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Exam Factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people

The impact of accountability measures
on children and young people
Research commissioned by the National Union of Teachers
Merryn Hutchings Emeritus Professor, London Metropolitan University
This research investigates the impact on children of the
approach to accountability being pursued in England.
Teachers expect to be accountable: but in ways which are
sensible, proportionate and which benefit children’s
education. This is not the case in English schools.
Getting accountability measures to operate in the right
way is vital because targets drive behaviour within the
system. Targets determine how teacher time is deployed,
and teacher time is valuable.
This independent study by Professor Hutchings uncovers how the
accountability agenda in England has changed the nature of education in
wide ranging and harmful ways. It is not serving the interests of children
and young people and is undermining their right to a balanced, creative and
rewarding curriculum. It is an approach which is cultivating extreme
pressure in both the primary and secondary sector and risks turning
schools into ‘exam factories’.
The findings about the experiences and concerns of children and young
people are shocking and sometimes upsetting. The study exposes the
reduction in the quality of teacher-pupil interaction; the loss of flexibility and
lack of time for teachers to respond to children as individuals; the growing
pressure on children to do things before they are ready; and the focus on a
narrower range of subjects.
Teachers object passionately to the accountability agenda imposed on
them because of the consequences that flow from it. These are undermining
creative teaching and generating labels which limit students' learning.
Crucially, they also threaten children's self-esteem, confidence and mental
It does not have to be like this. There are much better ways to construct
school accountability. Countries such as Finland, Canada and Scotland
do it very differently.
I hope that, after reading this report, you will work with us to use this
evidence as a platform for change. We need better and fairer ways to
evaluate what happens in schools, what works, and what matters.
I urge politicians and everyone involved in education policy to act without
delay to ensure that the needs of children and young people are not ignored.
Christine Blower
NUT General Secretary
The research team ________________________________________________________________________ 2
Acknowledgements _______________________________________________________________________ 2
Executive summary _______________________________________________________________________ 3
Recommendations ________________________________________________________________________ 7
Abbreviations and Glossary ________________________________________________________________ 8
1 Introduction __________________________________________________________________________ 9
1.1 Accountability in schools ________________________________________________________ 10
1.2 Research design________________________________________________________________ 13
2 School leaders’, teachers’ and pupils’ views of accountability structures ____________________ 15
2.1 School leaders’ and teachers’ views_______________________________________________ 16
2.2 Pupils’ views of Ofsted__________________________________________________________ 18
3 School strategies for accountability_____________________________________________________ 21
3.1 Scrutiny and greater uniformity of practice _________________________________________ 23
3.2 Collection and use of data _______________________________________________________ 25
3.3 Curriculum strategies ___________________________________________________________ 27
3.4 Additional teaching _____________________________________________________________ 28
3.5 Strategies used in special schools ________________________________________________ 29
3.6 Strategies for accountability: summary ____________________________________________ 29
4 The impact of accountability measures on school leaders and teachers _____________________ 31
5 The impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning ___________________________________________________ 33
5.1 Introduction____________________________________________________________________ 34
5.2 Impact on choice of schools _____________________________________________________ 34
5.3 Impact on attainment ___________________________________________________________ 34
5.4 Impact on curriculum____________________________________________________________ 40
5.5 Impact on teaching and learning __________________________________________________ 46
6 The impacts of accountability measures on teacher-pupil relationships and
pupils’ emotional health and well-being _________________________________________________ 53
6.1 Introduction____________________________________________________________________ 54
6.2 Impact on teacher-pupil relationships______________________________________________ 54
6.3 Impact on pupils’ emotional health and well-being __________________________________ 55
6.4 Impact on perceptions of purpose of education _____________________________________ 60
6.5 Impact on different pupil groups __________________________________________________ 62
7 In conclusion _______________________________________________________________________ 65
References _____________________________________________________________________________ 68
Appendix: Structure of years, levels and tests/exams: England_________________________________ 72
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
The research team
Professor Merryn Hutchings: Lead researcher and author of this report
Merryn is an Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London
Metropolitan University. She started her career teaching in London primary schools. She
then worked in teacher training, and from 2000, was Deputy Director and then Director
of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University. Her
research has focused on education policy related to schools and teachers. She was
involved in research about teacher supply in London at the time of the 2001 teacher
shortage; led an evaluation of Teach First for the TDA, and research projects
commissioned by the DCSF about the impact of policies designed to raise school standards, including
the Excellent Teacher scheme, workforce remodelling and the City Challenge programme. Most recently
she has worked with the Sutton Trust on an analysis of the impact of academy chains on disadvantaged
Dr Naveed Kazmi: Research assistant
Naveed holds a PhD in education from London Metropolitan University. He started his
career as a secondary school teacher in Pakistan and worked in various leadership roles.
He has taught extensively on the BA and MA in education at London Metropolitan
University and on the MA in Education: Emotional Literacy for Children at the Institute
for Arts in Therapy and Education in Islington.
I would like to thank the NUT for commissioning this research, and am extremely grateful to Celia Dignan
of the NUT for managing the project effectively and for her ongoing support, encouragement and
comment. I would also like to thank Daniel Stone, Rebecca Harvey and Ken Jones of the NUT for their
support with different aspects of the work.
I am particularly grateful to Dr Naveed Kazmi for his assistance in the early stages of this research, and
particularly for conducting three of the case study visits.
This research could not have been undertaken without the help of heads, staff and pupils in the case
study schools. They gave their time to talk with us and made us feel welcome in their schools; we are
very grateful for their support. We are also grateful to all those who took part in pilot interviews, as well
as the thousands of teachers who took the time to complete the survey.
This research was commissioned by the National Union of Teachers (NUT). However, the analysis
presented here is the author’s and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NUT.
Executive summary and Recommendations
Executive summary
and Recommendations
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Executive summary
This report presents the findings of research commissioned by the NUT which aimed to explore the
impact on children and young people in England of the current range of accountability measures in
schools, including Ofsted inspections, floor standards, and the whole range of measures published in
the school performance tables (attainment, pupil progress, attainment gaps, etc.).
It draws together findings from previous research together with new data from an online survey
(completed by 7,922 NUT teachers across all phases of education and types of school), and interviews
with staff and pupils in seven case study schools across the country.
1. The accountability measure arousing the greatest concern among school leaders and teachers is
Ofsted.1Ofsted was described as ‘punitive’, reflecting both the potential consequences of ‘failure’
(academisation, loss of jobs, public disgrace)2and some inspectors’ combative attitudes. Ofsted
was also described as ‘random’ reflecting the variation between teams of inspectors and the way
they use the very wide range of school attainment data.
2. The strategies that schools adopt in relation to accountability measures include: scrutiny of all
aspects of teachers’ work; requirements for greater uniformity of practice; collection and use of data
to target individual pupils; an increased focus on maths/numeracy and English/literacy (and in secondary
schools, on other academic subjects e.g. history, geography, science, languages); and additional
teaching of targeted pupils. Many of these strategies were more frequently reported in schools
with poor Ofsted grades, below average attainment and high proportions of disadvantaged pupils.
3. One aim of accountability measures is to improve attainment. There is evidence that high stakes
testing3results in an improvement in test scores because teachers focus their teaching very closely
on the test. Test scores do not necessarily represent pupils’ overall level of understanding and
knowledge, but rather, the fact that teachers are focusing their teaching very strongly on preparing
pupils for the test.
4. There is no evidence as yet that accountability measures can reduce the attainment gap between
disadvantaged pupils and their peers. There is evidence that disadvantaged children, who on average
have lower attainment than their peers and are therefore under greater pressure to meet targets,
can become disaffected as a result of experiencing ‘failure’, and this is being exacerbated by recent
changes to the curriculum to make it more demanding and challenging. Research has shown that
schools are responsible for only a small proportion of the variance in attainment between pupils –
their lives outside school are the main influence. It is therefore unreasonable to expect schools
alone to close the gap.
5. Pupil Premium funding, allocated to schools to support disadvantaged children, is effective in
highlighting the needs of this group, but has also had perverse effects. In some schools it has resulted
in less attention being paid to the needs of other individuals or groups; in particular, in some schools,
support for those children with special educational needs has been reduced. The need to evidence
the way the Pupil Premium has been used has in some cases resulted in explicit labelling of pupils.
1Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills; Ofsted inspects and regulates services that care for children
and young people, and services providing education and skills for learners of all ages.
2Since completing the fieldwork the Government has proposed to further raise the stakes through the Education and Adoption Bill.
3High stakes testing refers to tests which have outcomes that will have real impacts on pupils, teachers or schools, and
specifically those where test results are used to judge the quality of schools, and sanctions when targets are not met.
Executive summary and Recommendations
6. Accountability measures have previously had the perverse effect of encouraging schools to enter
pupils for vocational examinations. This has now been reversed, and schools are encouraged to
enter pupils for academic examinations, regardless of their needs, aptitudes or interests. This is
contributing to disaffection and poor behaviour among some pupils. These effects have been
exacerbated by changes to the curriculum, making it more demanding; and by changes to the exam
system, including the scrapping of coursework and the switch to linear exams.
7. Accountability measures have achieved government aims of bringing about an increased focus on
English/literacy and mathematics/numeracy and (in secondary schools) academic subjects; however,
this has been achieved at the cost of narrowing the curriculum that pupils experience. The narrowing
of the curriculum is greater for year groups taking tests/exams, pupils with low attainment,
disadvantaged pupils and those with special needs.
8. The current pattern of testing very young children is inappropriate to their developmental level and
needs, and creates unnecessary stress and anxiety for pupils and parents. Pupils of every age are
increasingly being required to learn things for which they are not ready, and this leads to shallow
learning for the test, rather than in-depth understanding which could form a sound basis for future
9. The amount of time spent on creative teaching, investigation, play, practical work etc. has reduced
considerably, and lessons more often have a standard format. This results from pressure to prepare
pupils for tests and to cover the curriculum; teachers’ perceptions of what Ofsted want to see (both
in lessons, and in terms of written evidence in pupils’ books); and teachers’ excessive work levels.
Both primary and secondary pupils said that they learned more effectively in active and creative
lessons, because they were memorable.
10. The use of Key Stage 2 test scores to determine target grades at GCSE is deeply problematic, both
because, in secondary teachers’ experience, the test results do not give a realistic picture of
children’s levels of knowledge and understanding; and because they are based on test scores in
English and maths, which do not represent potential in subjects such as foreign languages, art or
11. Accountability measures have a substantial impact on teachers. In all types of school, their workload
is excessive and many suffer considerable stress as a result of the accountability strategies used
in their schools. Some teachers are under unreasonable pressure to meet targets related to pupil
attainment. The impact of accountability measures on teachers is not the main focus of this
research, but is included because it inevitably impacts on pupils.
12. The current emphasis in inspections on pupils’ books and written feedback to pupils is adding
considerably to teachers’ workloads and stress, and is not providing proportionate benefits for pupils.
13. Some teachers reported that the combination of pressure to improve test/exam outcomes, and
their own increased workload and stress, had reduced the quality of their relationships with their
14. Children and young people are suffering from increasingly high levels of school-related anxiety and
stress, disaffection and mental health problems. This is caused by increased pressure from
tests/exams; greater awareness at younger ages of their own ‘failure’; and the increased rigour and
academic demands of the curriculum. The increase in diagnosis of ADHD has been shown to be
linked to the increase in high stakes testing. Thus it appears that some children are being diagnosed
and medicated because the school environment has become less suitable for them, allowing less
movement and practical work, and requiring them to sit still for long periods.
15. Increasingly, children and young people see the main purpose of schooling as gaining qualifications,
because this is what schools focus on. This trend has been widely deplored, including by universities
and employers, who have argued that the current exam system does not prepare children for life
beyond school. They have highlighted a range of other desirable outcomes of schooling, such as
independent, creative and divergent thinking; ability to collaborate; and so on.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
16. While accountability measures have a negative impact on all pupils, many of them disproportionately
affect disadvantaged and SEND pupils. One reason for this is that many of them struggle to reach
age-related expectations, and therefore often spend more time being taught maths and English
(and consequently miss out on some other subjects). Some special school teachers argued that
their pupils need to develop life skills rather than focus on literacy and numeracy.
17. A second reason for the disproportionate impact on disadvantaged pupils is that Ofsted grades are
strongly related to the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in a school (schools with high proportions
of disadvantaged children are more likely to have poor Ofsted grades). This research has shown
that schools with low Ofsted grades are more likely to use strategies such as scrutiny of teachers’
work, which increases pressure on teachers, and which is often passed on to pupils.
18. Current accountability measures also militate against inclusion. Findings reflected previous research
in showing that Ofsted’s approach is making some schools reluctant to take on pupils who are likely
to lower the school attainment figures. The effective work that some schools do in relation to
inclusion (particularly work to support pupils socially and emotionally) is also disregarded by Ofsted
if it has not resulted in satisfactory attainment figures.
Executive summary and Recommendations
1. It is crucial that it is recognised that the current system of measuring pupils’ attainment and using
this to judge schools and teachers is deeply damaging to children and young people, and does not
foster the skills and talents that are needed in higher education or in employment, or the attributes
that will be valued in future citizens. An urgent review of current accountability measures should
take place, with a view to substantially changing them.
2. The different purposes of testing should be separated out so that tests intended to measure pupils’
progress and attainment are not used for school accountability.
3. If tests are used as accountability measures, they should be similar to the PISA international tests
in that only a sample of schools should take them on any occasion. The results of these tests would
not be communicated to parents, and should not be used for judging individual schools; rather, they
would give a picture of the national pattern of attainment, and the variability of attainment across
groups of pupils. This would therefore inform practice in all schools.
4. Headteachers working in teams should be responsible for holding each other to account through a
system of peer group visits and advice. All headteachers should have the opportunity to take part
in these teams, as this would also be a form of professional development. The purpose of a visit
should be to explore all aspects of practice, to raise questions, and where appropriate to challenge
and to support the school in forming an effective action plan.
5. In cases where there are serious concerns about a particular school, a team of advisors should be
available to call in to support that school (along similar lines to the London Challenge advisors). They
would be educational professionals with substantial experience of leading schools and of school
improvement, who could provide on-going advice and support.
6. Schools should be expected to foster the talents and skills of all pupils, wherever these lie. The
importance of encouraging and enabling all children should be paramount.
7. A key measure of a school’s success ought to be whether pupils are engaged in learning creatively
and happily, and whether at the end of their period in that school they move successfully on to other
educational establishments or to work (if it is available), and contribute effectively as members of
8. There should be a renewed focus on a broadly based curriculum which fosters creativity, curiosity,
and enthusiasm to learn. Collaboration should be encouraged, rather than competition.
9. In particular, the curriculum for young children should be reviewed and revised to take into account
all that research has shown about the developmental needs of this age group.
10. Perverse incentives relating to secondary subject choice (which are inevitable in any form of school
league tables) should be removed. Schools should consult with students and parents to ensure that
each student follows a curriculum which suits their particular needs and interests, and in which
they have some reasonable chance of success.
11. Any review of accountability measures should include consideration of the potential impact of
proposed changes on the quality of school experience of pupils with SEND and disadvantaged
pupils, and on inclusion.
12. The social and emotional health and development of children and young people should be a key
priority for all those involved in education, and schools should be encouraged to take the time to
focus on these where appropriate. In particular, schools should have a duty to avoid any practices
which are found to be worsening children’s emotional and mental health.
13. The government should prioritise measures to reduce societal inequality and should recognise that
schools can only make a small contribution to this.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Abbreviations and Glossary
See also Appendix: Structure of years, levels and tests/exams: England
Disadvantaged Disadvantaged pupils are defined as those who have been eligible for Free School
Meals at any point during the last six years and looked after children.
