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Sats attainment in English primary schools still below pre-Covid levels

The government’s target is for 90% of pupils in their final year of primary school in England to meet expected standards in reading, writing and maths by 2030. Photograph: lovethephoto/Alamy

Proportion of children meeting expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined matches 2022 figure of 59%

Written by Sally Weale Education correspondent at The Guardian on 11th July 23

The academic attainment of primary schoolchildren in England remains significantly lower than before Covid, according to the latest Sats results, which are virtually unchanged from last year.

The proportion of 10- and 11-year-old pupils meeting the government’s expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined remained at 59%, exactly the same as in the 2022 results, which was down from 65% in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Ministers will be particularly concerned about a drop in reading attainment. According to official government statistics published on Tuesday, 73% of the cohort achieved the expected standard, down from 75% last year. It still remains higher than reading attainment in 2016 (66%) and matches 2019 results (73%).

It comes after ministers celebrated England’s success in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) earlier this year, when children from English schools moved up to fourth place in the global literacy league table.

This year’s Sats reading paper, which children sat in May, triggered complaints from parents and teachers who said it was so hard it reduced some children to tears. The Standards and Testing Agency later ruled it was at the appropriate level of difficulty.

The latest key stage 2 results will raise concerns about the efficacy of the government’s education recovery plans and the enduring impact of the pandemic on children’s learning. This year’s Sats cohort were particularly disrupted at the end of year 3 and in year 4.

There were small improvements in results for some subjects. In maths,73% of pupils met the expected standard, up from 71% in 2022. In writing it was 71%, up from 69%, and in science 80% met the expected standard, a small improvement from 79%. Attainment in grammar, punctuation and spellingremained unchanged at 72%.

Nevertheless, this year’s results still fall far short of the government’s stated target of 90% of pupils meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2 by 2030, described by one commentator as “a pipe dream”.

Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “These results confirm the point made by teachers and researchers: primary schools are still deeply affected by the pandemic and Sats worsen this already difficult situation.

“Funding is inadequate. Class sizes are growing. The jobs of support staff have been cut. The national tutoring programme has not enabled a rise in the overall profile of results. There is no substantial programme to support educational recovery.”

Tiffnie Harris, a primary specialist with the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools are straining every sinew to improve results and we appeal to the government to support them by urgently addressing the national crisis caused by teacher shortages and inadequate funding. It is extremely difficult to raise standards when schools are struggling to put a qualified teacher in front of every class.”