The SATs of 2016 were always going to be tough. Before the first Year 6 booster revision session was even timetabled, educators around the UK were coming to terms with the fact that, in the government’s bid to raise standards, their own school standards were going to plummet. Admittedly it wasn’t until the interim assessments were released that we realised just how much of a hit we were all going to take. Ten-year-old children who, in previous years, would have been judged ‘high achieving’ were now going to come out as ‘barely Neanderthal’ if the sample papers were anything to go by. Teachers wept, Heads despaired, parents decided to keep their children away from a school for a day in protest (well, it was a bank holiday). The government stood firm. Well, they gave in a bit, but did so in a jolly stern way that didn’t undermine their stance at all. In the end however it wasn’t the level of challenge of the tests that people remembered.
Let’s remind ourselves of everything that went wrong for the 2016 SATs.
The first leak
Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, the first hint of the oncoming shambles occurred weeks before the first test paper was administered. Whilst uploading a set of sample papers onto the DfE website, a genuine SATs paper was accidentally included and stayed there, bold as brass, for a considerable amount of time. No one really knows whether this was a deliberate attempt to scupper the validity of the KS1 SATs, or, whether it was a genuine mistake. I mean mistakes can happen. Who hasn’t, when uploading a series of important national documents, been unable to tell the difference between the PDF entitled ‘Draft’ and the one labelled ‘Actual proper test do not upload’. It could literally happen to anyone. As it turns out, nobody noticed. Until, that is, the children who were chosen to take the test early, began to notice that they knew the words. Immediately, the teachers knew something was wrong: this test was not meant to include words the children actually knew how to spell. Whistles were blown and we all assumed that it was ‘Game Over’ for these new papers. The government had other plans and, in a carefully thought out statement, suggested that this leak didn’t matter because the tests didn’t matter: they’re only a guide. Of course, what were we worried about? Well, we thought, it’s only one test, it’s only KS1, I’m sure that will be the end of it, plus maybe our children had accidently done it too, result!
There’s always the chance that you’ll get a visitor on the day of a test. If you do, it will most likely be someone who has come to observe you administer the papers. Not to judge your integrity, they just get a kick out of observing heightened security measures. Watch how their breathing quickens as you reveal the safe key from the secret compartment in your shoe. See how they quiver with excitement as you complete the retina scan in order to release the papers from their titanium cell. Hear how they squeal and giggle with pleasure as you slice off the top of the plastic bag and pull out the untouched papers. It is a bit creepy but, if they don’t say that they’re coming back the next day, then you’re doing it wrong. So, yes, you should expect a visitor. What you shouldn’t expect however is for your local postman to rock up ready to collect the completed tests an hour and a half before you’ve even started. And yet, in 2016 this is what happened in many schools across the country. Suddenly, rather than giving last minute bits of exam advice to their children, Heads founds themselves engaged in existential conversations about what came first: the testing or the marking? One school in Glossop allowed the postman to take the untouched papers and were the only school to get 100% causing the national average to rise by 1% which, inadvertently, caused an extra 79 schools to be judged as ‘coasting’.
The giraffe in the room
As soon as the reading paper had been completed news began to spread about the nature of the reading material. The bar had been raised. The opening paragraph was appropriate in word length for 15 year-olds only. Every child cried at some point during the test. Nobody finished it. The texts were elitist and suitable for white middle class English children born in 1823 and the questions, it turned out, had been written by the nation’s favourite know-it-all Gyles Brandreth. All in all, the 2016 reading paper made previous paper, ‘Caves and caving in Davely Dale’, look like it had been written by Shaft.
The second leak
Less of a leak, more like a massive dump on Nick Gibb’s desk. Just in time for the second English paper, an incompetent employee at Pearson had ‘accidently’ uploaded the answers onto their ‘secure and password protected’ website and this had been promptly leaked. At once the DfE responded, saying that this was a malicious attempt to undermine the SATs process. Most Heads missed this statement because they were too busy checking to see if any of their parents were SATs markers this year. Nick Gibb looked about as uncomfortable as he does when he’s trying to identify a subordinating conjunction as he tried to assure everyone that this leak didn’t matter. The leaker, who quickly became known as ‘The rogue marker’ (sounds much cooler) was criticized by pretty much everyone for either leaking in the first place, or, leaking it to a media source who didn’t want to touch it with a barge pole. Why couldn’t this poor man’s Ed Snowden have done the decent thing and put it on Twitter?