EAL English as an additional language
ESL English as a second language
Foundation stage For children aged 3-5
FSM Free School Meals
GCSE Examinations taken by 16-year-olds
I Interview – used to denote quotes from case study interviews
KS1 Key Stage 1: Years 1-2 for children aged 5-7
KS2 Key Stage 2: Years 3-6 for children aged 7-11
KS3 Key Stage 3: Years 7-9 for children aged 11-14
KS4 Key Stage 4: Years 10-11 for children aged 14-16
PE Physical Education
Pupil Premium Funding allocated to schools to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils
RAISEonline A secure web-based system that provides a range of analyses including attainment;
progress; absence and exclusions; and pupil characteristics
RI Requires Improvement (Ofsted judgement)
SATs Standard Assessment Tests – the common term for the National Curriculum tests
taken by 7-year-olds (Key Stage 1 SATs) and 11-year-olds (Key Stage 2 SATs)
SEN Special Educational Needs
SENCO Special Educational Needs Coordinator. A SENCO is responsible for the day-to-day
operation of the school’s SEN policy.
SEND Special Educational Needs and Disability
SIMS School Information Management System
TA Teaching Assistant
VA Voluntary Aided
W Written comment on survey
SECTION ???: The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Section 1
“Everything is about test results; if it isnt
relevant to a test then its not seen as a
priority. (Primary teacher)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
1 Introduction
1.1 Accountability in schools
Everything is about test results; if it isn’t relevant to a test then it is not seen as a priority.
This puts too much pressure on pupils, puts too much emphasis on academic subjects
and creates a dull, repetitive curriculum that has no creativity. It is like a factory production
line chugging out identical little robots with no imagination, already labelled as failures if
they haven’t achieved the right level on a test. (Primary teacher)
The title of this report is Exam factories?, drawing attention to perceptions that this is the direction in
which many schools are moving. A number of teachers in this research used similar metaphors
to describe what is happening in their schools: for example “a factory producing exam ready beings”;
“the ‘factory farm’ version of education”; “a business model of education where we are merely
numbers in the machine”; “an input output model we’ll put this amount in and that amount will
come out.” These metaphors encapsulate the pressure to ‘deliver’ (in this case, both the curriculum,
and high scores in tests/exams); a loss of creativity; an emphasis on uniformity; a decline in the
quality of personal relationships; and a management style involving target-setting and close oversight of
practice. All these things are increasingly experienced in schools today, and have been explored in this
The research was commissioned by the NUT to investigate the impact on children and young people in
England of the various measures used to hold schools accountable. These include inspections, floor
standards, and the whole range of measures published in the school performance tables (attainment,
pupil progress, attainment gaps, etc.).
The current English accountability structures were introduced following the Education Reform Act (DES
1988), which led to the creation of Ofsted4, national testing5and published league tables. The initial aim
was to improve attainment. By supplying information about attainment to parents (through published
league tables) and enabling them to choose their children’s schools, an educational market was created,
and it was assumed that schools would respond by raising standards. The structures that were
introduced also gave the government more power to control what was taught, and to hold schools to
account directly; this is now the dominant form of accountability.
Accountability measures have been strengthened over the years by:
• Collection and publication of a wider range of data about each school, including:
o pupil progress
o attainment of particular groups of pupils, and attainment gaps between those in each group
and their peers
• Introducing floor standards (formerly ‘targets’) for schools in 2004. Floor standards were initially
expressed as the percentage of pupils in a school who must achieve the expected level in national
tests/examinations at age 11 and 16, and now include measures of pupil progress. The floor
standards for both primary and secondary schools have increased over the last decade, and further
increases have been announced;
• Increasing specification of which subjects ‘count’ in the secondary school league tables;6
4Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills; Ofsted inspects and regulates services that care for children
and young people, and services providing education and skills for learners of all ages.
5Tests on nationally regulated educational standards. The Appendix shows the current pattern of testing.
6For details see DfE website
SECTION 1: Introduction
• Increasing the rigour and level of challenge of primary and secondary tests/exams; and
• Introducing a phonics test for six-year-olds, and thereby specifying what method should be used
to teach reading.
Thus the initial aims of accountability measures (to inform parents and to improve attainment) have been
expanded to include narrowing attainment gaps, and steering schools towards particular forms of
curriculum and pedagogy. The sanctions attached to ‘failure’ have also increased: teachers now have
performance-related pay; and schools that are identified as ‘failing’ face challenges or interventions such
as a written warning from the government, an Ofsted inspection, removal of the headteacher or the
school being closed and replaced by an academy.7
There is a global trend towards increasing the use of data to hold public services to account, but the
stakes in the English education system are particularly high, and thus the impact on schools, school
staff and pupils is greater than in most countries. However, high stakes testing (i.e. testing children,
then using the results to judge the quality of schools and/or teachers, and applying sanctions where
targets are not met) is also used in the USA, and is the central strand of the No Child Left Behind policy,
adopted in 2002. Thus research conducted in the USA provides useful evidence of the impacts of such
There is a considerable body of evidence to show that accountability measures have a range of negative
impacts on pupils. Much of this evidence relates to high stakes testing. As long ago as 1888, Emerson
White discussed “the propriety of making the results of examinations the basis for … determining the
comparative standing or success of schools.” His conclusions are still relevant:
They have perverted the best efforts of teachers, and narrowed and grooved their instruction;
they have occasioned and made well-nigh imperative the use of mechanical and rote
methods of teaching; they have occasioned cramming and the most vicious habits of study;
they have caused much of the overpressure charged upon the schools, some of which is
real; they have tempted both teachers and pupils to dishonesty; and, last but not least, they
have permitted a mechanical method of school supervision. (White 1888, p.199-200)
A wide range of research in the US has shown that:
• high stakes testing undoubtedly increases the scores that pupils achieve in tests/exams
(Hanushek and Raymond 2005);
• high stakes testing does not improve children’s overall knowledge and understanding because
teaching is focused very closely on the demands of the test (e.g. Amrein and Berliner 2002; Koretz
2008); and
• high stakes testing has a wide range of negative effects on teachers and pupils. For example, it
results in less creative teaching; a narrowing of the curriculum; a focus on borderline students at
the expense of others; pupil anxiety and stress; and temptation to both pupils and teachers to
‘game the system’ (e.g. Clarke et al. 2003; Pedulla et al 2003; Jones and Egley 2004; Rothstein
et al 2008; Ravitch 2010).
A common theme across much of the research is that the schools catering for the poorest children are
the most likely to struggle to achieve the desired levels, and therefore the most likely to experience
In England, similar conclusions have been reached. In 2008, the House of Commons Children, Schools
and Families Committee concluded that “a variety of classroom practices aimed at improving test results
has distorted the education of some children, which may leave them unprepared for higher education
7The Education and Adoption Bill put forward in June 2015 by the Conservative government will force councils and governing
bodies to actively progress the conversion of ‘failing schools’ into academies, and makes it clear that all schools rated
‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted will become academies. The Bill also includes plans to tackle ‘coasting schools’ by putting them on a
notice to improve.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
and employment.” It stated that the curriculum had narrowed, and “a focus on test results compromises
teachers’ creativity in the classroom and children’s access to a balanced curriculum” (2008, p.3). The
Committee argued that other consequences of high stakes testing were shallow learning, pupil stress
and demotivation, and a disproportionate focus of resources on the borderline of targets. Their
recommendations included reform of the current system of national tests to separate out the various
purposes of assessment. The Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander 2010) came to very similar
The research described in this report was designed to take into account the various ways in which
accountability measures might impact on pupils:
• Directly: for example, tests or exams have a direct impact on pupils in terms of the lessons leading
up to the test, and their experience of the test and its results; and
• Indirectly, for example:
o the strategies that each school adopts in relation to accountability measures may impact on
pupils (e.g. holding booster classes after school)
o the additional work that teachers do in relation to school strategies may make them tired
and stressed, and this may impact on pupils. A secondary teacher explained “there’s a trickle
down in pressure from Ofsted to the senior leadership team to the middle managers to the
staff below and … that must impact on the students”
o parents may put pressure on their children to do well in the tests (including those that are
mainly for accountability purposes such as SATs8taken by 11-year-olds). This was not the
main focus of the research but is discussed briefly in this report
These interactions are represented diagrammatically below.
Taking this model into account, following an outline of the research design, discussion of the findings
starts by considering school leaders’ and teachers’ views of accountability structures. The next section
discusses the strategies that schools use in relation to accountability measures. Following this, the
impact of accountability measures on school leaders and teachers is discussed briefly. The rest of the
report then focuses on the impact of accountability measures on children and young people.
school strategies teachers
8SATs – Standard Assessment Tests – the common term for the National Curriculum tests taken by
seven and 11-year-olds.
SECTION 1: Introduction
1.2 Research design
The report draws together findings of relevant research and new data from an on-line survey of teachers
and case study visits to seven schools across the country.
1.2.1 On-line survey of teachers
The survey was carried out in November-December 2014; it was completed by 7,922 NUT members.
Respondents came from all phases of school (early years, primary, secondary, sixth form). They included
a range of roles (e.g. headteachers, leadership posts, classroom teachers, supply teachers) and type of
school (including academies, other maintained schools, and special schools). In comparison with all
teachers nationally, it was representative by phase and type of school but under-represented
headteachers (who make up five per cent of all teachers nationally but only one per cent of respondents).
Questions using Likert scales9focused on the strategies schools use in relation to accountability
structures, and the impact of accountability measures on pupils. The draft survey questions were trialled
with two headteachers (primary and secondary) and three teachers including a special needs coordinator
and an early years specialist, and their suggestions were incorporated. Responses were analysed using
SPSS.10There were also spaces for respondents to write comments, and over 3,300 respondents did
so. Where these have been quoted in the report, the school phase (Foundation, Primary, Secondary,
sixth form, or where relevant, the Key Stage – KS1, KS2 etc.) and the most recent overall Ofsted grade
of the school is given.11 These comments are identified in the report as ‘W’ (written).
1.2.2 Case study interviews
These took place in in February and March 2015 in seven schools across the country where the
headteacher had volunteered to take part.
Table 1: Case study schools
School Type Most recent overall
Ofsted grade Location
Primary Community Good North
Primary Converter academy Good North
Primary Community Requires Improvement Midlands
Primary VA Church of England Requires Improvement South East
Secondary Sponsored academy Good London
Secondary VA Catholic Requires Improvement East
Special (moderate & severe
learning difficulties) Community special Good London
9For example, agree a lot, agree a little, disagree a little, disagree a lot.
10 SPSS is a software package used for statistical analysis.
11 See Appendix for details of structure of key stages and testing.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
In each school three or four members of staff and one or two groups of pupils were interviewed. In
addition, pilot interviews were carried out with two headteachers (primary and secondary); a secondary
head of department; and one group of Year 5 and 6 pupils. Since the interview schedules were not
substantially changed, data from these interviews has been used in this report. In total interviews were
conducted with nine headteachers, 16 teachers and 13 groups of pupils (normally six pupils per group).
Adult interviewees (including headteachers) were not all NUT members. All interviews have been
transcribed, and quotes used in the report are identified as ‘I’ (interview).
The case study schools have not been identified in any way in the report (e.g. by pseudonyms or location)
because such identification could enable those who were interviewed to find out what other
interviewees in their school said; this would be contrary to our commitment to confidentiality.
SECTION 1: Introduction
Section 2
School leaders’, teachers’
and pupils’ views of
accountability structures
“They said the school wasn’t that
good… I don’t think that that was fair.”
(Year 5 pupil)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
2 School leaders’, teachers’ and pupils’ views
of accountability structures
2.1 School leaders’ and teachers’ views
Case study interviewees said that teachers12 should be accountable to children, and most said they
should be accountable to parents. Some supported other forms of accountability, but all identified major
concerns about current accountability measures. Interviewees were asked which forms of accountability
concerned them the most. The vast majority of interviewees pointed to Ofsted. Ofsted was described
as both “punitive” and “random”, “a spectre” and “the thing that keeps me awake at night”.
Interviewees talked of “fear of them coming in and saying that you are no good”. Coffield and
Williamson (2011) argued that fear related to accountability measures has become the key force for
educational change in England.
The notion that Ofsted is punitive referred partly to the potential consequences of doing badly; a primary
head (I) explained:
Ofsted can destroy a school. … If you’re put into an ‘RI’ [Requires Improvement] category
then all sorts of things can happen. It dissolves the schools. The morale goes, the parent
body morale drops, anything that you’ve tried to achieve. … If Ofsted say no, then a school
can fall apart. Then you’ve got academies coming in.
The perception that Ofsted is ‘punitive’ also related partly to the attitudes of some inspectors; another
primary head said
I think my overwhelming experience of Ofsted has been that it is a punitive and combative
approach with a deficit model and in that respect we found it very destructive.
‘Punitive’ was also used to describe advice given in Section 8 monitoring visits; interviewees in two schools
reported there had been an insistence that specific individuals must be responsible for the school’s
perceived weaknesses, and that they should be identified and punished (through the pay structures or
capability procedures). Some interviewees used ‘punitive’ in contrast to ‘supportive’: they argued that it
would be more constructive and effective to have supportive rather than punitive inspections.
The perception that Ofsted is ‘random’ related partly to the variation across inspection teams; two
primary heads commented on this in interview:
There is no consistency, so what one Ofsted inspector looks for in one school is not what
they’ll be looking for in another ... Their reporting appears to be consistent, but actually
how they go about getting their evidence is not in any way consistent, it’s very variable.
I think you are at the whim of an inspection team; it’s whoever walks in the door; whatever
their particular issues are and whatever they’ve got a bit of a beef about.
This concern has frequently been raised, and Sean Harford, National Director for Schools, Ofsted, has
acknowledged that a different team of inspectors visiting the same school on the same day would not
necessarily arrive at the same judgement (Harford 2014).
The concern about randomness also related to the way Ofsted uses RAISEonline13. A secondary head
argued (I):
12 Throughout the report references to ‘teachers’ should be taken to include both classroom teachers and school leaders,
unless otherwise specified.
13 RAISEonline is a secure web-based system that provides a range of analyses including attainment; progress; absence and
exclusions; and pupil characteristics. For each type of analysis, a school is compared to national averages. Tests of statistical
significance highlight results that are atypical.
SECTION 2: School leaders’, teachers’ and pupils’ views of accountability structures
RAISEonline has got so much data in it that to try and get a clean bill of health on all the
59 pages is pretty tricky. … Ours has got virtually no blue, and even on the gaps page, all
our indicators are yellow because, you know, two children did better than the average by
enough to get a yellow stripe. I think we didn’t get any red at all on that. Nevertheless the
HMI 14would see on page 56 that the gap there is sufficient to say that we weren’t working
with all students therefore we couldn’t be given ‘Good’.15
Ten years ago, what mattered most for schools was to be above the floor target. Now such a wide range
of data is available that interviewees expected that they could be criticised for any aspect of data that was
below the national figure, not showing year-on-year improvement, or perceived to be too variable. It was
argued that these expectations are unrealistic, and do not take into account the differences between cohorts
of pupils. Moreover, interviewees argued that the focus on attainment gaps between disadvantaged pupils
and their peers is unhelpful because it does not indicate the actual level of attainment of either group;
schools have been inspected by Ofsted because their attainment gap was significantly greater than the
national figure, although each group had performed well above the national figure for that group.
This perception that any data may be used to criticise is borne out by Ofsted reports, which often
highlight such shortcomings in the section specifying why the school is not yet ‘Good’ (or ‘Outstanding’).
The comments below are taken from Ofsted reports published in March 2015.
The proportion of pupils meeting national expectations in the phonic screening test is below
There is too much variation in pupils’ achievement right across the school. Consequently
while significant numbers do well, some are lagging behind.
Gaps in achievement between disadvantaged students and others have not closed as well
in Year 10 as in other year groups.
Students, including disabled students and those with special educational needs, do not
make good enough progress across a range of subjects.
Again Harford (2014) acknowledged shortcomings in some Ofsted inspections:
[the weakest inspectors] have been guilty of using the published data as a safety net for
not making fully-rounded, professional judgements… Published data should only ever be a
‘signpost’ for the school/inspectors to consider what they may be telling us, not the pre-
determined ‘destination’.
