No SATisfaction

I am coordinator of Authors against the SATs. This is our statement:


We are children’s authors and illustrators concerned by the growing

domination of the schools curriculum by the SAT tests. We believe

that there is a danger that Year 2, Year 6 and Year 9 (seven year

olds, eleven year olds and fourteen year olds respectively) are

becoming years spent preparing for the tests. We think that

children’s understanding, empathy, imagination and creativity are

developed best by reading whole books, not by doing comprehension

exercises on short excerpts and not from ticking boxes or giving one

word answers. It is our view that reading for pleasure is being

squeezed by the relentless pressure of testing and we are particularly

concerned that the SATs and the preparation for them are creating

an atmosphere of anxiety around the reading of literature. Resources

now being channelled into testing could and should be redirected

towards libraries, the training of librarians and book provision. As

authors and illustrators, we are unable to exert any direct pressure

on the education system so we would like to show our concern with

the situation by supporting calls by some teachers’ unions and by the

National Association for the Teaching of English for the abolition or

phasing out of the SATs.

Supported by :

Beverley Naidoo,

Jamila Gavin,

Brian Keaney,

Lisa Kopper,

Carol Ann Duffy,

David Almond,

Alan Gibbons,

Robert and Brenda Swindells,

Linda Newbery,

Philip Pullman,

Darren Shan

Michael Morpurgo,

John Shelley,

Elizabeth, Lindsay,

Penny Dolan,

Jane Ray,

David Belbin,

Michael Rosen

Malcolm Rose,

Theresa Tomlinson,

Ann Jungman,

Geraldine McCaughrean,

Caroline Pitcher,

Ros Asquith,

Lionel Bender,

Rowena Edlin-White,

Paul Dowswell,

Stephanie Baudet,

Ian Whybrow,

Lionel Bender,

Sheridan Cain,

Tim Bowler,

Alison Leonard,

Abi Brown,

Malachy Doyle,

Lynn Huggins-Cooper,

Nicola Morgan,

Jonathan Emmett,

David Bedford,

Steve Weatherill,

Neil Arksey,

Denis Bond,

Melvin Burgess,

Georgia Byng,

Bernard Ashley,

Anna Perera,

Ted Dewan,

Diana Hendry,

Gwen Grant,

Steve Barlow,

Steve Skidmore,

Enid Richemont,

Bob Graham,

Tony Bradman,

Tony Mitton,

Debi Gliori,

Rachel Anderson,

Morris Gleizman,

Jeremy Strong,

Julie Bertagna,

Alison Prince

Judith Nicholls,

Pauline Chandler,

Wendy Smith,

Martyn Beardsley,

Paul Geraghty,

Andrea Shavick,

Gill Vickery,

Mary Hoffman,

Val Bierman,

Keith Gray,

Graham Gardner,

Chris Powling,

Vivien French,

John Cunliffe,

Linda Kempton,

Lindsay Fraser,

Peter Buckman,

Shoo Rayner,

Elizabeth Laird,

Josephine Feeney,

Chris Riddell,

Ivan Jones,

Sally Gardner,

Brian Lux,

Waltraud Boxall,

Thomas Bloor

Pat Thompson,

Beth Webb

Diana Pullein-Thompson

And Rosie Rushton.

Contact :

Alan Gibbons

If your favourite writer hasn’t joined the campaign, don’t go blaming them. I couldn’t contact everyone. Why not email them for me and ask them to add their name?

To read my campaign poem, The Sad SAT Sitter, scroll down.


The SAT sitter, By Alan Gibbons


Said the sad SAT sitter

To the man in the corner,

Her dad:

I’m sad.

Why? Dad asked.

I’m sitting the SATs.

Then the SAT sitter explained


Instead of reading,

Instead of painting,

Instead of swimming,

Instead of explaining


And a world of things


Instead of asking,

Instead of imagining,

Instead of guessing,

Instead of dreaming

She would sit


For her SATs.

She told the whole story,

How she would do a pre-SAT,

An optional SAT- yeah


A fun SAT (sic),

A preparation SAT,

A mock Sat,

An after-school-club SAT

And finally

A just-to-see-if-you’re-ready-

To-sit-the-SATs SAT.

Then the man in the corner,

Her dad,

Looked at his daughter

And shook his head.

The truth is, he said;

You’ve never sat sadder

Than a sad SAT sitter.


