National Curriculum assessments are a series of educational assessments, colloquially known as Sats[1] or SATs,[2] used to assess the attainment of children attending state schools in England. They comprise a mixture of teacher-led and test-based assessment depending on the age of the pupils. Due to widespread "teaching to the test", and cheating by teachers and pupils, the test results are unreliable and their use is detrimental to childrens' education. At the 2003 National Association of Head Teachers' (NAHT) conference, delegates condemned SATs as "a crime against children".[3]


The terminology used for the assessments varies both in type and context. Where assessments are made in-school by class teachers, these are referred to as Teacher Assessments. These assessments make up part of the final assessment at the end of all Key Stages.[4]

Where assessment is completed through testing, these assessments are known as National Curriculum Tests.[5]

Colloquially the assessments - particularly in the test form - are referred to as SATs. This terminology is rooted in the original intention to introduce Standard Assessment Tasks when the assessments were first introduced.[6] The term is variously believed to stand for Statutory Assessment Tests[7], Standard Attainment Tests[8] and Standard Assessment Tests.[2] Delegates at the 2003 NAHT conference said it should stand for "Senseless Activities for Traumatised Students".[3]


In England, data collected from the assessments at all three key stages are published nationally in performance tables produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families[9] alongside data for secondary schools relating to performance at Key Stage 4.

Criticisms Edit

Like many tests of this nature, the assessments have been subject to a variety of criticism. Two of the most commonly raised points of concern are that they place children under constant stress for their whole academic lives, and that the principal purpose of national curriculum testing is for school league tables.[10]

In its 2008 report into National Testing, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families registered its concern with the current testing arrangements in state schools. It raised concerns that the "professional abilities of teachers" were under-used and that the high-stakes nature of the tests led to "phenomena such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and focusing disproportionate resources on borderline pupils." They further recommended that the multiple uses of National Curriculum assessment - for local accountability, national monitoring, and individual progress measurement - be separated into different forms of assessment.[11]


Less widely publicised is the amount of cheating that takes place.

  • In 2001, 11 primary schools had their results annulled after investigations by officials revealed they could not be sure the pupils' work was their own.[12]
  • In 2002 a primary head teacher who had admitted altering answers in the previous year's SATs received only a reprimand and was allowed to continue in her role.[12]
  • In 2002 primary school headteacher David Hopkins resigned from Whiteknights Primary School in Reading, Berkshire after it was discovered he encouraged his pupils to cheat and change their answers in their Sats tests.[13]
  • In 2003 Alan Mercer, a primary school head teacher, was jailed for 3 months for forging test papers for his 11 year old pupils in Maidstone, Kent. Investigation revealed he had cheated the tests at his previous school also.
  • In 2007 St Charles' Catholic Primary School in Liverpool, Brockswood Primary School in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, St Bernadette's Roman Catholic Primary School in St Albans and Springfield Community Primary in Hackney, north London, were stripped of results in English, maths and science, after an inquiry uncovered "malpractice" in the tests taken by 11-year-olds.[14]
  • In 2007 William Cowper Primary School in Birmingham had its English results annulled because of cheating.[14]

Test papers are sent to schools well ahead of the exam dates and although the envelopes are sealed, the chances of them being checked are slight. Teachers involved in marking test papers also have advance knowledge of test questions. This opens another potential avenue for cheating. Sitting less able children next to brighter ones, and allowing them to copy, is another tactic used. Some children are given extra time or allowed to mix with others who have already completed the tests. Another tactic used is to leave visual aids in the classroom while tests are taking place.[12]

One primary school teacher wrote:

I am an experienced teacher who has gathered testimony in several areas of England showing that cheating by schools in the SATs is widespread. Most of those children do not realise that teachers - who test their own class behind closed doors - are doing anything wrong. Some teachers and parents have complained to the local education authorities and the exam watchdog but the authorities do nothing to tighten the system because they are trying to satisfy government targets.[15]


  1. Sats for 14-year-olds abolished: Teachers and parents praise decision
  2. 2.0 2.1 Headteacher welcomes end of SATs
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cheating head blames test stress. BBC News. 7 May 2003. Retrieved 13 March 2009.
  4. National Curriculum teacher assessments and key stage tests. DirectGov website. H M Government. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  5. Tests and tasks: National Curriculum Tests. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  6. Kirkup, C; Sizmur, J., Sturman, L., Lewis, K. (2005) Schools’ Use of Data in Teaching and Learning. London: Department for Education and Skills / NFER. p. 27.
  7. SAT Exams. West Sussex County Council. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  8. The Standards Site: Online Help. Department for Children, Schools and Families. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  9. School and college achievement and attainment tables. Department for Children, Schools and Families.
  10. Fresh criticism for Sats. SFS Group. Retrieved 31 May 2008.
  11. Conclusions and Recommendations. Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Third Report. Retrieved 31 May 2008.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Baker, Mike. What makes teachers cheat. BBC News. 15 June 2002. Retrieved 13 March 2009.
  13. Headteacher found guilty over cheating. Telegraph. Retrieved 13 March 2009.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Test pressure 'driving schools to cheat'. Independent Television News. 6 December 2007. Retrieved 13 March 2009.
  15. Bunting, Madeleine. "Willing Slaves" (London: Harper Perennial; 2005) p.127 ISBN 0-0071-6372-X

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