Sir Mike Tomlinson, former Chief Inspector of Schools, has argued that with reduced inspection time
and the ever-expanding set of data about school performance, data has become the dominant input into
Ofsted inspection judgements about a school; he concluded that ”inspection should rely less on data
and more on direct observation of the work of a school” (2013, p.15).
A secondary headteacher (I) highlighted the number and complexity of performance databases:
The RAISE measures change every year … Basically, we do our own analysis after the
summer exams, then RAISE invalidated comes out followed by the validated version
(which I summarise); months later the Ofsted Data Dashboard for governors comes out
(but far too late in the year to take any meaningful action). RAISE and the Dashboard don’t
quite cohere with each other, which makes things awkward. Then of course there is ALPs,
ALIS and the ever elusive PANDA 16 The series of data reports are basically a minefield
laid down by Ofsted to make me sleep very badly!
14 Her Majesty’s Inspector. Currently Ofsted employs both HMIs and Additional Inspectors.
15 The colours are used to highlight statistically significant differences between school data and the national average figures.
In this case the head was explaining that hardly any of the school data was significantly worse than the national figures, and
some of it was significantly better.
16 ALPs, ALIS and PANDA are data reports relating to post-16 pupils’ targets and attainment.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Ofsted’s use of RAISEonline was a particular concern in a special school; the head said (I):
It’s absolutely meaningless because we’re being compared against national standards and
we’re absolutely nowhere near those … when Ofsted come into the school they will have
looked at RAISEonline and made some judgements based on that, which is a joke.
A number of interviewees argued that the focus on published data meant that many other things going
on in schools are overlooked. A secondary head (I) argued that this was an inevitable, and deplorable,
outcome of any accountability system:
Ultimately, if you are going to put in an accountability system … you’re going to have other
aspects that are not accounted for, and I’m talking holistic development of a child. Things
that you can’t actually measure in a table but actually are invaluable.
All the case study schools with an overall Ofsted judgement of ‘Requires Improvement’ (RI) had changed
their practice specifically to please Ofsted. One head said, “there are things that we do because we
know that Ofsted are going to criticise us if it’s not there; not because it’s the best thing for the kids”
(Primary, I).
2.2 Pupils’ views of Ofsted
Several of the case study schools had experienced recent Ofsted inspections. While pupils did not share
their teachers’ anxiety about inspection, some of them expressed criticisms of the timing and outcomes
of these inspections.
In one school, pupils commented that visiting in early September was unfair because some pupils and
teachers were new and schools should be given time to settle down after the holiday. Pupils in a primary
school thought that it was inappropriate to inspect on Red Nose Day:
I think it was a bit unfair that Ofsted came in on Red Nose Day, because we were all in our
pyjamas and we were all a bit crazy. In the playground we were all happy and I don’t think
they were, like, oh, they didn’t see that it was the funny side. (Year 6 pupil)
Some argued that Ofsted had not identified some of the good aspects of their school:
I think it should … add more things to it, like the fact that there’s a good student and teacher
relationship and those sort of things rather than just all academic levels. (Year 9 pupil)
Especially at our school I think teachers really go out their way to try and help but because
maybe they haven’t ticked this box or ticked that box – it makes people like attack on
teachers, and it’s just not helpful at all. (Year 12 pupil)
Pupils in two case study schools that had been judged to ‘Require Improvement’ argued that this was
not a fair reflection of their school:
They said the school wasn’t that good. … I don’t think that that was fair. (Year 5)
We’ve got amazing results. We all work hard and ... from actually being in the school I
already know that the teaching is amazing, all our books are marked. We want to do well,
and it’s just a nice environment. (Year 7 pupil)
I feel the school’s great, a great school and there’s nothing wrong with it to be honest.
There’s no flaws that I can point out. (Year 9 pupil)
We were all shocked because …we think on an academic level everything is great because
the teachers are just so approachable and they genuinely want to help you. (Year 13 pupil)
I don’t understand either because at GCSE levels we’ve gone up and I think A levels have
gone up as well. (Year 12 pupil)
Secondary pupils had noted that their schools had put some strategies into place following their Ofsted
SECTION 2: School leaders’, teachers’ and pupils’ views of accountability structures
We’ve noticed new presentation systems have been put in place. There are four different
colours of pens and everything. (Year 9 pupil)
Sixth form students argued that their school had to respond to Ofsted requirements even though they
argued that the Ofsted inspectors “don’t really care”:
With Ofsted, there’s a lot of box ticking and sometimes you feel they don’t really care –
not the school, but like Ofsted. The way a school acts is based around that, but that’s not
the school’s fault. It’s something they have to do, with things like targets. (Year 12 pupil)
However, they argued that when schools respond to Ofsted requirements, this does not necessarily
benefit pupils:
There must be a level of frustration [among teachers] like the whole increased red tape and
stuff, it’s inhibiting their ability to teach, I believe, rather than improving it. (Year 13 pupil)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
SECTION ???: The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Section 3
School strategies for
“I have to keep a record of everything
I do – key person sessions, childrens
interests, outdoor learning provision,
planning annotations. The list goes on
and on. (Foundation stage teacher)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
3 School strategies for accountability
This section explores the strategies that schools use to try and ensure that their attainment data achieves
national targets and that they are prepared for inspection. These strategies impact on both teachers and
pupils; impacts on teachers are explored in Section 4, and on pupils in Sections 5 and 6. This section is
concerned with the strategies schools use; how widespread they are; and how this varies across
different types of school.
The teacher survey included a list of strategies used in relation to accountability measures. This was
compiled from previous research and the pilot interviews. Respondents were asked to indicate whether
each strategy listed was ‘key’, ‘used occasionally’ or ‘not used’ in their school (Figure 1).
Figure 1: All respondents: percentage indicating whether listed strategies were used in their
schools (N = 7922)
The pattern shown in Figure 1 reflects changes to the Ofsted inspection framework. The vast majority
of respondents reported strategies related to marking and pupils’ books (which recent Ofsted inspections
had given more attention to – see section 5.5.5), whereas fewer than half reported scrutiny of lesson
plans (which Ofsted has explicitly stated are not required) or frequent observation of lessons (which are
now not individually graded by Ofsted). Listed strategies have been grouped into broader underlying
approaches, discussed below.
Use of data to target individual pupils
Detailed and frequent data gathering and scrutiny of pupils’
An increased focus on maths and English teaching
Pupils’ books regularly scrutinised
Use of teacher appraisal to set targets related to improving
pupils’ attainment
Use of a specified marking system for all work
Explicit focus on borderline students
An increased focus on academic subjects
Explicit targets/outcomes for every lesson/activity
Regular tests/assessments/preparation for national tests
Devising and implementing new ways of assessing and
recording learning in relation to the new curriculum
Provision of small group or individual teaching
Lesson observations, learning walks and drop-ins at least
once every two weeks for some teachers
A mock Ofsted inspection
Provision of extra classes after school, on Saturdays or in
school holidays
Tea ch er s ro ut in el y re qu ir ed t o su bm it d et ai le d pl an s fo r
every lesson/activity
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
A key strategy Sometimes used Not used Don’t know Not applicable
SECTION 3: School strategies for accountability
3.1 Scrutiny and greater uniformity of practice
This group included a range of strategies used by school leadership to check up on what teachers are
doing, and to impose greater uniformity of practice.
• Use of a specified marking system for all work;
• Use of teacher appraisal to set targets related to improving pupils’ attainment (written comments
emphasised that this is now linked to performance-rated pay in many schools);
• Pupils’ books regularly scrutinised;
• Explicit targets/outcomes for every lesson/activity;
• Lesson observations, learning walks and drop-ins at least once every two weeks for some teachers;
• A mock Ofsted inspection; and
• Teachers routinely required to submit detailed plans for every lesson/activity.
Most of the strategies in this group were significantly17more often reported in primary schools (including
early years centres) than in secondary (including sixth forms) (Figure 2). In particular, routine submission
of lesson plans was reported very much more by primary teachers.
Figure 2: Percentage of respondents in mainstream schools reporting that listed strategies were
key: primary (including early years) and secondary (including sixth form) (N = 6,617)
Furthermore, all the strategies in this group were significantly more often reported in schools with lower
attainment and pupil progress, less good Ofsted overall judgements, and/or a higher percentage of
disadvantaged pupils18 (as indicated by eligibility for Free School Meals) (Figure 3).
Use of a specified
marking system
for all work
Use of teacher
appraisal to set
targets related to
improving pupils’
Tea ch er s ro ut in el y
required to submit
detailed plans for
every lesson/
Pupils’ books
A mock Ofsted
Explicit targets/
outcomes for every
learning walks and
drop-ins at least
once every two
weeks for some
Primary Secondary
17 Significant differences are reported using the chi-squared test, p < 0.05
18 Survey respondents were asked to indicate their school’s most recent Ofsted grade, and whether attainment, progress and
proportions of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), pupils with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND) or
with English as an additional language (EAL) were above average, about average or below average in comparison with
national figures (which were supplied).
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Use of a specified
marking system
for all work
Use of teacher
appraisal to set
targets related to
improving pupils’
Pupils’ books
A mock Ofsted
Explicit targets/
outcomes for
every lesson/
learning walks
and drop-ins at
least once every
two weeks for
some teachers
Above average Average Below average
Tea ch er s ro ut in el y
required to
submit detailed
plans for every
Use of a specified
marking system
for all work
Use of teacher
appraisal to set
targets related to
improving pupils’
Pupils’ books
A mock Ofsted
Explicit targets/
outcomes for
every lesson/
learning walks
and drop-ins at
least once every
two weeks for
some teachers
Outstanding Good RI Inadequate
Tea ch er s ro ut in el y
required to
submit detailed
plans for every
Use of a specified
marking system
for all work
Use of teacher
appraisal to set
targets related to
improving pupils’
Pupils’ books
A mock Ofsted
Explicit targets/
outcomes for
every lesson/
learning walks
and drop-ins at
least once every
two weeks for
some teachers
Above average Average Below average
Tea ch er s ro ut in el y
required to
submit detailed
plans for every
Figure 3: Percentage of respondents in mainstream schools reporting that listed strategies were
‘key’ in their schools, a) By pupil attainment (N = 6,303)
b) By Ofsted overall judgement (N = 6,779)
c) By percentage of disadvantaged pupils (N = 5,865 )
SECTION 3: School strategies for accountability
The exception was the use of teacher appraisal, which showed the same pattern, but not at a significant
level. Each strategy was also more often reported in sponsored academies but this difference disappears
when Ofsted grade, attainment or disadvantage are taken into account.
Respondents’ written comments indicated a variety of other forms of scrutiny – for example:
Walls are checked that they are being changed. Writing walls, handwriting walls and
general learning wall near headteacher’s room must be changed every half term complete
with level or new banding descriptors. (Primary, ‘Good’, W)
Homework tasks have to be submitted for the half term ahead by the penultimate week
of the half term before – for all key stages ... No scope for responding to the specific needs
of the class – or indeed the direction the work might take. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
Detailed seating plans required for all classes in all subjects including form groups, with
information on each student showing SEN, FSM, Pupil Premium, cared for, ESL, Maths/English
ability, and general notes on aptitude and attitude. (Secondary, ‘Inadequate’, W)
A number of respondents noted the use of pupil voice as a way of monitoring teacher performance:
Pupil voice, where they are asked their opinion of us, but we never receive any feedback.
(Secondary, ‘RI’, W)
Comments also emphasised demands for uniformity of practice, such as:
Requiring nursery and F2 children [children aged 3-5] to produce at least two pieces of
written/numeracy work which has to be fully marked and "stars and wishes added" and
follow up evidence that these have been acted upon. Each child to have a written
displayed target within the setting. (Foundation, ‘Inadequate’, W)
Pupils seated boy/girl and not seated next to each other if they are of the same ethnic
background. (Secondary, ‘Inadequate’, W)
Specific start of lesson procedures, and checks to ensure these are performed. Policy of
ten minute silent working periods during every lesson, which is checked. (Secondary,
‘Outstanding’, W)
This section has shown that scrutiny of practice (particularly in relation to pupils’ books and marking,
and teacher appraisals) is widely used in relation to accountability measures, together with demands for
uniformity of practice. Teachers in schools with the most disadvantaged pupils, those with below average
attainment and those with the lowest Ofsted ratings reported use of these strategies significantly more
than teachers in other schools.
3.2 Collection and use of data
This group of strategies relates to the production, scrutiny and use of data to target teaching. It included:
• Detailed and frequent data gathering and scrutiny of pupils’ progress;
• Use of data to target individual pupils;
• Regular tests/assessments/preparation for national tests; and
• Explicit focus on borderline students.
While the first two of these strategies were equally common in both primary and secondary phases,
the last two were more frequent in secondary than in primary schools (Figure 4).
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Figure 4: Percentage of respondents in mainstream schools reporting that listed strategies were
‘key’ in their schools, by school phase (N = 6,617)
Respondents in schools with lower Ofsted overall judgements were slightly (but significantly) more likely
to indicate that each strategy was used, but in general, patterns were much less clear-cut than those
relating to strategies discussed above (scrutiny and greater uniformity of practice).
Many teachers commented on the amount of time spent on collecting and analysing data. Some argued
that in their schools, the time spent assessing pupils was out of proportion with the amount of time
spent teaching, and was stressful for pupils:
We have an EMB electronic mark book system, whereby we must assess students every
two weeks … The EMB week is extremely stressful for students as they will have about
ten tests in that week! Students have started to ask ‘is it an EMB?’ … and will be overly
anxious if the answer is yes, and won’t really bother trying too hard if the answer is no.
(Secondary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
Others noted the ways in which data was used:
I am required to sub-level C/D borderline students 19 (and must attend a meeting after
school once every two weeks to explain why these students are so categorised) and the
majority of intervention is aimed at these students. (Secondary, ‘Inadequate’, W)
Some argued that the focus on analysing outcomes for pupils in specific groups did not provide any
useful information:
Every six weeks we ‘assess’ children and analyse the data. We analyse each sub-group of
children (e.g. SEN, Pakistani boys, EAL etc.) and form targets for each category based on
the analysis. The individual learner is completely lost in this process. It’s meaningless,
statistically unsignificant data which wastes time and means we are losing sight of the
reason for assessing in the first place. (KS1, ‘Good’, W)
Teachers’ concerns about the strong focus on data were that it added to their workload, and the data
was not necessarily useful:
I have to keep a record of everything I do key person sessions, children’s interests,
outdoor learning provision, planning annotations. The list goes on and on. All of these things
I already know but have to keep on a piece of paper to ‘prove’ I know it. (Foundation,
‘Good’, W)
Detailed & frequent
data gathering &
scrutiny of pupils’
Use of data to
target individual
Regular tests/
preparation for
national tests
Explicit focus on
borderline students
19 The original National Curriculum was divided into levels (see Appendix) and sub-levels, and these are used to chart progress.
The C/D borderline at GCSE is important to schools because only grades of C and above can be included in the league
SECTION 3: School strategies for accountability
Some said school leaders had claimed that the data would be required by Ofsted, but when they had
had an inspection, Ofsted inspectors had not looked at it:
Teaching assistants are required by the deputy head to create folders with
observations/notes relating to their key children. This is a useless exercise as all of these
observations are in the children’s learning journeys. [This is done] ‘because Ofsted will ask
for it’. We’ve recently had Ofsted and they didn’t ask. (Foundation, ‘Good’, W)
Some felt they were being asked to record every detail of their work in a completely meaningless way:
We are now being asked to record details on SIMS [school management information
system] such as why children receive a sticker and who has forgotten PE kit. (Primary,
‘Inadequate’, W)
Strategies involving collection and use of data clearly impact substantially on teachers’ workload, but
they also impact on pupils in a variety of ways which vary across schools; these include more frequent
testing, being given targets, and being identified or not identified as needing extra tuition or support.