A platform for the teaching of English

By Alan Gibbons


Sometimes I wonder, if we were to learn to talk or walk by means of some Government-inspired strategy, would we get there at all? If we went through the prescribed stages of level one, rock on your belly, level two, crawl, level three, totter towards the couch, level four, stagger independently, would we ever manage to boldly go anywhere?

In the course of my career as a children’s author and educational consultant I visit some 150 schools a year. I find a huge amount of common ground when it comes to the teaching of English. This broad agreement, needless to say, generally runs counter to official Government policy.

The current regime in schools generally rests upon three foundations:

*the testing regime


*the National Literacy Strategy.

The testing regime

SAT results have been more or less static for some years. In the early years of a testing regime, teaching to the test can inflate test scores. You learn to cram the children. This approach has crushed the life out of English schools, subordinating everything to the stultifying mantra: teach to the test. But, after the initial rise in test scores, any illusory progress soon fades like the smile on the Cheshire cat.


Though less draconian and punitive than in the Woodhead years, Ofsted remains a ‘from above’ approach. There is still little attempt to work with schools. Externally imposed league tables and drives for standards continue to define its operation.


The National Literacy Strategy      

While I work with many creative and intelligent people in the NLS, the strategy is still marked by the conditions of its birth, the testing regime and Ofsted. Liberated from those shackles it could potentially develop into something much more exciting and holistic.

A recent survey by the NLS in Surrey confirms what many already know. Consider these two damning statistics:

What percentage of level 3 pupils at Year 6 did not move at all between KS2 2000 and KS3 2003 in English? 30%

What percentage of level 4 pupils at Y6 did not move at all between KS2, 2000 and KS3, 2003 in English? 19%

For a third of pupils at level 3 and a fifth of pupils at level 4 to make no progress between eleven and fourteen years old should set alarm bells ringing and cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Government’s approach. The evidence of a desire for change is everywhere. Wales is dropping the SATs. Scotland didn’t have them in the first place. The National Association for the Teaching of English, Authors Against the SATs, the Meetings with the Minister pamphlet and the Times Educational Supplement have all challenged the ‘test and table’campaign.There needs to be a concerted effort to raise standards through creativity and pedagogical freedom. This is, after all, what exists in Finland, the country which tops the OECD rankings for educational success. It might look something like this.

A platform for literacy

1) Reading development

To develop a literate classroom the library should be central. There should be a chartered librarian in every High School administering a ring-fenced book budget. The librarian should lead a team interacting with small groups of children, linking their reading to personal interest. The librarian should have responsibility for the feeder primaries in the locality. Children’s writing should be prominently displayed throughout the school. The teacher should regularly read aloud to the class. Children should read silently in class for pleasure and have time to browse. There should be book weeks and author visits on a regular basis. The Government should campaign nationally for school bookshops.

2) Writing

There should be a balance of directed and free writing with the accent on the child’s individuality and creativity. Writing should be encouraged throughout the curriculum, eroding the arbitrary subject divisions. There should be a national magazine for young writers, subsidised by Government funds but not subject to the editorial control of its agencies. There should be a pilot of ‘Integrated English’ in which English, drama and the arts would be taught as an integrated whole. One survey showed that 33% of students had Drama as their favourite subject but only 6% English. Could this have something to do with a stale diet of Comprehensions?

3) Assessment

SATs and league tables should be abolished. Few believe they serve any valid purpose. Just because the SATs boycott didn’t materialise doesn’t mean that SATs are in any way valued by teachers or children. The tests should be replaced by moderated teacher assessment with a minimum of paper work. The watchword should be: minimise administration, maximise learning. Assessment of writing should be by a portfolio of children’s work. There is already such an experiment in Birmingham.

4) Inspection and advice

Ofsted should be abolished and replaced with a new model, supporting and advising teachers. A mark of goodwill might be for all inspectors to teach a sample lesson to prove they are able practitioners. Advisors should teach alongside teachers in the classroom, not lecture to them at INSET meetings.

Teacher training

This should be on a pedagogic, not a managerial model. The ability to maintain the attention of a class is more important than the ability to maintain a laminated folder of objectives and outcomes. Children’s literature should be a central module, as should the teaching of reading. The teacher should be seen as an exemplary adult who reads for pleasure and celebrates the accumulation of knowledge. To achieve this, there should be time set aside for the teacher’s own intellectual development. You don’t get dynamic, inspirational teachers in the classroom by driving them to distraction through bureaucratic red tape.


The drive for standards has served only to drive many good teachers out of the profession and to drive children crazy with boredom. Working with teachers and students to develop a curriculum which they find stimulating could pay dividends. A move in that direction is long overdue.






