Testing the claims on SATs

10 April 2015

The Conservatives announced today that if elected they would introduce a requirement for 11 year olds to resit their SATs in their first year of secondary school if they don't achieve a "good" pass at the end of primary school.

Their reasoning?

"Department for Education Statistics show that around 100,000 young people fail to reach the expected standard in English and Maths at age 11. Of these children, only 7% go on to get five good GCSEs including English and Maths — compared to 72% of their classmates who do make the grade." (Conservative press release)

These proportions are accurate for the year group that finished their GCSEs in 2013. The provisional figures for 2014 suggest the proportion of these under-performing children getting five good GCSEs now might be a bit lower. Changes to the way in which GCSE results are measured have affected this.

The 2013 GCSE year group are pupils who took their SATs in 2008, when around 160,000 students failed to achieve the expected level 4 or above in both English and maths. The 'around 100,000' figure is more reflective of those who took their SATs in 2014 (the most recent year group for which we have statistics), when around 120,000 failed to achieve this level in reading, writing and maths.

"Under Labour one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly, thanks to our reforms and teachers' hard work we've seen that fall just to one in five."  (Conservative press release)

It's not possible to compare reading, writing and maths performance at age 11 under the Coalition to under the last Labour government. Reading and writing have been tested in a different way since 2012, so we can't compare back to test results before then. For example, teachers now mark the writing tests themselves rather than sending them off for external marking.

So while the one in three and the one in five figures are accurate (it was 36% in 2010 and 21% in 2014), it's not possible to say that this represents a fall. The debate is also in what "properly" means—see our earlier piece on this.

The Labour party claimed in response to the Conservatives' plans:

"On their watch, 1.6 million pupils are being educated in schools that are rated lower than 'good' by Ofsted."

They're right, 1.33 million children are being taught in state-funded schools rated as requiring improvement (or satisfactory) at their last inspection by Ofsted, and 0.24 million are in schools rated inadequate.

This is an apparent improvement since August 2010 though, when there were 2.5 million pupils in schools judged satisfactory or inadequate. However, the Ofsted inspection framework changed in 2012, replacing the 'satisfactory' grading with the 'requires improvement' grade. Ofsted focused on re-inspecting schools achieving the satisfactory grade after the framework was introduced. This has led some commentators to question how much we can compare back before then.

The Liberal Democrats meanwhile claimed:

"The Tories' plan for devastating cuts to education budgets means they have no credibility on school standards."

The Conservatives have committed to protecting school spending per pupil in cash terms. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have committed to protecting the education budget for ages 3 to 19 in real terms, (that is, adjusted for inflation).

In practice, the commitments may imply similar overall funding for schools, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It said if the spending increases under a Labour or Liberal Democrat government were allocated equally across all areas of education policy (and assuming the real terms protection was only just met), the three parties' plans would have similar effects on the budget for schools.

But the IFS says that, combined with plans for 2015-16, each of these commitments could imply real-terms cuts to school spending per head of 7% between 2015-16 and 2019-20. That increases to 9% if you account for increases to National Insurance and pension contributions, and to 12% if you account for the Office for Budget Responsibility's assumptions for growth in public sector earnings.

The area where the IFS says there are clear differences in funding proposals is for areas like 16-19 education which it says has seen large cuts over the last Parliament—and which both the Lib Dems and Labour have said they'd protect.

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