These impacts are further discussed in Section 5.
3.3 Curriculum strategies
The third group of strategies relates to the curriculum. It included:
• An increased focus on academic subjects; and
• An increased focus on maths and English teaching.
There were no significant differences related to phase of education, but both these strategies were
more often reported in schools with lower Ofsted overall judgements (Figure 5), with lower attainment,
and with more disadvantaged pupils.
Figure 5: Percentage of respondents in mainstream schools identifying ‘An increased focus on
academic subjects’ as a ‘key’ strategy, by Ofsted category (N = 6,779)
Many additional comments related to these strategies, for example: “Timetable dominated by maths
and English lessons plus daily spelling/reading/mental maths means little space for any foundation
subject.”20 (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
Some teachers pointed out that those approaching national tests (which take place in the summer term)
spent even more time on these subjects: “Year 6 pupils do no other subjects than literacy and maths
from September until SATs” (KS2, ‘RI’, W). The same applied to those with lower attainment:
An increased focus on academic
An increased focus on maths and
English teaching
Requires improvement
20 When the National Curriculum was first introduced, a distinction was made between core subjects (maths, English and
science) and foundation subjects (history, geography, technology, music, art and physical education, modern foreign
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Core subject 21day-long booster sessions which remove them from non-core subjects and
they are expected to simply catch up, even though they might be in the middle of controlled
assessments. This places additional stress on the pupils. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
Spending more time on certain subjects inevitably results in spending less time on other subjects; this
is discussed in Section 5.4.
3.4 Additional teaching
The list of strategies used by schools included two focusing on the provision of additional teaching.
These were:
• Provision of small group or individual teaching; and
• Provision of extra classes after school, on Saturdays or in school holidays.
Practice varied between primary and secondary respondents (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Percentage of respondents in mainstream schools reporting that listed strategies were
‘key’ in their schools, by school phase (N = 6,617)
While Figure 6 shows the number of respondents indicating these were ‘key’ strategies in their
schools, it is worth noting that in this case many other respondents indicated that they were sometimes
These strategies were not significantly related to Ofsted grades, but were reported significantly
more frequently by those in schools with lower attainment and higher proportions of disadvantaged
Some additional teaching is open to all pupils (for example, lunch-time or after-school revision sessions
for students taking GCSEs) but many sessions are for pupils who are targeted either on the basis of
their attainment level and target grades, or because they belong to a particular group. In particular,
disadvantaged pupils may receive extra tuition because the school has received specific ‘Pupil Premium’
funding to raise their attainment.
Additional teaching has a number of potential impacts: the intention is to support pupils and enable them
to achieve better results, but there are other possible impacts on teachers’ workload and the curriculum
experienced by pupils.
Provision of small group or
individual teaching
Provision of extra classes
after school, on Saturdays or
in school holidays
21 See footnote 21.
SECTION 3: School strategies for accountability
3.5 Strategies used in special schools
Teachers and school leaders in special schools were significantly less likely to identify many of the
strategies described above as being ‘key’ in their schools, particularly those strategies related to
tests/examinations and pupils’ written work. This may reflect the fact that some pupils in special schools
are not able to take examinations or undertake written work. Similarly the very much lower percentage
indicating that extra classes take place outside school hours probably reflects special school transport
arrangements. However, for those strategies that are equally relevant in all types of school, the
responses of teachers in special schools were similar to their mainstream counterparts (e.g. explicit
targets for every lesson; use of teacher appraisal to set targets related to pupils’ attainment; teachers
routinely required to submit lesson plans; provision of small groups or individual teaching). Like their
mainstream counterparts, those in special schools commented on the onerous amount of data they had
to record.
3.6 Strategies for accountability: Summary
The strategies that schools adopt in relation to accountability measures include:
• Scrutiny and requirements for greater uniformity of practice;
• Collection and use of data to target individual pupils;
• An increased focus on maths and English (and in secondary schools, other academic subjects
e.g. history, geography, science, languages); and
• Additional teaching.
Many of these strategies were more frequently reported in schools with lower Ofsted grades, below
average attainment and high proportions of disadvantaged pupils. The vast majority of comments written
on the survey indicated a direct link between the strategies used and accountability measures. Just one
comment argued that while most of the listed strategies had been adopted, they were nothing to do
with accountability.
The strategies discussed in this section impact on pupils directly and indirectly. These impacts are
explored in the sections that follow.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
SECTION ???: The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Section 4
The impact of accountability
measures on school leaders
and teachers
“The pressure put upon teachers to
provide accountability for so many
factors is unmanageable and
seemingly pointless. (Primary teacher)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
4 The impact of accountability measures on
school leaders and teachers
While the aim of this research was to explore the impact that accountability measures are having on
children and young people, inevitably it also shed light on how they are affecting teachers. Teachers’
excessive workload and stress levels have been well-documented elsewhere e.g. NUT (2014), TNS BMRB
(2014), and Gibson et al (2015) reporting teachers’ responses to the DfE Workload Challenge. Our survey
included a few questions specifically about the impact of accountability measures on teachers (Figure 7).
Figure 7: The impact of accountability measures on teachers: Percentage of all respondents giving
each response (N = 7,466)
The overwork and anxiety that teachers experience inevitably impacts on pupils. Teachers’ stress levels
are often high. In our survey, many reported enjoying their work less than they had in the past, and some
said they were planning to leave the profession:
I am totally exhausted all the time. I work 60–70 hours a week just to keep up with what
I am expected to do…. The pressure put upon teachers to provide accountability for so
many factors is unmanageable and seemingly pointless. Many teachers in my workplace
are feeling permanently stressed and demoralised. More of us are looking to leave as more
and more workload is being given with no regard to its impact on teachers or the children.
(KS2, ‘Outstanding’, W)
Section 2 focused on perceptions of accountability structures, and reported that teachers and
headteachers felt anxious and fearful about Ofsted. The pressure felt by school leaders is in some (but
not all) schools, passed down to teachers. Many comments referred to the pressure that they were
experiencing from school leaders:
There is a real sense of fear and we are driven by SLT [the Senior Leadership Team] to work
harder and harder and push the pupils harder and harder. (Secondary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
Teachers are suffering/off on long-term sick leave because of their fear of the performance
management system. (Secondary, ‘RI’, W)
When holding someone accountable, senior teachers or Ofsted will not accept the obvious
reasons: social background of the pupils, recent history of the department in terms of
absences and leadership etc. This leads to a sort of witch hunt where you may be singled
out even if you have done everything that you reasonably could. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
This is, of course, a consequence of the pressure that school leaders themselves are experiencing.
When teachers are tired, over-worked and stressed, this inevitably impacts on pupils’ experience
(see Section 6.2). The pressure put on teachers to achieve results may also be passed on to pupils.
I am anxious about whether targets set in my appraisal which
relate to pupil attainment are realistic
I spend a disproportionate amount of time on documentation
related to accountability rather than on planning for my lesson
I am very anxious about future Ofsted inspections
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%
Agree a lot Agree a little Disagree a little Disagree lot
SECTION 4: Impact of accountability measures on school leaders and teachers
SECTION ???: The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Section 5
The impacts of accountability
measures on choice of schools,
attainment, curriculum and
teaching and learning
“They are six years old, and all their school
experience tells them is that they are
failures (already) and have to be pulled
out constantly to work on things their
peers can already do, and miss out on the
fun bits of learning.(Primary teacher)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
5 The impacts of accountability measures on
choice of schools, attainment, curriculum and
teaching and learning
5.1 Introduction
This section and the section that follows contains the main findings of this research: it explores both
intended and unintended impacts of accountability measures on children and young people. As
Donaldson (2015, p.112) commented in his recent review of the curriculum in Wales, “The unintended
effects of over-exuberant accountability can unintentionally compromise good intentions.”
This section starts by considering how accountability measures impact on parents’ choice of schools. It
then discusses the impacts on pupils’ attainment; the curriculum and teaching and learning.
5.2 Impact on choice of schools
One aim of the accountability measures introduced as a result of the 1988 Education Reform Act was
to improve information to parents so that they could make informed choices of schools. It was assumed
that this would create a market in education which would have the effect of expanding ‘successful’
schools and forcing those that were not successful to close. Competition between schools would
therefore raise standards (Bell and Stevenson 2006). However, international research has shown that
markets have had very little effect. Among the reasons for this are that parents consider school
reputation and the characteristics of the pupils more important than performance data, and that they do
not respond strongly to underperforming schools (e.g. by removing their children) (Waslander et al 2010).
In England, fewer than half of all parents reported in a YouGov survey that they used school performance
data or Ofsted reports in choosing their children’s schools (Francis and Hutchings 2012). Recent research
by NFER showed that the factors parents considered the most important in school choice are the ‘school
that most suits my child/children’ and ‘location’. ‘Ofsted rating’ and ‘examination results’ were ranked
4th and 6th respectively, and were identified in the top three factors by fewer than 40 per cent of parents
(Wespieser et al 2015).
Three of the case study schools in this research had been judged by Ofsted to ‘Require Improvement’
(‘RI’). None of these schools reported that parents had removed children as a result of this. Coverage in
local newspapers was generally supportive of the schools and critical of Ofsted. Thus there appears to
be some scepticism about the validity of Ofsted judgements, which reduces their value as market
information. An 11-year-old in a case study school judged ‘RI’ said: “I told my mum about it, and she
was like, I don’t think that was fair, if [the Ofsted judgement was correct] you wouldn’t be in this school
right now.” While such scepticism exists, there is also undoubtedly a tipping point at which a school’s
reputation suffers, with a consequent negative impact on the morale of teachers and pupils. Whether
this results mainly from Ofsted judgements, league tables or simply local people’s own observations
and experience is unclear; probably all three contribute.
5.3 Impact on attainment
5.3.1 Test attainment versus knowledge and understanding
There is evidence that external accountability has a positive impact on pupils’ attainment in tests (e.g.
Carnoy and Loeb 2002; Hanushek and Raymond 2005).22 However, other research (e.g. Wiliam 2010)
demonstrates that this does not necessarily indicate any greater understanding or knowledge, but simply
22 There is also evidence that it is possible for attainment to be high without having any high stakes accountability measures;
Finland is an obvious example (Sahlberg 2011).
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
that pupils have been prepared for that particular test. Amrein and Berliner (2002), in a study of the
impact of the introduction of high stakes testing in 18 US states, showed that while there was clear
evidence that linking high stakes consequences to test outcomes had increased scores on those tests,
use of a range of other tests showed no evidence of increased student learning. Similarly, in this country,
the percentage of pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics (the high stakes
test that teachers focus on) increased by 15 percentage points between 2006 and 2012 (DfE 2013), but
in the same time period PISA scores (a low-stakes international test taken only by a sample of schools)
did not increase (Wheater et al. 2014).23
When a test is high stakes (resulting in judgements about the teachers and the school as well as the
child), teachers feel under considerable pressure to focus their teaching on the material children will be
tested on. This was reported in our survey and case studies:
All our planning [in Year 6] is based on what we think the children need to do, where their
gaps are, to try and get them to that level … It is teaching them to take a test which I know
every school does … The children know it’s for the test when you ask them. (Primary, I)
Another interviewee argued that “part of the job of a Year 6 teacher seems to be question-spotting,
and you can pull out trends from past papers.” Teachers did not think this was the best way to teach:
We jump through those hoops to do it because we know that’s what every school has to
do because we want to get those levels. It’s not really the best teaching. If you were asked
how you would teach, you wouldn’t do it like that. … You have to do it because other
schools do it, and otherwise you’re giving the children a disadvantage. (Primary, I)
Teachers distinguished between test outcomes and pupils’ overall level of knowledge and understanding.
They argued that high test scores can be brought about by preparing pupils for a specific test, but that
the scores they achieve do not necessarily imply having the level of skills and understanding that is
needed as a foundation for future learning:
The danger is that you might see children getting better and better able to perform in a
particular test, but you don’t see that in terms of their wider learning actually being stronger
and stronger, it’s just more focused on exactly what is going to come up on the test.
(Primary, I)
Moreover, Key Stage 2 SATs only test a small part of the curriculum. Only maths and English are tested,
and even within these subjects, a primary teacher pointed out that only certain aspects of the curriculum
which lend themselves to short test questions can be included. A primary head (I) argued: [SATs] only
test such a narrow range of children’s knowledge and understanding. It’s not anywhere near the whole
picture of what youngsters can do.”
Secondary teachers argued that the Key Stage 2 SATs scores are not useful because they result from
being coached for a particular test rather than representing the child’s overall level of knowledge, skills
and understanding. Most secondary schools therefore use other tests with their Year 7 intake. This
problem is exacerbated by the fact that test results are used as the baseline to set future targets for
pupils, and measure their progress over the next stage; a secondary teacher noted:
Some pupils’ targets are totally unrealistic. … When they arrive in Year 7 we test them,
and in some cases, the gap between their SAT result and our mock SAT result can be up
to two whole levels. Meaning that some students are given a target of an A grade for Year
11, when in Year 9 they were still working at Level 3 or 4 24, which makes those targets
completely unreasonable and puts a great pressure on pupils and teachers, especially
because our salaries depend on meeting our targets. (Secondary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
23 The issue here is not whether GCSE or PISA is a more effective test but that there is a difference in scores between tests
for which pupils have or have not undergone intensive preparation. PISA has many critics, particularly in relation to its claim
to make international comparisons (see, for example, Chalabi 2013).
24 See Appendix for details of levels.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
5.3.2 ‘Gaming the system’
The pressure to help pupils succeed in high stakes tests leads teachers to engage in a variety of practices
which American research has referred to as ‘gaming the system’. This includes a wide spectrum ranging
from legitimate practices such as question spotting and teaching the topics you expect to come up in
the exam, to practices that are clearly cheating, such as giving students hints during a test. The difficulty
is that many practices are perfectly legitimate, but ethically questionable. For example, it is obvious that
students should be given some preparation for a test, but at what point does test preparation become
problematic? In the USA, the National Research Council’s Committee on Appropriate Test Use expressed
concern about “teaching so narrowly to the objectives of a particular test that scores are raised without
actually improving the broader set of academic skills that the test is intended to measure” (quoted in
Ravitch 2010 p.159). Offering more coaching to students on the pass/fail borderline could also be seen
as a dubious practice since other students will then be comparatively neglected.
In England, an Ofqual survey (Meadows 2015) of 548 secondary teachers investigated teachers’ views
on such issues. The teachers were asked to rate listed strategies to improve exam marks in terms of
their acceptability (Table 2). Those shaded green are at the most acceptable end of the spectrum, while
those shaded pink were generally considered not acceptable. However, when teachers are under
presssure to achieve good results, strategies in the grey area of the list are used, and even some from
the pink area. The Ofqual survey asked teachers to indicate whether they had experienced each of the
listed strategies, and showed that some of those in the grey area were widely experienced. For example,
80 per cent of secondary teachers had experienced a focus on borderline C students. Similarly, in the
teacher survey conducted for this research, 79 per cent of the secondary teachers reported that a focus
on C/D borderline students was an explicit strategy in their school (as shown on Figure 4).
Table 2: Secondary teachers: Selected strategies to improve exam results ordered by their
perceived acceptability, adapted from Meadows (2015).
Becoming markers to gain insight into the examination system
‘Question spotting’ what might come up on an exam and tailoring teaching accordingly
Targeting enquiries about results to pupils just below key grade boundaries
Not covering all the specification content so as to focus on those areas most likely to be examined
Switching to what they believe to be ‘easier’ exam boards
Focusing efforts on borderline ‘C’ students
Giving students the benefit of the doubt in awarding marks when assessing coursework
Considering school league table performance in deciding which subjects to offer
Having students use revision guides as opposed to text books
Encouraging students to memorise mark schemes
Encouraging students to rote learn answers to likely exam questions
Giving students writing frames to use in their controlled assessment
Teachers giving students hints during controlled assessment
Providing wording of sections of coursework to students
Opening exam papers before the specified time
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
Teachers in our survey reported a number of instances of dubious practice and malpractice:
[In my previous school] there was an inordinate amount of pressure put on teachers to
ensure that students achieved their target grades. … Teachers whose students did not
achieve a C grade or better in the controlled assessments were told to redo and redo and
redo the assessment until those grades were hit. One colleague conducted the same
speaking assessment with students up to 12 times! (Secondary, W)
I have heard and reported to management a Year 6 teacher and readers (mostly TAs) for
boasting in the corridor about how they helped the children answer the SATs questions!
