SATs don’t stress children – adults do

[Context: As the PTE network grows, I am lucky enough to meet and talk with so many interesting people with a wide range of experiences. This blog came out of a discussion I had with a very experienced primary educator. They had strong views about some of the recent reporting around SATs, but for a number of reasons were wary of sharing them publicly – so I offered the PTE blog as a way to add their contribution to the discussion. I hope people find it useful. Mark Lehain.]

Do Primary School SATS put undue pressure on our children?

The level of intense pressure many young children currently feel because of the tests is completely wrong, unacceptable, and the situation needs addressing urgently.  However, one essential fact is frequently missed from discussions of the problem.  The pressure on children does not come directly from the tests themselves but is put on them by the teachers, often at the behest, or with the connivance, of headteachers.

Of course, the teachers/heads/schools argue that they are themselves responding to pressure from the ‘system ‘, essentially the government. Absolutely true, but this higher level of expectation is totally justified. We have a right, indeed a duty, to expect our schools to teach to a high standard. It is totally unacceptable for a school to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if some of our children don’t reach basic standards,’ or, ‘You can’t expect that of children like ours.’

The SATS are not in any way unfair, nor do they represent too high an expectation. They are assessments of progress, not exams like GCSEs or A Levels; they simply test that a child has learned what they are reasonably expected to have learned over the course of their primary education. If a child has been taught effectively, up to the expected standard, throughout those years, then they will perform well in the SATS as a matter of course, without needing any excessive preparation, and certainly no intense pressure. They should be able to take the tests themselves in their stride, if teachers do not themselves make too much of a drama of them.

Yet, what happens in reality is that many children enter Y6, say, not comfortably on track for the expected standard. Y6 teachers then have to resort to boosting, priming and practising intensively for the specific items in the test (‘teaching to the test’) in order for it to appear that the school is performing well.  This is what children experience as pressure.

What schools and teachers should do, if they feel that by Y6 children cannot reach the expected level, or cannot reach it without all this test preparation and pressure, is look to where earlier teaching has failed to bring them up to where they should be. They need to address their own shortcomings, not whitewash their failings, which is what putting children under intense pressure approaching the test actually amounts to.

Teachers/Headteachers (and their unions) are very adept at deflecting the the blame for pressure on children onto the government and its testing regime, when really the issue lies with inadequacies in teaching over the course of primary schooling. They also succeed wonderfully in selling their line of ‘it’s the tests not us’ to parents and the media (and now, it seems, to certain political parties too).

If teachers do no approve of young children being put put under pressure by tests, the answer is in their own hands. Do not put the children under pressure. Get results by teaching effectively, so that children learn cumulatively over the course of normal schooling, rather than seeking to make up lost ground by cramming, pushing as pressurising in the final stages before the SATS.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.