This is a copy of the paper I presented at the Sands of Time conference at the University of Hertfordshire

Children’s literature and education in a market economy


“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please, they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Karl Marx, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.


With the possible modern day amendment that people make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing, this statement is especially true of writers. Writers create intellectual productions but they do so under the aegis of their publisher and within parameters set by the market place. Because of the nature of their role in society, writers are in many ways more autonomous than other employees. They can directly contradict the world view of those who contract their labour with relative impunity.

Most are self-employed, or write as an extra activity on top of their paid employment. This makes them fairly marginal to the production process. They have a measure of control over their working day and the work they undertake. They don’t have line managers. Their lives are only indirectly driven by production plans and profit margins. The nearest thing to targets in their lives are the hardly urgent pressures of contract deadlines. They are often less alienated from the end result of their labours than a manual or clerical worker. They are, after all, dealing with ideas that spring from their own imaginations.

Though financial gain is far from the sole criterion by which they judge their careers, writers’ work can be very profitable to their publishers. One significant artist such as JK Rowling or Philip Pullman can have an immense effect on their the House’s fortunes. Furthermore, because writers’ relationship to the employer who contracts their work is indirect, they are less likely to adopt pro-market views with the same enthusiasm as other relatively privileged people, especially at senior level. The very indirectness of the relationship often ensures that they maintain a measure of artistic independence.

Because of this distinctive social position, writers live within the tension between two poles: those who believe in art for art’s sake and those who are drawn to some kind of political and social commitment. There is plenty of evidence of both classes of writers. Authors regularly pen articles arguing, sometimes rather defensively, that they are ‘only telling a story’ and that they are trying to be impartial. While nobody wants to read a political diatribe in poem or novel form, there is an equally strong case for political and social engagement. In recent years authors have taken a stand on the tsunami, the war in Iraq, SAT tests, Nestle policies in India and the cutting of the Public Lending Right (though it could be said that the last item is a trade union, rather than a political issue.)

But is in the sphere of ideas within literature itself that the issue is posed most acutely. In the early Seventies Bob Dixon pioneered studies into children’s literature. He stressed the role of children’s books in transmitting ruling class ideology. He made a great many valuable points but, by the time he had published his ground-breaking books Catching them Young, volumes one and two, the children’s book world was already changing dramatically. Soon, it was difficult to find a major writer for children who didn’t situate him or herself broadly on the Left. Anti racist and anti sexist messages ruled and there was a new focus on children’s lives outside the advanced world.

In the eighties, in Socialist Review, I drew attention to the growth of alternative messages in children’s literature and argued that there had to be a revised Marxist perspective which looked at both the more politically aware novels and poems of a new wave of writers post-1968 and at the messages implicit in apparently non-political children’s books. To take one example, Enid Blyton has been rightly castigated for the racist images in her books. There is, however, something very positive about the child-centred universe she creates. Cultural investigators need to look below the surface if they are to interpret the richness of the material.

And yet there was something missing from the debate. Both Bob and I argued as if children’s authors write in something of a vacuum. We don’t. We produce a product to be sold in the marketplace. We exist within the contradictions of a market economy. Several of my books have been published by Harper Collins, for example but, believe me, I have no affinity with the political and commercial ideas of Rupert Murdoch. His business project is as alien to me as, say, supporting Chelsea Football Club, watching Big Brother or reading the novels of Katie Price.

Publishers exist primarily to make a profit. They have to respond to the pressures of globalisation and the growing domination of publishing by a handful of conglomerates. But that isn’t the end of the story. Publishers are not just business drones packaging books to make a quick buck though, if you look at the vogue for manipulative series fiction and celebrity ‘kidliterature’ there are worrying signs that the market is having a damaging effect on the quality of several areas of children’s books.

Most modern publishers and editors are a product of the left/liberal climate of recent years. One of mine is furious about the treatment of Travellers, for example. They work within the contradictions thrown up by the dual nature of intellectual production, the need to be intellectually challenging and the need to make money. There have always been publishers who promoted literature that argued against the status quo.

They have a genuine belief in the product they are helping to create and sometimes defend it with a welcome determination.

