Do we really need to worry a lot about the SATs? What effects can these have on our children? Why do we not strike a balance and find a way suitable for each child and effectively deal with the stress?

The SATs time of the year

So, the time of the year has come when SATs are in the air! Students, teachers, parents and sometimes their grandparents also seem to talk about SATs. The other day my student Eddie’s grandma came to pick him up from tuition. Her concern was the SATs. Eddie is an extremely intelligent boy; however, his handwriting is a bit of a concern. Therefore, the grandma is also concerned if the assessors will be able to read his writing! Phoebe, on the other hand, has handwriting like that from a printed book and I am sure she can grow up to be a successful penman. Her grandma’s worry, however, comes from a different angle. She seems to be worried about her speed of writing; whether she will be able to finish the papers or not! Not surprisingly, Eddie and Phoebe’s parents are concerned about the upcoming SATs, and as a private tutor, I have the challenge of making them improve their handwriting and speed respectively. I am sure the schools are also involved in the same process. Of course the publishers are also quite happily occupied in this, as the parents are buying dozens of books and practice papers (‘someone’s happiness is someone else’s misery’ as the proverb says). Therefore, the whole scenario is as complex as a food web and often the poor students become the victims of that.

What are SATs?

The statutory assessments, colloquially known as SATs, are carried out in primary schools in England. These National Curriculum assessments are designed to test children’s knowledge and understanding of specific elements of the programmes of study at the end of Key Stages 1 and 2, when most pupils are aged 7 and 11 respectively. They provide a snapshot of a child’s attainment at the end of the key stage and are made up of a combination of testing and teacher assessment judgments, which are used in all government-funded primary schools in England.

As we are aware, last year was the first year of new style SATs for years 2 and 6. Not only were the tests more difficult (to reflect a more challenging curriculum) but the method of assessment and reporting was also changed.  As a parent, if this change is not very clear to you as yet, the advice will be to go through various documents published as guides for parents of year 2 and 6 children. Most of these are available online. I would recommend you to have a read through the information, as it will help you interpret your child’s assessments.

The effects of SATs on children

While the objective is perfectly noble and I do believe that some sort of assessments can be a necessary evil at different stages of school education, the system should also ensure making SATs preparation as pressure-free as possible. Now, if there’s one thing that rattles our cage, it’s seeing the kind of effect that SATs have on many 7 and 10-11 years old. For many, what should be their best year of primary school, has become a year full of talk of SATs, Levels and past papers and associated tension. What a shame!

Even some high achieving kids get tired, stressed and paranoid that he/she’s going to fail. Often they do not get to sleep properly at night. The parents can’t wait for the SATs week to be over.  Sometimes these force them to be withdrawn, tired and restless from studies. Some students become nervous wrecks. Often these tests are a way too much pressure at an early age. Not surprisingly, the parents time and again end up complaining that these tests will have a damaging effect on many pupils. Primary school is supposed to be a place that ignites a child’s desire for learning, not to snuff it out by labelling that he/she is a failure because he/she doesn’t know a subordinate clause from a conjunction.

My personal student Maddy was a bit nervous at the beginning of the week of the exam last year. She could grasp concepts fairly quickly and was bored of not learning anything new all year and with the endless revision. She said she was worried because she didn’t like the idea that some stranger would mark her work and not her teacher – would they be able to read her writing? Also, what if she had a bad day? She was concerned that teachers at secondary school wouldn’t know that she could do better. At the last point, I could relate my feelings as a child. I always used to be worried that one wrong day during our ‘annual exams’ could send the wrong impression about myself to the teachers of the next grade. Oh, how I used to worship all the gods and goddesses during those annual exams! But, ours is a bygone era, why should this generation suffer from the same sort of crisis as well? As an educator, I had no doubts on Maddy’s potential, I thought it was rather important to encourage her to go for her violin lessons instead of revising for the SATs (which probably otherwise would have been her ‘nth’ time revision) and did my best to calm her nerves. Once again, I would realised that though some form of testing for Year 6 is probably a necessary evil, but far too much weight is placed on SATs. We need education that will allow children to learn how to creatively and co-operatively solve the problems we face as a society. I fear that continued stress for a year can kill the enthusiasm and hunger for learning for those kids who would otherwise keep on regaling others with tales of kings and queens and emperors of times past, talk of different countries, religious festivals or the latest animals they had studied. The stress can take up so much space that they may not have room for talking of the characters in their books they have read, putting on plays with their siblings, going for bike rides and baking brownies. Instead, their school runs could be full of questions and philosophy spurred by what they had learnt in school that day. This is the age when the children have boundless curiosity and the energy with which they can hungrily consume all new information about the world.

There is no point of ‘cramming’ information to children. The parents and teachers must tell them that SATs scores have no effect on them and that success is something that can never be measured by numbers. We don’t want them to utter sentences like “my life sucks” when they should be speaking of nature, wizards and cartoon characters. Their head should not be so full of anxiety and worry over remembering it all and performing that they have no space left to be a child.

SATs are necessary

It might sound like I am heavily against the SATs. No, I am not. I have used the phrase ‘a necessary evil’ earlier.  I do believe that some sort of assessment is necessary every now and then. All exams do bring in some stress and if children are completely kept away from these, how will they learn to cope with the huge pressures they will have to undertake during bigger exams and even in their later lives? This is perhaps required for empowering them to cope up with all the future ‘deadlines’. We do not live in egalitarian societies; hence they all have to stand the test of time. It is better to make them understand that SATs are their first set of ‘exams’. However, it has to be made clear that these tests are not meant to ruin their lives, but are there for enabling them to learn from the mistakes they would make. The whole family need not panic, rather they should support the child and their stress related moods. SATs should not take a year away from their lives at a time when he should be carefree and happy, but should prepare them for their future endeavours. Therefore, the parents, teachers and school should make them believe that these tests are not the be-all and end-all. The tests should be done in an environment as normal as possible, and along with the organisation of lots of fun things around the SATs.

How shall we cope with SATs?

As educators, we have a responsibility to provide the students with a sense of security and make learning fun, but that’s easier said than done. A couple of months to go and already the pressure is setting in. As we realise, SATs are often the focus of a year which, in reality, should surely be one of the most creative, most lively in a child’s primary education.

So, with Year 2 and 6 parents (and all sparky teachers who know there’s more to life than tests) primarily in mind, a little piece of advice will be not to over-pressurise the child. Each child is with different abilities and can bloom and perform at different stages of life. There is no way that a child should be feeling the strain and anxiety about SATs at all and be let alone in this spring.