The headteacher hushed it all up by telling the staff concerned to be careful, because if it
got out, the school would be known as a school of cheats! (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
In relation to the last example, Ballou and Springer (2015) showed that pupils do significantly better
when teachers invigilate tests for their own pupils. For example, teachers may stare pointedly at a
question the pupil has left unanswered, or simply give the child an encouraging look.
The Standards and Testing Agency in England reported a rise in ‘maladministration’ cases at Key Stage 1
and 2 from 168 cases in 2010 to 511 cases in 2013 (STA 2013, 2014). The most common causes for
reports of maladministration were wrongly opened test packs, over-aiding pupils and change of marked
scripts before review. While reported cases represent only a small number of schools, they provide
evidence of the increasing pressure on school staff to achieve better results.25 A primary headteacher said
in interview:
There is this ever-increasing pressure on schools … The number of schools that have been
investigated last year around falsifying SATs is evidence of that. I don’t think it’s right that
people did that, but I can understand why people end up doing things which leave them in
a vulnerable situation, because there is such a huge amount of pressure on schools and
people are so scared of what Ofsted is going to do to them if they haven’t got to the floor
targets or to the required level at the end of Year 6.
‘Gaming the system’ also includes school strategies concerning, for example, admissions. The
headteacher of Burlington Danes academy recently spoke out on the covert selection strategies that
some secondary school heads use to ensure an intake of high attaining, and in some cases, affluent,
pupils, and thus avoid the potential negative impact on attainment of disadvantaged pupils (The
Independent, 24 March 2015). Other school strategies involve removing some pupils from the roll before
exams, and trying to get exemption from the tests for pupils who are least likely to succeed, or trying
to get them extra time. All of these may be legitimate, but there are grey areas, and obvious potential
for dubious practice. One primary teacher (KS2, ‘Good’, W) reported:
I have been asked, along with another member of staff, to change NASSEA steps
assessments26 in order to get extra time in the SATs for our pupils. We are told to fill them
in in pencil. It also means the teachers’ assessments are ‘doctored’ by management so
that they show the right picture for Ofsted.
There is then, evidence that teachers in England are ‘gaming the system’, because they are under
pressure to achieve good results. In some cases they are being told to cheat. Such practices are
increasing in response to the intense pressure on school leaders and teachers to raise attainment as
measured by tests and examinations.
25 American research has shown that high stakes tests lead teachers to cheat e.g. Nichols and Berliner (2005), Ravitch (2010).
26 NASSEA steps assessment can be used to assess whether learners for whom English is an additional language also have
special educational needs, which might entitle them to extra time in the KS2 SATs.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
5.3.3 Formative feedback
When national testing was first introduced, the TGAT report (DES 1987) presented a strong case for
formative assessment. As a result the current pattern of statutory tests and examinations is intended
both to measure the effectiveness of schools and to give useful formative feedback to learners. The
Children, Schools and Families Committee (2008) argued that these purposes are incompatible. One of
the reasons that national tests are of little formative value is that both SATs and GCSEs come at the end
of a child’s time in their primary or secondary school, so it is inevitable that they provide little information
that can be used by teachers, and as Section 5.3.1 showed, secondary schools prefer to use different
tests to assess their new intake.
In the teacher survey conducted for this research, only six per cent of teachers agreed ‘a lot’, and a
further 40 per cent agreed ‘a little’, that: “Testing pupils helps them focus on what they do not
understand/know”. There was a similar pattern in the responses to: “In this school testing and targets
have helped raise attainment”; six per cent agreed ‘a lot’ and 50 per cent agreed ‘a little’.
5.3.4 Accountability and attainment gaps
The policy of successive governments has emphasised the importance of increasing social mobility by
reducing the gap between the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and their peers, and ensuring that
both groups progress at the same rate. The coalition government introduced Pupil Premium funding to
support this. Ofsted holds schools to account for how this funding is used, as well as for attainment gaps.
This focus has resulted in schools identifying, monitoring and tracking different groups of pupils. Teachers
expressed concern that in some schools pupils are visibly labelled, for example, by putting “small
coloured dots on all pupils’ books to show whether they are high, middle or low ability and another dot
to show SEN or Pupil Premium” (Primary, ‘RI’, W). There was also concern that while on average,
children from economically disadvantaged families do less well, this is not necessarily the case within
a specific class, and so it seems inappropriate that the funding be used to benefit only those pupils:
Pupil Premium pupils seem to have taken the centre stand in our school, which is ridiculous
considering that our Pupil Premium pupils regularly outperform their counterparts. I teach
in an area of high deprivation. … Any pupil who is falling below expected progression
should be targeted rather than a select group. (Primary, ‘Good’, W)
Some teachers were concerned that those not eligible for the Pupil Premium are explicitly excluded
from some support activities. A secondary teacher noted (‘RI’, W):
The Pupil Premium has distorted the focus so that non-Pupil Premium students are
excluded from targeted support if Pupil Premium money was used to pay for the
intervention. This includes offering enrichment or intervention after school and in holidays.
Even if a child wants to join in they are not allowed if they are not Pupil Premium. It is hard
to explain this to students in a sensitive way.
Moreover, teachers commented that the needs of those not eligible for the Pupil Premium tended to be
overlooked: “The focus and expectations of the attainment of Pupil Premium targeted children adversely
affects the progress of the rest of the class” (Primary, ‘Outstanding’, W). This resulted in some
resentment and disaffection among those not eligible for Pupil Premium funding:
The so-called average and less able are often disillusioned and some become ‘anti-school’
because they feel they do not matter. The excessive focus on the Pupil Premium
students is unfair and perceived as such by other students. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
Some teachers commented that Pupil Premium pupils were missing out on ‘fun’ school activities and
this was upsetting for them:
I work with Pupil Premium children and often have to take them out of class when others
are doing activities that they would like to do. They also miss assemblies, and I can see
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
their agitation when they can hear laughter and singing while they are having to do extra
work with me. (Primary, ‘RI’, W)
There was particular concern that the focus on Pupil Premium pupils was at the expense of those with
special educational needs (SEN):
I am very concerned about the SEN children. Pupil Premium has become the priority – SEN
child: no Pupil Premium – then no support. (Primary, ‘Inadequate’, W)
I have been told to forget the progress of SEN children and to focus on Pupil Premium as
with the limited resources we have only one group can get extra support! SEN children
without a statement are really suffering! (Primary, ‘RI’, W)
Despite making schools accountable for attainment gaps and the provision of funding, the attainment
gap at GCSE level between pupils eligible for Free School Meals and those who are not has remained
at about 27 percentage points throughout the last decade, though there has been some reduction in
the gap in primary schools. Measuring gaps between groups by reviewing the percentage of pupils
reaching the expected level ignores the fact that some groups of pupils are already ‘behind’ when they
enter school. There has therefore been a shift in emphasis to considering progress made while at a
school. However this still ignores the vast differences in children’s experiences outside school. Our
interviewees highlighted the variation in the home environment and parental support for children’s
learning, which means that disadvantaged pupils are unlikely to progress at the same rate as their more
affluent peers, and are extremely unlikely to progress faster.
How is it in any way sensible to ask for an extra level of progress in education for Pupil
Premium kids who are the least likely to be in a position to progress to that degree? How
can we ask that the most disadvantaged kids make the most and the best progress, over
and above kids from a more stable, more secure background? How mad is that?
(Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
While Ofsted are aware that “differences in educational attainment between individuals will always
exist” and that “family backgrounds have a strong influence on attainment”, they assert that, “factors
such as material poverty … are not by themselves insurmountable barriers to success,” and, “the very
best early years providers, schools and colleges make an enormous difference to the life-chances of
children and young people” (Ofsted 2013, p.18). Thus their argument is that all schools should be able
to achieve as well as the best. This assumes, of course, that the social and economic conditions of all
pupils eligible for Free School Meals are the same, which is clearly not the case.
There is no evidence that holding schools accountable will substantially reduce attainment gaps, particularly
in a context in which the economic gap between the richest and the poorest in society is increasing. Gorard
(2010) drew on a range of statistical evidence about attainment, and concluded that, “to a very large extent,
schools simply reflect the local population of their intakes” (p.59), and schools cannot do much to change
this. Research has shown that home background is a much larger influence than the school attended and
thus attainment gaps are very difficult to reduce. Rasbash et al (2010) examined variation in pupils’ progress
at secondary school and concluded that only 20 per cent of this is attributable to school quality. Most of
the variation related to family factors, the neighbourhood and so on. Other estimates of the ‘school effect’
are lower: Wiliam (2010) reported that OECD analysis showed that in the USA, only eight per cent of the
variability in maths scores related to the quality of education provided by the school, and analysis of data
in England showed that the school effect contributes only seven per cent of the variance in attainment
between pupils. Some research has suggested that accountability measures have the opposite effect,
tending to widen gaps because those with lower attainment may become discouraged following poor test
results, and lose motivation (Harlen and Deakin Crick 2002).
A further concern is that when only a small number of children in a school are disadvantaged, the specific
characteristics of the individuals and their circumstances assumes greater importance, and may easily
be very different from the national average pattern. However, interviewees reported that the Ofsted
inspectors in their schools had focused only on the group level data, and were not prepared to listen to
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
information about individual circumstances, or what pupils had achieved. A secondary SEN Coordinator
(SENCO) reported (I):
[Ofsted inspectors] asked me how the SEN students did. I said ‘They did OK.’ They shot
me down and said ‘No, they didn’t. They were atrocious.’ I said, ‘Well, all of them were
happy, fully involved in school life, got the grades they needed and every single one of
them got to where they wanted to go after this school. I consider that success. We had
people that weren’t wanting to come to school, they were bullied … but now they’re a full
member of the school.’ The inspectors weren’t interested in that. Didn’t care. They just
cared about the fact that they hadn’t made so many levels of progress.
5.4 Impact on curriculum
Governments have often used accountability measures to steer pupils toward particular subjects or
aspects of subjects; there are many examples of this:
• Initially secondary league tables reported the percentage of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs
at grade C and above; from 2006, English and mathematics had to be included;
• Since 2010 when the English Baccalaureate (E-Bacc) was introduced, league tables have recorded
the percentage of students in a school who achieve A*-C grades in English, mathematics, science,
a foreign language and history or geography;
• Since 2014, certain vocational qualifications no longer ‘count’ in secondary league tables;
• From 2016, Progress 8 will be the main measure used for secondary schools; it will measure
pupils’ progress and attainment in eight subjects including the E-Bacc subjects;
• In primary schools, science testing was discontinued from 2010; and
• The phonics screening check for six-year-olds was introduced in 2012 to encourage schools to
use phonics as the main method of teaching reading.
In addition to these changes to accountability measures, the Coalition Government introduced a new
curriculum, which clearly impacts on what schools will be held to account for.
Teachers in this research raised serious concerns about the impact of such measures, arguing that pupils
are now experiencing a narrower curriculum; that the increased academic demands are inappropriate
for some pupils; and that some pupils are ‘not ready’ for what they are required to learn.
5.4.1 Narrowing the curriculum
Previous research about the impact of high stakes testing has shown that an increased focus on the
demands of the test means that children experience a narrower curriculum (e.g. Clarke et al. 2003; Jones
and Egley 2004; Children, Schools and Families Committee 2008; Rothstein et al 2008; Alexander 2010).
The data collected for this research shows that teachers consider that children in England today are
experiencing a narrower curriculum than in the past, and that this affects pupils with low attainment,
disadvantaged pupils and those with special needs to an even greater degree.
In our survey, 97 per cent of teachers agreed that there is “an increased focus on maths and English
teaching” in their schools. This is because these are the only subjects tested in primary schools, while
in secondary schools, passes in English and maths are crucial for the league tables. The inevitable
consequence of having a greater focus on certain subjects is that others are allocated less teaching
time and are seen as less important. Donaldson, in his recent review of the curriculum in Wales (2015,
p.10) asserts that: “At its most extreme, the mission of primary schools can almost be reduced to the
teaching of literacy and numeracy and of secondary schools to preparation for qualifications”. Reports
have highlighted the reduction in time spent on personal and social development (Harlen and Deakin
Crick 2002), science in primary schools (CBI 2015) and the creative arts (Neelands et al 2015). Thus,
while the government states that the curriculum should be “balanced and broadly based” (DfE 2013a),
accountability measures tend to narrow the range of what is taught. The Children, Schools and Families
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
Committee (2008) concluded that “any efforts by the government to introduce more breadth into the
school curriculum are likely to be undermined by the enduring imperative for schools, created by the
accountability measures, to ensure that their pupils perform well in national tests” (para 140).
In primary schools, many teachers reported that the amount of time spent on maths and English
increases in Year 6 in order to prepare for the SATs, and that other curriculum areas (such as music, art,
design and technology, topic work) are consequently taught less, or not at all. An interviewee explained:
At the top of Key Stage 2, definitely in Year 6 and to some extent in Year 5, the curriculum
is narrowed to reading, writing and maths because that’s what we’re held accountable for
and we’ve got to get those children to a certain level. (Primary, I)
In secondary schools the amount of time spent on maths and English has also increased at the expense
of other subjects, which are also valuable:
Non E-Bacc subjects, e.g. drama, are having reduced timetables to make more lesson time
for English and Maths. Many students are losing out on subjects where they can succeed
and gain confidence. Drama is a subject which is invaluable in gaining life skills,
(teamwork/cooperation, presentation, speaking and listening) … and which really helps
build confidence and self-esteem. School should help to prepare students for life, not just
academic achievement and exams. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
One teacher reported that form time is now used for literacy and numeracy rather than pastoral issues:
We are sent literacy and numeracy projects to do in form time instead of getting to know
students better and dealing with pastoral issues. These tasks are not optional and take up
all form times that are not assemblies. (Secondary, ‘RI’, W)
Both primary and secondary teachers pointed out that the lower-attaining pupils are often removed from
other lessons to do extra maths and English, and that they therefore spend more of their time on these
subjects, and “miss out on the art and the PE and the history and the geography and the ICT” (Primary
I). Such narrowing of the curriculum was reported for children as a young as six who have been identified
as having low attainment:
These children are pulled out of broad curriculum subjects to try to close the gap. Their
experience at school must be horrible – in assembly they’ve got to do phonics intervention,
then a phonics lesson, a literacy lesson, a maths lesson, lunch, reading, extra reading
intervention and then speech intervention. What else are they learning about the world?
They are six years old, and all their school experience tells them is that they are failures
(already) and have to be pulled out constantly to work on things their peers can already do,
and miss out on the fun bits of learning. (KS1, ‘Good’, W)
Such pupils are often those who are disadvantaged and may be less likely to have access to wider
learning and cultural opportunities outside school. Moreover, as an interviewee explained: “some
children never participate in learning that they actually enjoy and never experience any success.”
While some of the pupils interviewed in the case studies accepted the dominance of English and maths
because, they said, these are the “two main subjects”, many others questioned that analysis, arguing
that what they learned in maths and English would not all be useful to them in the future. Some argued
strongly that they should be learning more things that were practically useful, and several primary pupil
groups argued for more science.
The drive to focus on maths and English was a considerable concern identified in the comments of many
of the special school teachers who completed the survey, as well as in the case study special school.