Drawing a blank
The Maths Reasoning paper had been going well up until page 18. From then on in it all got rather strange. Pupils were faced with a box at the bottom of a blank page that said ‘This page is blank’. When they turned over to get to the next question they were faced with another blank page. However, this time the box at the bottom read ‘Is this page blank’. Gradually more and more hands went up to ask for help and the adults administering the test had no choice but to pause the test and hold an impromptu meeting in the corner of the room. The only conclusion that could be made was that this was a new type of cross-curricular test that the government had decided to spring on schools without warning. The administrators turned to the children and said that they should treat the text in the box like a punctuation and grammar question. So, all the children began dutifully adding a question mark to the writing in the box, in order for it to be grammatically correct: Is this page blank? Satisfied, the administrators re-started the test and instructed the children to continue. To everyone’s dismay the next page was also blank. In the box at the bottom of this page read the words: ‘Blank page this is.’ Everyone looked at each other, not knowing quite what to do. Finally, someone suggested that if you read it out loud, it sounded a bit like the sort of thing Yoda from Star Wars would say. This didn’t really help but a few children decided to draw a Yoda anyway just to be sure. Soon afterwards the Head came in to collect the papers and everyone decided that it was probably best not to mention anything.
The final leak
Nobody was really surprised that the answers to the arithmetic paper were leaked two hours before the test was meant to begin. This time they had been ‘accidentally’ emailed to all state maintained primary schools. At first these Heads were terribly excited, especially after finding out that most of the children had spent half the time yesterday drawing bloody pictures of Jedi warriors instead of doing any maths, but this excitement soon gave way to suspicion. They checked their twitter feed, Radio 4 and the MailOnline website but there was nothing, apart from breaking news from the Daily Mail that the Duchess of Cambridge had chubby ankles. Nobody was talking about it. This wasn’t right. What finally gave the game away was when Nick Gibb tweeted ‘Nothing going on here #SATs’. It was later reported that all primary schools, yet to become academies, had been sent the leaked mark scheme in the vain hope that it would bolster their standards and make them ‘academy ready’. Nicky Morgan played down the rumour saying that sly politics wasn’t her style and that she preferred a no-nonsense-plough-on-without-asking-questions-and-then-issue-a-full-U-turn approach. Gibb continued to say that the SATs were being sabotaged and that he would issue a full scale inquiry but that the leak didn’t matter and the integrity of the tests had not been compromised. Nobody seemed to notice that the actual arithmetic paper completed by the children was in fact an old key stage one science paper from 2003.
The final insult issued by the 2016 SATs paper was delivered by Royal Mail. In a move that could only be described as petty revenge, for the flack they had received from trying to collect SATs papers before they’d even been opened on day one, they refused to pick up the final maths paper. For weeks these papers sat in school safes, gathering dust, as negotiations between the DfE and Royal Mail failed to reach an agreement. Postmen took the moral high-ground and said that they would not be part of the ‘appalling dismantling of childhood that the SATs represented’. Nicky Morgan was jeered during a Royal Mail conference where her deal, of ten free stamps for every child who got the tricky Venn diagram question correct, was firmly rejected with shouts of ‘Venn not Ten’ which, although not grammatically accurate, still sounded like it could mean something when repeated over and over again in unison. And so the papers were not marked, thresholds measures were cut by a third and half of Raise Online was blank. In the end, a few brave Headteachers ripped open the bags, still sat in the lock-ups, and attempted to mark the papers themselves. Then, using a full range of Sharpie pens, they drew their own graphs and charts which, because of life after levels, was seen by Ofsted to be a good thing, that firmly demonstrated courageous leadership. Soon, everyone was doing it and Nicky Morgan’s prophecy, of no more than a 1% rise in schools failing to meet the expected standard, was proved right.
Yep, 2016 was a funny old year for SATs.