For all that, the market does exert huge pressures. 200,000 titles are published every year in the UK alone. The largest Waterstone’s store can only stock 2,000. The market is dominated by a number of key players:

*Richard and Judy


*W H Smith


*supermarket discounting

*film and TV tie-ins

*3 for 2 offers

As a result there tends to be a pressure towards the popular at the expense of the more challenging. You can always find the following on the shelves: young Bond in his various guises, monsters, dragons and magic, pink Lit, underpants, snot and poop (increasingly ubiquitous). Browse the children’s bestseller list and you will be struck by the dominance of the above and the restricted shelf space awarded writers of ambitious, realistic fiction. I have often visited bookshops to buy something from the Carnegie shortlist and come away empty handed.

Literary over-production and the limited number of outlets for books can have a devastating effect on writers’ lives. From time to time there are culls of writers. One publisher notoriously cut 25 authors at a stroke. A major prize-winning author was cut adrift by mobile phone at a book event I attended.

There is a definite pressure towards the conformist, the marketable.

But, thank goodness, there is always a counter-pressure- the search for the next big thing. (Harry Potter, famously, became a best seller by word of mouth). There is also a counter-culture of school visits, festivals, the jobbing author. Here, authors who struggle to get two or three of their books on the shelves at Waterstones or W.H.Smith can achieve respectable sales. There are even some people who achieve success on the circuit have never been published by a big house or have to self publish in one form or another. So, in spite of market forces, there continues to be is a healthy diversity. Radical voices flourish.

If writers continue to thrive in spite of market pressures, their professional lives can be constrained by Government policies towards the public sector. One example of this is this year’s cut in the Public Lending Right, a measure that impacts disproportionately on mid-list authors. Similarly, philistine Government cuts impinge on an author’s life. The Bookseller has revealed that library expenditure rose by 2.8% year ending. March 2007, while the amount allocated to books fell by 0.7%. It went on to reveal that books amount to a mere 8.7% of total spend!! There have even been stories of library books being dumped in landfill, including new ones.

The situation at the chalk face is equally worrying. School spending on books has declined by 15% in recent years while total education spending rose 28%. You want money to track and test, you’ve got it baby! You want some cash for books. Tough!

This has a disproportionate effect on writers for children who tend to have a close relationship with education. There is a long tradition of school visits and residencies. Many authors have a teaching background. Any acceleration of funding restrictions could have a more visible effect on writers for children than developments in the commercial book market.

But the pressure is not merely financial. It is also a matter of policy itself. There are two main influences on the teaching of reading and writing:

*the functional- labour needs a literate workforce

*the ideological- the ideas of the ruling order have to be transmitted.

Recent Governments have vacillated between the two poles, sometimes stressing the need for a functional, utilitarian approach which serves employers and sometimes stressing the need to create a national culture for our citizens.

Past and present, the notion of a literary cannon has been problematic.

The problem with recommending the likes of Blake, Dickens, Shakespeare, Hardy, Shelley, Brontes is that they all contain radical messages.

It is the same with the modern KS3 list, which includes many radical writers: Blackman, Bali Rai, Benjamin Zephaniah…me! (In spite of the combative opposition of most of us to Iraq war and Government education policy).

It was Kenneth Baker who launched an attack on the gains of the nineteen sixties, with its support for child-centred approaches and resistance to racism and sexism. It consisted of three major planks:


*National Curriculum (including NLS)

*Market forces in education (devolved budgets, schools as businesses, CTCs and Academies).

The result has been the current dominance of a culture of SATs, targets, league tables. This has produced a revolt which, though chaotic and partial is nonetheless real. Authors were among the first to campaign  against the SATs, establishing Authors Against the SATs, signed by most of contemporary children’s writers. The campaign to boycott SATs was defeated but New Labour couldn’t revel in its victory. The project has largely failed (Surrey figures, static SATs results, PISA results).

Now the General Teaching Council and the Children’s Select Committee headed by Labour MP Barry Sheerman have denounced SATs. A sign of the Government’s disarray is the ‘When ready’ testing that is currently being trialled.

Because of this pressure, the Government has made concessions. Creativity documents have been issued. Author visits are recommended at KS3. The climate is therefore difficult but far from bleak.

Even in difficult conditions, writers continue to be radicalised and play an influential role in resisting the pressures of globalisation and pro-market Government policies in education.


Alan Gibbons








2 thoughts on “No SATisfaction

  1. Dear Alan

    I attended one of your courses at the YPO earlier this year on Boy’s Writing and was wondering if you would be able to send me the course notes that you mentioned were available as I can’t find them on your website? Also would you be able to send me an approval copy of your book Teach Me to Write Non-Fiction?

    Many thanks

    Sue Gilroy

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