They argued that their pupils’ main need was to learn life skills; one teacher wrote:
At post 16, I’m still expected to assess their maths and English despite the fact that they
are 16 plus and still can’t talk, toilet themselves or feed themselves. The life skills that I
try to promote, and independence skills, don’t show up on any official chart, but this is
where I try to concentrate. The curriculum is totally unrealistic for most of my school.
(Special, ‘Good’, W)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
5.4.2 Greater emphasis on academic subjects
When league tables were first introduced, some secondary schools encouraged more pupils to take
vocational subjects. This was because they counted as equivalent to GCSEs in league tables, but more
pupils achieved good marks, resulting in higher attainment figures for the school. Thus, as Wolf explains,
“the system of performance indicators … used to measure schools’ performance at the end of Key
Stage 4 resulted in an enormous rise in the number of ‘vocational’ awards taken by young people”
(2011, p.80). This had a negative impact on some pupils who were taking qualifications that were
accorded little value by employers and further and higher education institutions rather than taking
academic GCSEs that might have been of greater value for their futures. Following the Wolf report (2011)
the government has restricted the qualifications that can be included as equivalent GCSEs. While the
trend to encourage pupils to take vocational subjects could be seen as a form of ‘gaming the system’,
and arguably needed addressing, interviewees claimed that the strategies to address it have gone too
far the other way, and students are now being encouraged or “forced”, to take academic subjects that
are not suitable for them.
In our survey, 93 per cent of respondents said there is “an increased focus on academic subjects” in
their schools, and 86 per cent of secondary teachers agreed that: “Pupils are encouraged to take
subjects that will count in the league tables irrespective of their own interests/aptitudes.” Many
commented on this, for example:
Students are absolutely being directed towards option choices which meet needs of school
first. (Secondary, ‘Inadequate’, W)
Some students in our schools are being forced to take subjects that they are a) not
interested in b) not capable of achieving a good grade in i.e. computer science at GCSE.
This is so that more students can be put through the E-Bacc. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
As well as expressing concern about the suitability of the subjects students were “forced” to take, and
their chances of success, teachers argued that this was affecting motivation and behaviour: “they’re
some of the ones that are actually now causing us the most problems because they’re not engaged”
(Secondary, I). This interviewee explained that the school had therefore had to make other arrangements
for some students:
A lot of them started the year doing history, geography and so on and we’ve had to
revisit that and say, this isn’t working, and we’ve had to try and put in some kind of programme.
… We’ve seen that trying to do what the government says doesn’t work, at least with some
of our students, and it’s not fair to keep trying to do that. (Secondary, I)
This had led the school leadership team to question:
Do we constantly try and just hit the targets of whatever the government is saying at the
present time or do we do what we think is best for our students and face the consequences?
In particular, teachers were concerned about the impact on some pupils with special needs, who were
“forced” into taking subjects that teachers considered to be at too high a level. This was done entirely
as a response to accountability measures:
Students who are part of a special unit, who have never studied subjects such as history,
geography and languages, are forced into doing them at GCSE so the school can fulfil the
government’s Progress 8 measurement. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
In my school, pupils with SEND are not offered a suitable curriculum at GCSE e.g. entry level
or a vocational subject as these do not ‘count’ in the league tables. They are forced through a
curriculum at KS4 and KS3 at a pace that is far too fast and at too high a level. This is distressing
for pupils, knocks their confidence and is waste of time. (Secondary SENCO, ‘Good’, W)
The case study special school headteacher explained that, as a result of her concerns about Ofsted
and their focus on RAISEonline, some of the pupils with learning difficulties were taking foundation
tier GCSEs:
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
In order to get points [on RAISEonline] we’ve introduced GCSEs, even though we feel
they’re not a relevant exam for our children, and in the world if you’ve got a G in English
or maths it doesn’t count for anything. But we are telling our children it matters, it’s
important … We’re selling them an untruth you know in order for us to get points.
5.4.3 More rigorous
The coalition government has recently introduced a new curriculum designed to be “challenging and
ambitious”, and which includes “more demanding content” at earlier ages (Gove 2013a). This will be
reflected in what is tested:
The draft primary national curriculum programmes of study for English, maths and science
are more demanding than the existing national curriculum. They align England with those
countries that have the highest-performing school systems. (DfE 2012)
The new GCSEs in English language and English literature set higher expectations; they
demand more from all students and provide further challenges for those aiming to achieve
top grades. (DfE 2013b)
The new mathematics GCSE will demand deeper and broader mathematical understanding
... and we anticipate that schools will want to increase the time spent teaching
mathematics. (Gove 2013b)
In addition, changes have been made to exam structures, reducing or removing coursework options and
modular structures, and in English, not counting marks achieved for speaking and listening, and removing
the option to take a Foundation tier assessment (which enabled students to achieve only grades from
C to G).
Among our survey respondents and case study interviewees, the main concerns about these changes related
to the impact on pupils with lower attainment. A secondary SENCO noted in interview that the increasing
challenge in mathematics was already proving to be a problem because some students could not cope:
Maths is becoming a lot more difficult. … You have students who start to work out, I can’t
do this and I’m never going to be able to do this. Every lesson is another lesson where I’m
falling further and further behind in my understanding. We know what impact that’s
going to have.
He argued that students became disaffected, anxious or depressed because they are not able to cope
with the work they are asked to do. He went on:
You can’t cure that with counselling, learning mentoring and all the things that we do have in
place … You can’t be counselling them for what you are putting them through at school. …
Our clientele [in student support] is going to increase and their problems are going to become
– wider let’s say – because of the academic pressures that are being placed on them.
Similar concerns were expressed about the impact on pupils with special needs:
There are pupils in Year 6 with SEN who should not have to take SATs. They would benefit
from learning life skills, building their confidence and self-esteem. … They are constantly
comparing themselves with their more able peers. They struggle and regularly feel like
they are failing in English and maths. They thrive in music and drama but only receive music
once a week for 40 minutes and drama is a rare treat. (Primary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
A secondary SENCO expressed anxiety about the long-term future for some children with specific
learning difficulties; he described a boy with dyslexia who was already struggling, and for whom the
additional rigour might prove too much:
He’s going to find it far more difficult now with this new curriculum offer, and I worry about
the impact on somebody like that; what options does he have, and how is he going to
manage, and what becomes of him at 16? (Secondary SENCO, I)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
In the case study special school, some pupils were taking Foundation tier GCSE English in 2014, but
this option could not be offered to the next cohort because the changes to the exam (outlined above)
made it too challenging for them. This was an issue of considerable concern for the pupils who were
interviewed as they believed that having taken GCSEs might be important for their future options:
It’s a crisis really for Year 9s because they’re not going to learn the stuff that we learned.
They’re not going to learn new things really and when they go on to colleges, unis and get
jobs it’s going to be hard for them because they haven’t done the GCSEs. (Year 11 pupil)
While their perception of the potential benefits of a low grade GCSE pass were perhaps over-optimistic,
the key point here is that they felt less included as a result of changes to the exam system. When GCSEs
were first introduced, one of the aims was to offer qualifications which could be accessed by all pupils;
making them more rigorous can be seen as a divisive move.
5.4.4 Pupils being asked to learn things for which they are not ready
One consequence of the increased demands of the curriculum was that many teachers said that children
were being asked to learn things that they are not ready to learn. Some 90 per cent of teachers agreed
in our survey that this happens; this included 95 per cent of primary and 84 per cent of secondary teachers.
In the early years, teachers described having to make children sit down and tackle academic work in a
way that was inappropriate to their level of emotional maturity. This was leading to ‘silly’ behaviour and
lack of motivation, particularly among summer-born boys. The introduction of the phonics test has
contributed to this pressure. The comment below is typical of many that were written on the survey:
This term we have seen Year 1 pupils become anxious about not keeping up with the rest
of the class. They feel they do not have enough time to finish work. Due to raised
expectations of National Curriculum, teachers have felt the need to increase maths and
spelling homework in Year 1. Parents have commented that they are concerned by the
expectations and that their child is not ready. … Teachers feel under pressure to make
progress despite knowing that socially and physically the children need more time to learn
through play. (KS1, ‘Good’, W)
The concern here was not simply that children and parents were anxious, but also about the longer-term
impacts on children’s learning:
Pushing them too soon, and exposing them to things they are not developmentally ready
for, risks holes in their knowledge and understanding at a later date. (Foundation,
‘Outstanding’, W)
In being asked to learn things before they are ready, they are turned off education. (KS1,RI’, W)
Moving children on before they are ready is not confined to the early years; KS2 teachers also talked
about readiness:
Teachers tend to push the pupils, whether they are ready or not, because of the pressures
they feel to get these children to make two sub-levels of progress or more. (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
I regularly have children in tears in my Year 6 class as I relentlessly push them towards
some stupid target regardless of whether they are either academically or emotionally ready.
Someone in government has determined that ‘this is what an 11-year-old must be able to
do.’ (KS2, ‘RI’, W)
And, as discussed above, accounts were given of the impact of encouraging pupils to take academic
GCSEs for which they were not ready, and many teachers in special schools commented on the
inappropriateness of trying to teach their students aspects of the academic curriculum for which they
were not ready or which were not appropriate for their needs.
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
5.4.5 The impact of the phonics check
The introduction of a Phonics Screening Check (test) to be taken by six-year-olds was designed to
influence how children are taught to read.27Bradbury (2014) wrote: “By creating another statutory test
which schools can be judged on, the Coalition Government has managed to change what teachers teach,
and in turn what is valued within Year 1 classrooms.” Indeed, her research shows that “the pressure of
the phonics test has spread down into Reception and even Nursery classes.” This was certainly happening
in the case study schools visited as part of this research. A Foundation stage teacher explained:
Since they brought in the [phonics] testing in Year 1, that’s put pressure on us. We make
sure obviously that we get them as high as we can, so then Year 1 haven’t got as much to
do. It’s hard because some children just aren’t ready … they’re not mature enough. We’ve
started streaming our phonics so we’ve got three groups now, lower ability, an average
and an upper. (Primary, I)
It was reported that some pupils found such strategies upsetting:
It is heart-breaking to have a four-year-old approach me in tears because they ‘are still in
the bad group for reading’ because they have already been streamed in phonics at age
four! (Primary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
Schools are required to report to parents their child’s score, and whether or not they have met the
standard. Many teachers expressed concern about the effect on both children and their parents of being
told that they have ‘failed’ at age six.
I find it very disheartening that in Year 1 we assess a child and then have to send home
something to parents to say whether their child is good enough or not. So you’re starting their
career in education in a primary school by saying ‘your child can or can’t do something’ when
we know that phonics isn’t the be all and end all of being able to read, there are children who
just don’t really engage with phonics, but actually are very good readers. (Primary head, I)
While the pass rate on the phonics check has risen, research suggests that this is simply because
children are being prepared effectively for the test (Bradbury 2014). Waugh (2014), an advocate of
phonics teaching, has acknowledged that:
When the tests were introduced, many teachers complained that the use of pseudo or
nonsense words was a problem for more able children, who tried to make sense of them
and turn them into real words. I know many teachers who now devote a lot of time to
teaching children how to read invented words to help them pass the test.
Bradbury questioned whether teaching children to read invented words is actually a useful activity. Staff
in the case study schools said that the phonics check had not improved pupils’ reading, or informed
what teachers do; one headteacher explained in interview:
We did pretty poorly the first year that the Phonics Check came out and then we practised
for it the following year and our results were marvellous, but of course that took time from
other elements of the curriculum. [And has that improved their reading?] We’ve always
been a very strong reading school. … It doesn’t give our teachers any additional knowledge
and it doesn’t inform our planning.
A Key Stage 1 teacher explained that some children learn to read without phonics: “it is clear that some
children don’t learn purely by phonics. I have had some children who have coped well on a reading SAT
better than others, but failed the phonics test second time!” Moreover, the focus on phonics is reducing
time spent on other aspects of learning, including reading strategies:
27 This discussion is included in this section on the assumption that there is a ‘reading curriculum’; it could equally have been
included in the next section which focuses on teaching and learning.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
I am now seeing gaps in learning where children are not making as much progress in other
areas. They also have gaps within literacy, as all the focus is on phonics, so children are
not learning other key reading strategies. Often they don’t even realise it is a story they
are reading! (Foundation, ‘Outstanding’, W)
Teachers were particularly concerned about the impact on children’s self-esteem and confidence of
being told that they are failing at such a young age:
Already I have had parents complain that their child is crying and not wanting to come to
school because they ‘can’t do the reading’. (Foundation, ‘Outstanding’, W)
5.5 Impact on teaching and learning
Accountability measures have undoubtedly impacted on how children are taught, and what they learn.
This section discusses test preparation; the reduction in opportunities to learn in practical creative and
investigative ways; the lack of variety in lessons; the impact of targets; written feedback; and additional
teaching during school hours or after school.
5.5.1 Time spent on test preparation
Paralleling the narrowing of the curriculum resulting from the focus on maths and English and, in
secondary schools, other ‘academic’ subjects, there has been a narrowing of pedagogy resulting
from the focus on test preparation. This has led teachers to focus on short-term memorisation and
‘test tactics’ rather than deep learning and understanding (Children, Schools and Families Committee
This affects pupils in Year 6 and Year 11 more than the other years because these are the years in
which Key Stage 2 SATs and GCSE examinations take place. Some lessons consist of test-related
activities such as practice tests and “giving feedback on topics from the test paper that were not done
correctly” (Secondary, ‘Outstanding’, W). One teacher wrote: “In Year 6 from Christmas onwards, we
will be training them to pass SATs tests – with test after test after test. No fun at all for the children”
(KS2, ‘RI’, W).
Sixth form pupils commented on the negative impact of focusing teaching on exam preparation:
Particularly at GCSE, and like there are certain A levels, you find yourself spending a whole
year worshipping a text book, like learning it inside out to regurgitate it for an hour and a
half exam, and then you put it in the back of your mind forever. I feel it’s not the best way
to maximise people’s potential.
5.5.2 Less time for investigation, creative activity, play, reflection, stories
There is great deal of research which shows that children do not all learn in the same ways: a range of
different learning styles have been identified. While critics have argued that it is simplistic to assign
individuals to specific styles, there seems no doubt that not everyone finds the same approach effective,
and in particular, that some children learn effectively through doing things, rather than reading, writing
or listening. It is clearly important, then, that teachers include a range of different learning opportunities
to suit different children, including creative, investigative and practical activities as well as listening,
reading, writing etc. Younger children in particular need such opportunities. It has been shown that young
children learn most effectively through guided play (e.g. Weisberg et al 2013). But there is extensive
international evidence, reviewed by Lobascher (2011), that high stakes testing and accountability
measures discourage creative teaching.
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
Figure 8: Percentage of respondents in mainstream schools agreeing with statements about
different learning activities, by phase (N = 6,756)
In our survey, 93 per cent of teachers agreed that: “The focus on academic targets means there are
fewer opportunities for creative, investigative and practical activities” while only 16 per cent agreed
that: “Pupils have ample opportunities for investigation/ exploration/ play.” Responses indicated that
even those in early years settings felt the impact of academic targets, though to a lesser extent than
their primary and secondary counterparts (see Figure 8).
The survey also showed that stories play a much smaller role in schools than they used to, even in
primary schools, two thirds of respondents agreed that: “Pupils rarely have opportunities to read/listen
to stories for pleasure in school.” A large majority (83 per cent) agreed that “Pupils do not have enough
time to reflect.”
A teacher commented on the survey that his/her own child’s behaviour had worsened since he had had
fewer opportunities to learn through play:
We have a Year 1 son and his opportunities for play and creative stuff have really fallen
this year. … Since seeing this curtailed, our lad has shown a real rise in anti-social behaviour.
He loves the outside, the chance to move around.
