SATs and the tyranny of testing

Granny on the frontline


I have to say that as I get older I’m finding that reading the paper or watching the news either makes me feel full of impotent rage or scared to go out of the house or hopping mad and motivated to react. Well, an article in the newspaper last Sunday entitled ‘Time children learned a life lesson at school’ made me feel the latter emotion and the need to chuck my hat into the ring. There’s been a lot in the press about the Let kids be kids campaign – they’re urging parents to boycott the upcoming SATs tests and there was also a protest this Tuesday to keep children off school and do ‘educational fun’ instead. In the article the writer mocked these parents as promoting ‘unworkable uber-worthy hippie nonsense’. What? I fumed, where did that come from? Ok, maybe you don’t agree with the keeping children off school bit, but at least they’re doing something.

The action proposed by Let kids be kids needs to be put into historical context – it’s not new – ever since SATs began they’ve been controversial. For example, after the first round in 1991, many primary school teachers described them as ‘unfair and unworkable’ and, in 1993, the NUT voted for a boycott which, however, didn’t go ahead since a review was agreed instead. Well, they’ve been loads of reviews from governments over the years which schools have had to cope with, often at very short notice, particularly recently. But other stress factors have added to the mix. At the end of 2002, head teachers claimed that they were under pressure to improve their position in the league tables and this led to pressure on teachers to teach to the test so that every child, whatever their background and social situation, should reach the same rigid attainment levels.

In 2007, after a 10-month enquiry, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) described our education system as ‘an examinations factory’. Things went on in the same vein and a couple of years ago came threats to primary and secondary head teachers that if they did not reach the attainment levels for every child for two years running, they would be replaced, something that one educationalist described as ‘like a public flogging’. Of course, if head teachers are under pressure, this is passed on through teachers and on to children. Need I go on? Maybe something of the current situation can be summed up in the words of the NAHT General Secretary after SPaG papers were released by mistake online recently. ‘This most recent mistake follows a series of delays, miscommunication and reversals across the whole testing regime which have created confusion, anger and indeed despair among professionals trying to stay focused to the needs of children.’

The article in the paper did agree that the testing system should be changed in some way, but that ‘…this isn’t some inhumane modern calamity, it’s how the educational system has always worked one way or another…’ Well, yes, but historically testing was done by the schools and teachers themselves when teachers were trusted as trained professionals who knew what they were doing and who understood the development and attainment levels of each child in their care. These days however, it seems that the powers-that-be do not trust such professionals and SATs are centrally administered by the Department for Education who set rigid targets. And these tests are externally marked – not by teachers who are known to the child and who know the child as a whole person – but by an impersonal official in an office somewhere ticking boxes. These tests therefore are much more formal and, yes, much more scary.

Another issue is that education secretaries who have no background in education seem hell bent on promoting their own whimsical ideas based on archaic systems such as mechanical learning by rote. Changes this year are intended to make the tests more ‘rigorous’ ie, harder. For example, the SPaG test has new material including the ‘subjunctive mood’ and ‘passives with and without agents’ etc etc and an educator said that ‘many teachers and students alike will find it challenging’. And let’s face it, even the education minister got it wrong when asked if ‘after’ in a sentence was a subordinating conjunction or a preposition. And this year there are changes to assessment too, ie different levels have been phased out in favour of a pass or fail with a much higher pass level dooming children aged 10 or 11 to feel failures if they don’t reach it.

The article goes on to say ‘in the meantime, if a child of any age is stressed by an exam, then surely it’s the job of the parent to reassure them…’ Hm, in my experience, parents do and say everything they can to their kids to try to lessen the stress. But even if you do manage to get them to feel a bit better, off they go back into school each day and the tension returns. I’ve had a go at calming an anxious granddaughter or three as they’ve approached Year 6, ‘You know,’ I said, reading from the same song sheet as their parents, ‘SATs are actually meant to test the school, not you.’ But granddaughter 3, for example, who’s doing year 6 SATs next week and was in tears before returning to school this term worrying about them, replied, ‘But gran, they send your results to secondary school so they know how good or bad you are before you even get there.’ The trouble is not just that children are worried about being judged for secondary school, but they are actually nice people and when you tell them it is just testing the school and the teachers they don’t want their teacher to do badly. They feel a sense of loyalty because they are human beings not machines.

I’ll end with quoting from a letter in a newspaper last Saturday. This letter was signed by 84 people, including the author Philip Pullman: ‘We, as teachers, educators and parents, are writing out of huge concern for the deteriorating experience of children in England’s primary schools – and the part played by assessment models in this…. As SATs week, the dismal ‘highlight’ of the primary assessment year approaches, we call for 2016 to be the final year of primary assessment in its current form. The SATs have troubled our country’s children for too long – it is time for them to go.’ Yes, indeed – time to act so that when grandson gets to Year 6, they’re long gone.

*Granny on the frontline is Jill Garner, grandmother of six.

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