysis. Perhaps we should temper our passion in order to learn – and fight for – practices that will ensure success for all children.

* No, it’s not. I’m equally appalled by Nicky Morgan and Tristram Hunt.


Binder, C. (2003) Doesn’t Everybody Need Fluency? (March 2003)

Moats, L. (1999) Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science. American Federation of Teachers.


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11 Responses to Passion

  1. Chris says:

    I’m Not angry at the Tories for suggesting we teach them well, I’m angry at them for using the word failure (as Nicky Morgan did), and for the inference that sec schools need an accountability test because they happily achieve bugger all in year 7, and for the idea that SATS have a pass mark, and all children must learn at the same rate, and that the statistically engineered bottom 100,000 are somehow nothing to do with the testing mechanism, they are just the 100,000 that have failed. And.. And..

    • I think I’ve been explicit in the post re the ineffectiveness of SATs tests. I understand that the students at the bottom can be viewed as an engineered statistic. But as a teacher I know when a child can’t read or write properly, and that’s nothing to do with a national testing mechanism. How can this be acceptable after six years of education? I’ve been in enough schools to know that the prevailing view is that these children are ‘limited’ and people don’t expect much of them. But they can learn these skills if we make the necessary changes to our teaching. In my view, secondary schools *do* need an accountability measure at Y7 because they are doing very little that is effective to help students at the lower end. (Such a measure could also form a baseline for evaluating later progress).

  2. chemistrypoet says:

    I always find that your writing, like that of Disappointed Idealist, is suffused with deep passion for education. I do have concerns that the idea to conduct re-sits of the SATs is an election soundbite, designed to signal a political point (pretty much the one you give above: that the Conservatives want to have children taught well), and is not a helpful development. As you too admit, the SATs are not the appropriate vehicle. The wider point which you raise, about what we should expect primary schools to achieve with respect to children leaving Year6, is more important. I do think that there is a danger of the rhetoric currently employed leading to children being branded as failures, and the SATs re-sit proposal also gives another stick to beat teachers and schools with.

    We must decide what appropiate achievement levels are for children leaving Year6 before we even think to start to create sticks to beat people with. I am no way convinced that we know this yet….I have certainly not seen it articulated in a convicing manner. The last Government focussed on schools as ‘the problem’, and pushed the system into an accountability-led workload fiasco. Time for a system-wide re-think.

    Disappointed Idealist has a specific situation which drives his passion….and I am not convinced that this extrapolates into the general situation. But he does raise an important set of considerations about how we view the wide sweep of children and their educational progress; to which I don’t think we yet have a satisfactory answer.

  3. Michael Tidd says:

    As ever, some bad arguments against a bad policy could lead others into thinking that it is a good policy. Let us not fall into that trap here.
    If the problem is the failure of primary education (and I use that term recognising that it sounds incendiary) then ought not the focus be on improving that, rather than simply adding in another test to see if secondary schools have continued to fail in the same way?
    As you rightly say, it should be a matter of improving educational experience for those who are currently falling short of expected levels of attainment, and this announcement did nothing to achieve that. Bad policy.

  4. Nicola says:

    I am so pleased that you have addressed the large number of blogs that quite rightly, did not support resits of the SAT examination, but failed to address the accepted failure of a large group of children. I am sure it was not intended, but it felt like a shift to a two tier education system.
    Disappointed Idealist wrote an eloquent piece about the pain of his children being forced to fit into an education system that was not fit for purpose, for them. He felt that his children had received support and nurture at school which had allowed them to make progress, but not necessarily allowed them to find or develop their strengths out side of the main academic focus of the SAT examination. He was perhaps lucky to have such a school for his children to attend. Twitter is full of teachers who think deeply about what they do and want to share best practice. Does this not give a false sense of teachers beliefs? It was interesting how quickly there became a division of opinion between primary and secondary teachers following the initial blog post. But could this not be due to the huge difference between the best practices that edutwitter employ and what the majority of the teaching profession deliver? I realise that this is a strong claim, but there has been interesting researching looking at how effective training is in getting teachers to deliver an evidence based teaching strategy to an adequate standard.
    I would not wish for any child to be given ‘sympathy’ and prevented from taking an academic route through education because of a preconceived expectation. A failure to address teachers beliefs about what is achievable.
    Your writing is asking difficult questions of the profession. Asking what should we be aiming for, before considering how do we get there. This is what twitter does so well, but does this depth of consideration reach the rest of the profession?

    • Thank you for this. You are making an insightful distinction between the more pro-active bloggers and tweeters, and others who perhaps hold more entrenched views. I don’t know, of course, how much we can make of that distinction, but it seems to me it is there. This episode does perhaps demonstrate that teaching is highly politicised and not nearly as reflective as we would like to think.

      One of the unsettling things about the SATS issue is the vitriol that has been directed at its (Tory) proponents. I am not a Tory, but I don’t feel comfortable working in a profession that would be horrified at this sort of language being used against any other group in society, but finds it is not only acquiescent but supportive of it here.

      Thanks for making me think more about all this.

  5. I had an exchange on a TES forum the other day with people expressing a similar view, that some set percentage of children were bound to fail, and that nothing could be done about this situation. I pointed out that since the literacy strategy was replaced by systematic phonics tuition, the number of SEN children “passing” the key stage 1 SATS reading comprehension test had risen by 8 percentage points in 3 years.

    My point was greeted with outrage and hostility, and a blanket refusal by those present to even consider that explicit phonics teaching might be a good thing for children with SEN. I get the same reaction when I post those figures on the Guardian education forums (where Disidealist and many like-minded teachers hang out).

    What disturbs me is that teachers almost universally blame their problems with overwork and stress solely on unwarranted government “meddling”. There is a determined blindness to the possibility that micromanagement and inspection – hamfisted and counterproductive as it often is – might have its real origin in the determined refusal of progressive and constructivist teaching academics to look widely at the evidence on issues like phonics, or how best to teach maths, and to share it with their trainees.

    Many teachers seem determined to believe that the teaching methods currently in use in primary schools are unquestionably the best possible, and that any lack of success is therefore down to irremediable problems with the children themselves, their families, or society as a whole. In contrast, doctors are taught that “best practice” is always PROVISIONAL, and that they should expect to change their practices, sometimes quite radically, when new evidence comes along.

    • Thanks – your comments are very insightful. I have encountered a few similar comments blaming everything but the teaching, as if we have nothing to learn. As you say, we should always be ready to examine and shift our practice, on the basis of good evidence not fads. I’ve also had comments expressing great frustration at ‘external accountability’. Having experienced some versions of external inspection that were shoddy to say the least, I can sympathise. But if we want a fair system then everyone has to accept that being measured is part of the rules, like issuing driving licences and regulating doctors. If along with accountability, we had support rather than chastisement, we might more progress in education because people would be less scared of scrutiny.

      Your comment about how phonics is changing things is encouraging! Just a shame that people are so resistant to something evidently useful.

  6. Pingback: “Squaring The Circle” Or Lukewarm Water? The Disappointed Idealist vs. Horatio Speaks Affair | e=mc2andallthat

  7. Excellent thoughtful, reflective post. E D Hirsch points out in ‘The Knowledge Deficit’ that objective multiple choice tests every year are the only way of really holding schools accountable. Not sure how many British teachers would welcome that! He also points out that it is ineffective and anti-educational to spend time explicitly preparing pupils for general tests of reading. Instead, we must focus on giving them a good general education, and their reading comprehension will improve as their general knowledge does.

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