Many teachers said they would prefer to have more creative and investigative activities in their lessons,
and gave various reasons why this was not happening. The most common was the pressure to cover
the syllabus and prepare for tests or exams. For example, a secondary interviewee explained that
impending exams meant she felt under pressure to cover the syllabus rather than to allow time for
reflection and consolidation of learning. Similarly, a primary teacher wrote:
I am unable to spend time on the more creative activities because the curriculum is
too crammed and statistics are the driving force behind everything we do. (Primary,
‘Good’, W)
A primary maths coordinator (I) explained that his school had introduced a maths curriculum based around
investigation. Most teachers were very enthusiastic, but it had not been put into practice in two classes,
Year 2 and Year 6. Both teachers had explained that this was a result of the pressure to prepare for the
SATs: the maths coordinator said that “rehearsing SATs papers” was seen by teachers as “a low risk
strategy” whereas spending time on investigation would be a risk. A teacher in another school
commented that creative teaching had not paid off in terms of test results:
Although as a school we have been encouraged to pursue a more creative curriculum this
has led to ‘lower’ attainment in KS1. We are now being asked to keep the creativity but
The focus on academic targets
means that there are fewer
opportunities for creative,
investigative and practical
Pupils have ample opportunities
for investigation/exploration/
Pupils do not have enough time
to reflect
Pupils rarely have opportunities
to read/listen to stories for
pleasure in school
Early years Primary Secondary Sixth form
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
ensure national expectations are exceeded. This is impossible because national expectations
cannot be met without lots of repetition and rote learning. (Primary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
Another reason for a reduction in creative and investigative activities was the perceived need to produce
evidence of learning in pupils’ books which could be shown to Ofsted:
During a recent science investigation involving a carousel of activities, I was so stressed
trying to make sure each child did the ‘written’ activities at each table that they actually
stopped enjoying it. I also missed so much of the talk for learning as I just wanted to get
that ‘evidence’ to go into their books. (Primary, ‘Good’, W)
An NQT felt unable to teach creatively because she was constrained by having to do the same as the
other teachers in her year group:
Any creativity or passion has been taken out of me by the need to deliver exactly the same
lessons as my year group partners. (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
Secondary teachers said they were limited by the need to cover the curriculum:
The KS4 curriculum allows little time for teachers to be flexible with how we teach and be
creative. I will end up teaching an idea in a way that you’re just telling pupils what they
need to know rather than them having the opportunity to discover answers for themselves
because of the packed curriculum. (Secondary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
5.5.3 Lack of variety in lessons
Many teachers in our survey and case studies described the tendency for all lessons to have similar
structures. This was required by senior leaders in some schools. This was illustrated in many of the
comments on the survey:
Consistent use of PowerPoint presentations to be used at specific points during a lesson.
Mandatory for all lessons. The PowerPoints will be uniform for each class. Only adaptations
allowed would be adjusting certain frames to suit the lesson. Learning Intentions, Levelled
Success Criteria and lesson specific vocabulary displayed and referred to regularly during
every lesson. (Primary, ‘Good’, W)
Every lesson must have WALT 28, success criteria, plus feedback to children and evidence
they have read and responded to feedback. This must all be shown on books and planning.
(Primary, ‘Good’, W)
As Section 3.1 showed, such requirements were significantly more often made in vulnerable and
challenging schools (those with low attainment or negative Ofsted judgements or with a higher number
of disadvantaged pupils).
A senior leader in one of the case study ‘RI’ schools commented that the staff there had previously
prided themselves on the imaginative and creative lessons they offered, but that in preparation for their
next inspection they had moved to more uniform (and dull) lesson structures. A number of teachers
commented that structuring all lessons in the same way, together with the focus on meeting targets
and preparing for exams or tests, meant that children were bored.
As a teacher you are not allowed to teach any more. You have to deliver a subject in a
generic way just the same way as every other teacher…. This does not allow for any
creativity or originality that pupils thrive on. As a result pupils are bored. They know the
format of the lesson before you start and rather than see this routine as helpful and logical
they see it as dull and boring. Imagine being a pupil and having these types of lesson every
day, every week, every year. (Secondary, ‘RI’, W)
28 WALT – We Are Learning To …
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
Our greatest crime is that school is becoming essentially boring. Curiosity and wonder in
the beautiful world around us is being stifled. (Special, ‘RI’, W)
But even where uniformity was not explicitly required, many teachers commented that their teaching
was less creative and varied than they would ideally have liked. They said that this was a result of the
pressure of academic targets; the perceived need to cover the curriculum; and perceptions of what
Ofsted inspectors are looking for. While it was acknowledged that Ofsted no longer set requirements
about lesson structure, many teachers still use the structure they adopted some years ago when
Ofsted focused on the three-part lesson, because this way of teaching has become “drilled in”
(Secondary, I).
A primary teacher also talked about the pressure to cover the syllabus and said this had a negative impact
on the way she was teaching:
‘That’s what you’ve got to teach, and you’ve got to teach them that,’ and that’s too stifling.
… I don’t want to be some robot stood in front of kids. And again the children don’t like
that. I think this is the hardest year I’ve felt being squeezed in creativity. …. you’re feeling
pressure that you’ve got to get that out of the way so you can make sure that they are
making that progress. (Primary, I)
This teacher used the term “robot” to describe the way she felt she was being forced to teach. Many
other teachers across all phases and type of school used similar metaphors:
It feels like we are in a factory at times, producing identikit children! It’s hard to support
creativity and my teaching feels highly constrained and dictated by Ofsted and
accountability requirements. (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
If it isn’t relevant to a test then it is not seen as a priority. This puts too much pressure on
pupils; too much emphasis on academic subjects; and creates a dull, repetitive curriculum
that has no creativity. It is like a factory production line chugging out identical little robots
with no imagination, already labelled as failures if they haven’t achieved the right level on
a test. (KS1, ‘Good’, W)
When pupils talked about lessons that were effective, they said they learned most in lessons that were
“different” because they were memorable. They talked positively about lessons where they made
models, engaged in role play, etc. A Year 12 pupil said:
I learn by doing, and if I’m not doing something, I’ll get distracted or I might lose
focus. Like with sociology, we recently had a quiz with buzzers and stuff so then
everyone got involved … but we was all learning. And then with maths, we’d have like
charts around the wall and you’d have to find the answers and so it was like you’re actively
In another school, a Year 11 pupil commented:
We get told in about Year 9 that kids learn differently, and when you get to revising they
say try different revision methods, but that’s not really being enforced in the way the
teachers are told to teach. That’s what they are saying; teach like this and this and I don’t
think it helps teachers. I don’t think it helps the students either.
5.5.4 Impact of targets on teaching and learning
Targets feature strongly in lesson planning and teaching. Figure 9 shows teachers’ responses to
statements about targets on the survey. While a substantial majority agreed that targets had negative
impacts, far fewer agreed that targets were useful for teachers or pupils.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Figure 9: Impact of targets: Percentage of all respondents giving each response (N = 7,506)
The teachers and pupils we interviewed all talked about targets. However, the examples they gave
showed that there were different types of target:
Targets in terms of specific things a child needs to learn: These were sometimes identified by written
feedback on work. Primary pupils most often used targets in this sense:
When we do a Big Write our targets are like, to write in full sentences, to write in
paragraphs, full sentences with apostrophes, with commas, with full stops and once you
complete one target you’ll get a new one on what you need to work on, and it will keep
going like that until the writing’s 100 per cent perfect and then even then I think you still
get targets. (Year 6 pupil)
A primary headteacher said that in his school, [pupils’] targets are always about next steps. They’re
always about what they need to do in order to get better at what they’re doing.” Pupils talking about
targets of this sort said they were generally helpful, though the Year 6 pupil quoted above expressed
some frustration that there was always yet another target to achieve.
Targets in terms of a level to be reached: (using National Curriculum or other levels or, GCSE grade
targets). End of key stage targets are calculated on the basis of the child’s results during the previous
key stage and targets for intervening years set accordingly. Thus a Year 7 pupil reported that his target
in maths was a 5B. A Year 6 pupil argued that having targets in term of levels was not helpful, “because
you can’t always improve unless they teach you what you need to do, like, how to improve.”
Moreover, both teachers and pupils argued that such targets may be unrealistic, and this can have a
negative impact. A pupil explained that one of her targets was surprisingly low:
Like in psychology, they gave me a target grade from the government. Gave it to me and
it was a C and I was like, ‘No I want to get higher than a C.’ … Some people think, ‘Oh
that must be all I can get,’ and sometimes that can put people down. (Year 12 pupil)
But more often target grades were seen to be too high, because they were based on an over-inflated
view of a pupil’s prior attainment that had resulted from a great deal of test preparation. In one school,
the Year 12 pupils interviewed explained why this was a problem:
Sometimes I think the targets are quite unrealistic cos if you’ve been doing well since primary
cos they always expect five levels of progress. It’s like, what if you left primary with like the
highest grades possible? Then you’re expected to get A*s by the time you’re in Year 11 and
then expecting As throughout A Levels. It’s not realistic for everyone. (Year 12 pupil)
Pupils argued that it was unreasonable to base grade predictions on what they had achieved at primary
school, which felt to them to be past history: “I think secondary school is a fresh start so I don’t think
we should have based our target grades on what we got from primary school.”
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%
Agree a lot Agree a little Disagree a little Disagree a lot Don’t know Not applicable
The focus on academic targets means that there are fewer
opportunities for creative, investigative and practical activities
Tar ge ts c a n ge t in t he w ay o f do in g wh at i s in t h e be st
interests of individual pupils
The focus on targets places a great deal of pressure on pupils
The focus on academic targets means that social and
emotional aspects of education tend to be neglected
Targets give pupils a clear idea of what they need to learn
In this school testing and targets have helped raise attainment
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on choice of schools, attainment,
curriculum and teaching and learning
A number of secondary teachers explained that a particular difficulty was the use of primary school
attainment in English and mathematics to set targets in completely different subjects such as modern
foreign languages (MFL), art and music.
The targets we are working towards [in MFL] are based on English KS2 grades. … Now
they have to be level 6 in KS3 and get a C at GCSE and that is decided before they walk
into their very first secondary MFL lesson and before anyone has any idea what their
aptitude for MFL is. Students have extra pressure on them to reach their target grade,
even though their current grade is honestly the best they can do and they are doing their
best. (Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
Targets for most subjects are based on SATs English score – this is irrelevant to my own
subject (art) where a reading and writing ability does not translate into a practical or creative
ability, making the targets a complete nonsense... And the bane of my teaching life!
(Secondary, ‘Good’, W)
I teach music at secondary level. My students are set targets based on KS2 English ability.
My students’ ability in English is largely irrelevant. Therefore the targets they receive for
my subject are often unattainable and I am unable to pass my pay progression. This situation
is ridiculous! Demoralising for me and my students. (Secondary, ‘Inadequate’’, W)
These unrealistic targets create stress for both students and teachers. Teachers argued that while some
pupils are motivated by target levels or grades, in other cases, the effect is the opposite:
Target grades are unrealistically high in many cases, and actually demotivate pupils, making
them feel they have failed even if they have progressed. (Secondary, ‘Outstanding’, W)
I see a lot of anxiety amongst youngsters especially boys, very anxious and it breaks out in
frustration. They start to learn when they’re eight, nine, ten and it’s, ‘they can do that and I
can’t.’ ‘I’m not meeting my target and those people are.’ It’s very sad to see. (Primary head, I)
A group of sixth form students argued that a key problem with targets is that they are focused on
academic attainment, and so other talents or qualities that young people have may be ignored:
With targets, sometimes it flows over unique things, like there are certain things that
can’t really be examined but they’re really good, like personal qualities that people have,
but they get forgotten and it makes people lose a bit of faith in themselves and they
doubt themselves and they can’t really reach their potential, I don’t think. (Year 12 pupil)
A primary headteacher argued in interview that targets and tests result in shallow and superficial learning:
If it’s just ‘this is your target and what you have to achieve’, … that’s not going to help
them in the long run, it’s not that deep learning. It’s superficial for the next test and I think
it puts kids off.
5.5.5 Written feedback
Section 3 showed that one of the most common strategies that schools have in relation to accountability
is a marking policy and regular monitoring of pupils’ books. This has been adopted because Ofsted
inspect books and marking. Policies typically require the teacher to write developmental or ‘next steps’
comments in green ink, pupils to respond, and teachers to check the response. This vastly increases
the workload of teachers.
In March 2015, while the fieldwork for this research was in progress, Ofsted issued further clarification
on this:
I recognise that marking and feedback to pupils, both written and oral, are important aspects
of assessment. However, as inspectors we should not expect to see any specific frequency,
type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its
assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy, which may
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
cater for different subjects and different age groups of pupils in different ways, in order to
promote learning effectively. These activities need to be useful for pupils and sustainable
for teachers. (Harford 2015)
However, the head of a secondary school which had recently been judged ‘RI’ commented (I):
HMI put out a paper saying that … all this obsession with pupils’ response to marking is
something that Ofsted do not require, but we’re all doing it because Ofsted seemed to
make it pretty clear when they came, if you weren’t doing it, you were falling short of what
they expected to see.
Some teachers argued that the policy of consistently putting next steps discouraged some children:
Pressure on marking giving feedback to improve can be detrimental – this is a great bit of
work because you did this, this and this but it would have been better if you did this as
well. Some children find it helpful, others find it crushing. (Primary, ‘Outstanding’ W)
The pupil quoted in the previous section (see page 50) talking about Big Write targets seemed to share
this view. While teachers all believed that it was important to give pupils feedback, they did not think it
necessarily all had to be in writing. Many Key Stage One teachers commented that it was pointless
writing feedback to children who could not yet read fluently:
The children are expected to respond to my comments despite the fact that they are in
Year 1 and most cannot read and write independently. I have to read most comments to
the children and then scribe their responses. (KS1, ‘RI’, W)
This activity was time-consuming, and could be a negative experience for the children, emphasising
what they could not yet do (read and write fluently).
While pupils said that written feedback was helpful because you could re-read it, they also said feedback
did not all need to be written:
It’s easy enough to ignore like, written feedback. If they tell you what you need to do, it
will help you. You’ll take them more seriously because they’ve taken time out of their day
to make sure that message is loud and clear to you. (Year 11 pupil)
Some pupils said they had some difficulty responding to teachers’ comments (other than spelling
corrections), and were not sure what they were supposed to write.
5.5.6 Interventions, booster groups, and additional classes
Section 3.4 showed that additional teaching is a common strategy. Interventions and groups of various
kinds are provided for those preparing for tests, those who are underachieving, or for Pupil Premium
pupils. Some pupils commented that they found after-school revision sessions very helpful in the time
leading up to GCSEs:
Especially from my class there were loads of people after school, and that’s one of the
subjects I really struggled in but I think I did get a lot of help in maths because the teachers
… pushed us to come back, revise after school, do this and do that. (Year 12 pupil)
More concerns were expressed about the impact of interventions in school time, and the effects they
had both in terms of narrowing the curriculum for certain pupils and in labelling them; these have been
discussed earlier in the report. Some teachers reported that students could be resentful when they had
to miss other enjoyable activities:
You do get students who do get resentful of missing out on certain lessons to go and do
other activities where they have been falling below target, and something has been put in
place. So there is some resistance from that and some antagonistic response from some
of the students because they don’t want to miss certain lessons. Particularly if it’s a lesson
they particularly enjoy and only get once or twice a week. (Special, I)
SECTION 5: Impacts of accountability measures on children and young people
Section 6
The impacts of accountability
measures on teacher-pupil
relationships and pupils’
emotional health and well-being
“Some people [would] be crying for
most of the exam, they were just so
stressed out.(Year 12 pupil)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
6 The impacts of accountability measures on
teacher-pupil relationships and pupils’
emotional health and well-being
6.1 Introduction
This section discusses teacher-pupil relationships, the emotional impact of accountability measures on
pupils (anxiety, mental health, motivation etc.) and the impact on children and young people’s perception
of the purpose of education. Finally, the impacts on specific groups of pupils are discussed.
