The ‘Standards Agenda’ and a Big Lie about Education

It’s important to understand that correlation is not the same as causality. Statisticians understand this, and so should teachers, parents and politicians, many of whom have traded on a false assumption about an inability to reach Level 4 in English and maths at the age of eleven equating to educational failure per se – or at least the likelihood of it in the long run.

The biggest lie, or the biggest misunderstanding, about education in the UK is that there’s a direct, arithmetical and causal relationship between achieving Level 4 in SATs tests in Year 6, getting at least 5 GCSE passes at A to C at 16+, getting a place at university, and gaining entry to a high-income career, self-fulfilment and a middle class lifestyle. This, of course, is the true ‘standards agenda’ – the standardisation of expectations, aspirations, and career trajectories, as well as the standardisation of education and attainment.

The part of the lie, or the misunderstanding, we’re most concerned about in this post, in a week when the annual Year 6 SATs frenzy has reached its climax, is the falsity of the claim that a child who scores a Level 4 in the tests at 11+ is likely to do well academically and in every other way, whereas children who ‘only’ reach a solid Level 3 are not – supposedly since they won’t be able to ‘access the curriculum’ at their next school, and not because their school experiences have destroyed their interest in learning. [The ability of Level 3 pupils to ‘access the curriculum’ is in any case a complete nonsense, especially if we agree that all learning should be personalised, rather than standardised.]

Our counter-proposition is that those who reach a middle to high Level 3, which is a true reflection of their current ‘academic’ (ie test-taking) ability vis a vis the rest of their cohort – providing they have caught the learning bug and enjoy learning for its own sake, and providing they have had a range of needs, strengths & weaknesses clearly identified (including the creative, the personal, the social and the spiritual) – will be just as likely to be successful across a range of measures, not excluding income, job satisfaction and personal fulfilment. We can go even further than this and say that they are more likely to be successful lifelong learners than the Level 4s who have been crammed and cajoled into a low to middle Level 4 at the age of 11 (through extra ‘booster’ classes, extra homework, rote learning, a restricted curriculum, etc) and as a consequence of that barren and frustrating experience they have come to thoroughly dislike school and schooling.

Consider the case of two fine young people who were about to finish school at the age of eighteen.The girl was from a working class family that had reasonable aspirations for its children, not least that the children should look forward to and enjoy school every day, and that they should be happy and fulfilled in life. These are expectations that are shared by most, if not all parents. This particular girl could be characterised as happy-go-lucky, and had struggled with the rigours of mathematics and writing. She achieved Level 3 in both subjects by the age of 11.

The boy and his mother had come to this country as refugees escaping a land made uninhabitable by war when he was nine years old. He spoke very little English and experienced social and emotional difficulties in settling into a tough inner city part of London. He was a sensitive and somewhat prickly character, and not particularly ‘academically’ inclined. He scored a Level 3 in the SATs at the end of Year 6.

These young people were not dissimilar to many in their cohort. They were not failures, and the school hadn’t failed them. What makes them stick in my memory is their decision at the age of eighteen to go back to their Primary school and gleefully inform their ex headteacher that they had both been accepted to study art at university.

They expressed gratitude that their Primary school had been a place of comfort and safety, where they had experienced the joys of learning across a wide range of subjects and experiences, not least in areas where they had discovered their own passions and talents, had been able to identify their own strengths, and had felt assured that, given time, effort and application, they could overcome their weaknesses. This is what, from a solid core of self-belief, these individuals had done. They remembered with great fondness the visually and experientially stimulating environment of the school, and their enjoyment of their many opportunities to learn through creative and engaging experiences both inside and outside the school.

Which, of course, is what is lacking in so many factory schools around the world where it’s no wonder the children don’t develop a love of learning, don’t discover their talents, and where they so often experience a sense of frustration and failure. The products of such schools often don’t go on to higher education even though they might do reasonably well academically up to the age of 16, since they can’t wait to leave full time education and schooling, and of course they don’t find their Element – at least not until they leave school and a system that never really finds them either.



Politicians and the media have been only too willing to be taken in by the spurious nonsense about the supposed causality and not just statistical correlation between level 3 achievement at age 11 and GCSE failure – it suited and still suits their personal and political agenda and their desire to gain control over schools, the curriculum and teaching methods.

What a different educational landscape we might now have if any minister of education with intelligence and integrity had pointed out that it’s pupils attitudes to themselves and to learning that actually makes a difference, and that telling children they’re more or less failures because they ‘only’ achieve level 3 by the age of 11 isn’t any help at all.

In fact grading systems in general don’t help at all. Learning should be seamless and continuous, and so should assessment and pupil tracking be continuous, against clear learning targets and progress milestones.

This is not rocket science. This is what happens in more enlightened countries, and sooner or later it will happen here too. There is no sensible alternative – if we care about our thousands of under-achieving, under-motivated, over-stressed and unhappy children.

For further reading on finding your element, and helping children and young people to find theirs, please read the two most recent books by Sir Ken Robinson, and read these previous 3D Eye posts:

SATs Bart

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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