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SATs won't teach British children the skills they really need

Cambridge scientist Andrew Holding says new tests are "an easy box-ticking exercise to satisfy a political need"

On Monday, nearly exactly six years after Michael Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Education, children all over the country will be the first students to be assessed on the new Key Stage 2 curriculum that his reforms set in motion.

His successor Nicky Morgan promotes the idea that the shift from a skills-based curriculum to a knowledge-based one will raise standards and reduce inequality. This is rooted in the philosophy of E D Hirsch, a US professor, who noted that students from less-advantaged levels struggled to understand with key concepts in university courses despite good skills such as literacy. 

In short, he rationalised that the differences in ability was due to a missing core knowledge and that those from a more privileged background succeed by what they learnt in their home environment. The new curriculum embraces this thesis, claiming to fix inequality by instilling all children with a single rigorous core set of knowledge.

While there is value in Hirsch’s theory, there are few things worse to use as the sole basis of a national curriculum. Education should be about providing children with the skills needed to discover what interests them, to form their own world view, not to homogenise everyone. A core knowledge can form part of the curriculum and would meet their supposed aims, but it shouldn't dominate. As a scientist I know all too well of the failings of a deficit model, explaining away any external challenges you face by the lack of understanding of others. There is an inherent conceit in any such practice, believing if only others knew more of what you did, things would improve. Instead, the best method is to work on making the discussion relevant and to engage with other communities. Give the teachers freedom to choose the topics to engage with their classes and the communities that they represent, and then through that provide skills that children need.

"Knowledge is a basis, but it tells me nothing of how you learn"

Further it’s a bad metric for testing the quality of teaching. The kind of knowledge-based attainment exercise that the SATs represent isn’t what will give students equality. It provides an easy box-ticking exercise to satisfy a political need, but is knowing how many 11-year olds recognise the subjunctive case really an appropriate target?

I too have to assess students, balancing what is a good measure of ability. For the last two years, one of my roles has been to interview candidates who wish to study Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. I’m not just looking for those with the highest grades or the greatest knowledge. Knowledge is a basis, a ground work to build on, but it tells me nothing of how you learn. To me, what really defines an exceptional candidate is how they succeed outside their knowledge base.

It’s not long into the process as the interviewer that you meet the candidate who’s been coached, given extension lessons, had a personal tutor, and can give you stock answers to questions well beyond the syllabus.

It’s impressive to a point, but all it tells the interviewer is that you may have had opportunities that others haven’t.

What I need to see is the moment we step outside your learnt knowledge and how you then respond. The point at which that happens is different for everyone depending on the syllabus, their background and experience. This is when candidates can show their potential: some will start probing with questions, others will rationalise based on what they already know.

Even if someone makes a mistake under stress, there is always the opportunity to discuss it and build on it. There is no right or wrong answer; it’s the presence of that process of learning that is so important.

For the final exams of my degree in chemistry, I had to memorise every element of the periodic table; yet I suspect a week after the exams, I had already forgotten half of it. My ability to cram improved my result, but it achieved nothing for my education. The same is true for an environment of rote learning with a sole focus on attainment. It doesn’t matter if the student is an undergraduate or a Year 6 pupil; once they leave that environment they will start to plateau, while those who have developed the skills to build an understanding of a subject will blossom.

What I’m supporting here isn’t even radically new. Bloom’s taxonomy of learning was published in 1954 and placed knowledge at the base of learning: a foundation to build upon, not to focus around and not the finishing point. Our ability at analysing and evaluating the arguments put before us are far more reflective on the success of education.

"I will defend teachers when they oppose the reforms and the over-testing of children"

This is why I will defend teachers when they oppose the reforms and the over-testing of children. My eldest daughter is at the start of her primary education, in a school at which I am now a governor. Watching her journey is an eye opener. What I have seen from monitoring the school is far better than my own education. Teachers follow detailed lesson plans with scope to recognise that different children may excel at different topics. Children with learning difficulties are provided specific plans and targets with a clear outline of the support that is required. Despite this “softer” learning environment, when I look through my own exercise books that my parents recently cleared from their loft, all the students at my daughter’s school are far ahead of anything I achieved at that age. I was staggered to see how far education has progressed. Gove’s “core curriculum” is the antithesis of this, and the pressures linked to SATs only further focus education on short-term goals over the child’s future.

Do not underestimate the damage the new curriculum and its assessment is doing to the their childhood.  Recently at a governor’s training event, I heard teaching professionals voice their concerns that in trying to meet the new targets schools are starting to move more rigid learning into early years learning, an age where best outcomes for children are through structured play.

In March, when Nicky Morgan spoke on her vision for education at King’s College School of Mathematics, she quoted Michael Barber and Joel Klein saying: “You can mandate adequacy but you cannot mandate greatness; it has to be unleashed.” I agree you can’t mandate greatness, but being able to identify a subordinating conjunction at Year 6 doesn’t unleash it. What unleashes it is empowering people to command their own education, to give them the tools they need to study what matters to them.

If we want the UK to have the best education system then we need to support individuality. Great minds have never been conformists. Teach people to teach themselves and it will be their own interests that will drive them to success.

Dr Andrew Holding is a Fellow in Biochemistry of Downing College, University of Cambridge and a Senior Research Associate at the CRUK Cambridge Institute researching the mechanisms behind breast cancer. Andrew has worked with many organisations, including The Guardian and the BBC, to engage the public on science as well as feminism, education and religion.