6.2 Impact on teacher-pupil relationships
Donaldson (2015 p.10), reviewing the curriculum and assessment in Wales, argued that one of the
negative impacts of the high level of prescription and “increasingly powerful accountability mechanisms”
is that the key task for many teachers has become “to implement external expectations faithfully, with a
consequent diminution of responsiveness to the needs of children and young people.” Many teachers
in this research reported that the quality of their relationships with pupils had been reduced by:
• Pressure to cover the syllabus and maintain focus in lessons (and thus less time to deal with pupil
distress, or to allow pupils to talk about their own experiences and the things that interest them);
• Lack of time as a consequence of their workload;
• Their stress levels; and
• The fact that they are ‘pushing’ pupils to achieve.
Figure 10 shows survey responses relating to this.
Figure 10: Impact of teachers’ stress on pupils: Percentage of all respondents giving each
response (N = 7,466)
Teachers were very clear that the quality of their relationships was less good than it had been. One
teacher wrote on the survey, “I have less time to get to know individual pupils and rarely have ‘show
and tell’, which is a shame as I teach mixed Years 1 and 2” (KS1, ‘Good’, W). Another argued that the
pressure to identify and label different groups of pupils coloured her view of them quite literally:
I am in danger of seeing them more in terms of what colour they are on my pupil list e.g.
are they red (below expectation) or green (above expectation) or purple (Pupil Premium) –
rather than as individuals. (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
A third noted that pressures on her time meant that she was now less likely to be aware of “things
seriously wrong in pupils’ lives” and to refer them in relation to child protection. Workload was a key
factor in this reduced quality of interaction:
Being a stressed teacher working to a tight schedule allows no time to listen to
children or show an interest in them as individuals, or understand them properly. (KS2,
‘Good’, W)
I do not have enough time to focus on the needs
of individual pupils
My stress levels sometimes impact on the way I
interact with pupils
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
Agree a lot Agree a little Disagree a little Disagree lot
SECTION 6: The impacts of accountability measures on teacher-pupil relationships
and pupils’ emotional health and well-being
While teachers tried not to let their own stress impact on their relationships with children, they
acknowledged that it sometimes did:
Teachers are stressed out trying to fit too much into a school day and rush, rush, rushing to
document evidence …. We get tired and snappy, we’re only human after all. The children pick
up on this, if the adult is tense, they become stressed and fractious too. (KS1, ‘Good’, W)
A teacher in a school judged ‘RI’ commented:
Our students know that we are stressed and many comment on this. ‘Why are the
teachers so grumpy miss?’ ‘Teachers are not like they used to be, they get cross with us
more.’ (Secondary, W)
While the pupils we interviewed were aware that their teachers had felt stressed during recent Ofsted
inspections, they were less aware of ongoing stress among teachers (though said they were sometimes
“grumpy”). Most said their teachers had time to offer them the support they needed. This suggests a
high level of teacher professionalism, but may also reflect pupils’ experience in schools; teachers have
been stressed and overworked for many years.
6.3 Impact on pupils’ emotional health and well-being
Perhaps the most obvious impact of the pressure on children and young people has been in emotional
responses: it has been widely reported that children are showing increased levels of anxiety, disaffection
and mental health problems. This section discusses these issues separately. Clearly they are not
necessarily distinct categories: some of the accounts we collected described pupils who had become
extremely anxious about tests, and the longer term outcome was that they became disaffected. Similarly,
anxiety and mental health are related.
6.3.1 Anxiety and stress
The Word Health Organisation (2012) found that 11 and 16-year-old pupils in England feel more pressured
by their school work than is the case in the vast majority of other European countries. McCaleb-Kahan
and Wenner (2009), drawing on research in the USA, report that, as the number and the importance of
tests used in schools has increased, the number of students who experience test anxiety has also
increased. They cite a range of research studies that show that “high levels of anxiety have been shown
to have harmful influences upon students’ achievement including lowered academic performance, poorer
study skills, and greater academic avoidance behaviors” (p.3). There has been a similar increase in test
anxiety in England. ChildLine (2014, 2015), the counselling service for children and young people,
reported that:
• School and exam pressures were one of the biggest causes of feelings of stress and anxiety
among children and young people;
• There was a 200 per cent increase in counselling sessions related to exam stress between 2012-
13 and 2013-14; and
• There was a considerable increase in all age groups in counselling sessions related to school and
education problems.
Similarly, in a survey of 1,000 children who had taken their SATs in the last year, 68 per cent said they
had felt pressured at the time of the SATs, and 22 per cent had lost sleep (Kellogg’s 2015).
Our survey showed that the most teachers agreed that: “Many pupils become very anxious/stressed
in the time leading up to SATs/public examinations.” In contrast, only a very small number considered
that: “Most pupils enjoy doing tests” (Figure 11). These results were very similar across phases and
Ofsted grades.
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
Figure 11: Pupils’ responses to tests: Percentage of all respondents giving each response
(N = 7,390)
Previous research suggests that girls suffer more from text anxiety; this was evident in Harlen and
Deakin Crick’s systematic review (2002). The Girl Guides Association (2008) conducted a survey of girls
and reported that 74 per cent said that exams and tests made them worried and 19 per cent said they
made them feel bad about themselves. The report added: “Even among the youngest girls academic
pressure and the stresses and strains of exams remain one of the greatest causes of anxiety with
several describing fear and sleepless nights before tests.”
Teachers in our research said anxiety about tests affected a wide range of pupils, including high-attaining
and conscientious pupils, as well as low-attaining pupils or those with special needs. Primary teachers
talked about pupils’ anxiety about the Key Stage 2 SATs:
You just see them sat there, a ten or 11-year-old kid in complete meltdown. (Primary, I)
I have just had a child off school for three days because he was so worried about his recent
test result and didn’t want to take any more tests. In the lead up to SATs, I have had pupils
in tears, feeling sick, feeling stressed because they were so worried about the results from
the tests. (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
Some teachers pointed out that parents can add to the pressure their children feel:
In our school, many parents put pressure on their children to ‘achieve’ and as a
consequence, a significant number of children are being privately tutored. It seems the
parents are actually more competitive for their children. The parents are more eager to
know where their children are in the class in terms of ability. (KS2, ‘Good’, W)
But not all parents are in this group. A teacher commented about his/her own son:
My child is in Year 6 and he and his friends were worrying about SATs all through the
summer. He has had migraines and a close friend, who is slightly autistic, has been placed
on medication because the stress caused her to stop eating. Consequently I have
withdrawn my son from his SATs. I feel measuring teachers and schools has just put a
damaging amount of pressure and stress on children from pre-school age. We are causing
long-term damage to their mental health and it will impact on society for years to come.
The primary pupils interviewed had not yet experienced the Key Stage 2 SATs, but talked about anxiety
about regular tests, and increasing nervousness in the lead-up to SATs.
When I do a test I feel like I’m not going to do very well because I’m worried. (Year 5 pupil)
I’m a bit nervous and I think that people put too much expectations on us. (Year 6 pupil)
A secondary SENCO commented that the primary to secondary transition also causes serious anxiety:
We’ve seen a really significant increase in people who are experiencing significant levels
of anxiety to almost a debilitating level moving from Year 6 to Year 7 that’s something
I’ve noticed particularly in the last couple of years. (I)
Many pupils become very anxious/stressed in the time
leading up to SATs/public examinations
Most pupils enjoy doing tests
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
Agree a lot Agree a little Disagree a little Disagree a lot Don’t know Not applicable
SECTION 6: The impacts of accountability measures on teacher-pupil relationships
and pupils’ emotional health and well-being
GCSEs were reported as a major cause of anxiety for many pupils:
… the higher ability, and the ones with the very supportive or pushy parents are receiving
higher levels of stress because of how much is being expected of them; I think the lower
end or those with maybe less supportive parents as well are suffering from the fact that
they are not being given a curriculum that suits them. (Secondary, I)
Some of the secondary pupils interviewed were in Year 12 and had taken GCSEs the previous year. They
said that the levels of stress had been visible:
Some people did [get really stressed]. They’d be crying for most of the exam, they were
just so stressed out. I knew people that was crying before they went into the exams. (Year
12 pupil)
While the main cause of stress/anxiety about tests/exams was simply the fact of having to do them,
and the real possibility of failure, this is exacerbated by the way that school practices make the
importance of tests and exams very clear to their students. The extent to which schools emphasise
tests and exams varies. One primary head said “we don’t build it up to be a big thing. We try and leave
it relatively low key”. However, even in that school, pupils talked about ways in which their teachers
reinforced the importance of the SATs, for example, by regular mentions (a Year 5 pupil reported, “our
teacher, she’s like, if you don’t listen in class you’re not going to do very well in the SATs, you’re going
to fail or you’re not going to get good marks”). Such comments, together with actions such as organising
booster groups, made pupils feel under pressure.
The pupils we interviewed said that another reason why they felt under pressure was because the SATs
would have an impact on their future opportunities:
Well I get nervous because I know it’s going to change my levels and it’s going to affect
what I’m going to do and what school I might get into in a few years’ time. (Year 6 pupil)
You’ve got to try hard in all of them because you take them grades to secondary school
and you’ve got to get good grades for secondary school. (Year 6 pupil)
Although the impact of SATs results is on schools, not pupils, the Kelloggs survey (2015) similarly
showed that children believed that doing badly in the SATs would impact on their future lives: 55 per
cent said they worried that not getting a Level 4 would impact on their future.
Another factor that can increase stress is the way pupils talk among themselves about levels and test
outcomes. Primary pupils said that classmates sometimes boasted about the levels that they had
reached or jeered at those who were less successful.
Sometimes people say ‘oh wow look at me, I’ve got a 5C level’ and say you have like a 4C
level and they sometimes boast about them. (Year 5 pupil)
When … you haven’t passed; people make fun of you. (Year 6 pupil)
A teacher reported a conversation where a child who would not be taking the SATs was put down by a
classmate (“you’re not even taking the SATs”). It is unfortunate that levels of attainment and test results
have provided fresh ammunition for children to use to put one another down.
Some teachers commented that in their schools pupil attainment data is on display; a secondary teacher
noted, “Published rank orders displayed in school for all pupils and staff to see PUBLICLY how students
are performing in each subject – one for attainment and one for progress”. Such strategies must surely
add to pupil anxiety and disaffection.
A number of teachers said that they tried to “protect” or “shield” their pupils from the pressure:
No matter how much we strive to protect our pupils from these additional pressures and
provide them with a childhood experience that they will love and remember, teachers are
stressed and exhausted and our pupils are sadly affected by this. (KS2, ‘RI’, W)
Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people
This was easier for schools with higher attainment or Ofsted grades. A primary teacher commented:
“We are lucky being an ‘outstanding’ school that we can shield the children from a pressurised
curriculum a little.” The use of these words is significant because it implies that there is a real
6.3.2 Impact on motivation and interest
Disaffection is a second way in which tests and the drive to raise standards impact on some pupils.
This pattern of low achievers becoming “overwhelmed by assessments and demotivated by constant
evidence of their low achievement”, which then further increases the gap between low and high
achieving students, was highlighted by Harlen and Deakin Crick (2002, p.5). In interviews and survey
comments, disaffection and demotivation were described in all age groups and types of school.
Interviewees described pupils who were aware that they were doing less well than others in the class,
or who found it difficult to understand what they were being taught. The consequent loss of self-
esteem and motivation resulted in disaffection, which sometimes manifested itself as disruptive
In our survey, 96 per cent of teachers agreed that: “When pupils know they are doing less well than
others in class and in tests, their confidence and motivation suffers” (with 70 per cent agreeing ‘a lot’).
There were no differences in these figures across school phases or different Ofsted categories.
Teachers noted that some children who do not achieve their targets lose motivation. This starts young,
and is exacerbated by school practices:
‘I’m afraid we need some extra writing today and you know your target’, and they’re
already maybe saying, ‘well my target’s miles behind his, oh what’s the point?’ And I think
as children become older … it’s almost like, we’re encouraging them to switch off. (Year
2 teacher, I)
A secondary SENCO commented that he had observed a substantial increase in the number of children
who enter secondary school:
with a really, really poor self-esteem and really low view of themselves, they do not
believe they can do anything and it either turns inwards so they are very quiet and quite
reserved, … or they will be students who are … being quite challenging. It will tend to go
one of those ways.
He said this was often the case with children who struggle with maths and English, or who have specific
learning difficulties such as dyslexia, or who learn more effectively in practical ways.
Interviewees suggested that when children behave badly because they are not doing well, this can
create a vicious circle; a primary headteacher said:
They’re not motivated and their behaviour then suffers and they’re out of class because
the teacher can’t have them in class because they’re so disruptive to other children. So it
becomes a downward spiral of not doing very well in the lesson, they’re out the lesson,
they’re in trouble, they don’t want to be here. They’re on a short fuse and somebody says
something to them and they blow up.
This is exacerbated because the over-crowded curriculum and the focus on tests mean there is not
enough time to support children’s social and emotional development (see Figure 9 on page 50).
Pupils interviewed also talked about the way that getting poor marks can have a negative impact on
self-confidence and motivation. A Year 6 pupil explained, “it makes people that aren’t as good and don’t
have enough confidence in themselves less confident, have, like, less confidence.”
It is clearly a concern that any children becomes disaffected, but is a particular concern with the youngest
children. Heyman et al (1992) found that five and six-year-olds who failed in a task were more likely to
make global negative self-judgements (‘I am no good’), whereas older children were more likely to
SECTION 6: The impacts of accountability measures on teacher-pupil relationships
and pupils’ emotional health and well-being
compartmentalise, and say they were no good at that specific area of task (e.g. ‘no good at maths’, or
narrowing it down further, ‘no good at algebra’).
The drive for every pupil to take rigorous academic subjects and the devaluing of vocational
subjects has also contributed to disaffection in secondary schools; this was discussed in Section
5.4.2 and 5.4.3.
6.3.3 Impact on mental health
There is now substantial evidence that a variety of mental health problems have increased among young
people, and the pressure to achieve in school work and tests/examinations is among the causes (e.g.
The Times, 12 March 2015). ChildLine (2014, p.37) reported that school and educational problems were
related directly to suicidal thoughts: “The pressure and stress of exams and not being able to deal with
failure was another reason young people wanted to escape, seeing suicide as their only option.”
Similarly, Sharp (2013, p 10), drawing on research from the UK and Hong Kong argued:
There are clear indications that the pressure to perform in an increasingly micro-
managed, accountable education system may be playing a part in developing mental health
problems and in suicidal behaviour.
In our survey, 76 per cent of primary teachers and 94 per cent of secondary teachers agreed that: “Some
pupils in this school have developed stress-related conditions around the time of SATs/public exams.”
This can start very young. A teacher reported that:
We have a number of children who start Nursery at a very low level. They are not always
ready or willing to be shaped and pushed in the way that they are expected to learn. As a
result the behaviour of the children at home has become an issue, as is the fact that many
EYFS/Year 1 children are suffering from night terrors, sleep walking and other sleep
disorders. Parents confide that the children cry at the thought of coming to school and are
often exhausted due to the stress of learning. (Primary, ‘Good’, W)
A secondary teacher wrote: “Many girls self-harm, have panic attacks and emotional problems because
they cannot be ‘perfect’” (‘Outstanding’, W). But teachers identified a wide range of pupils who suffered
from depression, self-harm, thoughts of suicide, and eating disorders. While acknowledging that there
are other causes of stress among young people, teachers claimed that stress about exams or tests was
often the immediate trigger. For example a primary teacher wrote in the survey:
Last year I had a Year 6 pupil turn to physical self-harming which she attributed to the
pressure she felt to achieve a level similar to that of her peers, and to hit a Level 4 in her
SATs (she is severely dyslexic and an incredibly hard worker). (KS2, ‘RI’, W)
While children are now diagnosed with mental health conditions at increasingly young ages, it is in
secondary schools that they are most common. An experienced secondary teacher wrote:
I have never known stress-related conditions … to be so prevalent in secondary education
Self-harming is rife in KS4. Last year one w