SATS and stresses

Many of my Twitter friends this week have children going through exams – A-Levels and SATS to be specific. I have a few years luckily before I get to that stage (although following the trend in education over the last few years I maybe shouldn’t count on that. No doubt before long there’ll be an entrance exam for primary school requiring children to submit essays and solve algebraic equations before they can go into Reception) and I’m not looking forward to it.

When I was at school, and it isn’t that long ago although it seems like it sometimes, I managed to get all the way through to secondary school without formal testing. In fact, I managed to get to Year 9 without formal testing – that’s fourteen years old. One of my favourite Twitter friends, Jane, has a ten year old who is upset and stressed because he has to undergo exams. A TEN year old. Now, I’m a freak who actually quite enjoys exams. I work better under that pressure, I have the kind of mind that suits that way of working. I prefer exams to coursework to be honest, but that’s just me. But I still found the exam experience moderately stressful, and as I said I was fourteen before I went through it. I can’t imagine how I would have reacted if they’d started at ten or earlier. I almost certainly wouldn’t have faced my GCSEs and A-levels in the same way.

It’s not like I completely escaped tests up until Year 9 of course. My teachers (and I was exceptionally lucky in almost all of my teachers) would do informal tests, spot tests, quizzes, spelling tests, mental tests (arithmetic to you old codgers). Even, as I got older, old exam papers or questions. But there was no real pressure on these. They were, quite clearly, used to see how we were getting on and to try different ways of learning – because obviously you learn things for a test in a different way to reading or listening and all three approaches are useful in their turn. But, as I said, they were clearly for our benefit.

I can’t see how the current tests and exams are for anyone’s benefit but the local Education Authority’s. They’re about league tables and school performance and teaching ability. And they’re putting undue stress on our children. They’re sacrificing children’s mental health for the sake of brownie points for the LEA. I don’t think that’s too much of an exaggeration. Exams, and the focus on exams and grades, will suck the joy out of learning. Reading will be revising for exams, leaving no time for reading for pleasure.

You know the really sad thing? Exams don’t matter. Oh, they do at the time, hugely. And each time you get to the next stage you wonder what the fuss was about, because these exams are REALLY important. But they’re not. What you end up doing can bear little relation to what grade you got for your GCSE Maths (A, if you’re wondering. To the constant bewilderment of my husband. And me) and absolutely none to your SATS.

I’m not saying exams should be scrapped – far from it. They’re an important part of assessment, particularly in the later stages of school, and they suit some people more than others and they help reinforce what’s been learned through the year. But maybe a reality check wouldn’t hurt? Perhaps removing the unnecessary exams from the earlier years and ongoing assessment (which still goes on ANYWAY) left to the teachers, who know their children best and who would then be able to give more time and attention to those children instead of cramming preparation for exams into a packed timetable.

There’s loads of discussion about issues like the early sexualisation of children and I think this is actually part of a big overall problem of making our children grow up too early. Pressures like exams and revision and results will come to them soon enough – can’t we protect them from it as long as possible? Childhood is a relatively recent concept – off the top of my head I believe the idea of ‘being a child’ rather than a miniature adult has only been around a couple of hundred years. It seems that this is just yet another aspect of life that is regressing. And that is so, so sad.

7 thoughts on “SATS and stresses”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with all of your brilliant post. But that’s not surprising. The increased pressure on our children to prove their learning which, I agree, can be counter-productive and simply stifle it is one of the many reasons we home educate.

    Exams are important when you need them; and when you need them they’ll be easy to do because you’ll be intrinsically motivated to do them. But also they’re not important *unless* you need them. Look at the number of incredibly successful people out there who have hardly any qualifications. Kenny Logan couldn’t even read until he got married!

    My desire for my children is that they grow up happy and self-confident. I am very certain, from all I’ve read; all the autonomous home educators I’ve spent time with (and their children); and all I’ve seen in my own children, that happy, self-confident people easily find out and learn the things that are important to them. They don’t boast about how crap they are at maths, because maths never becomes unpleasant to them. They don’t grow up saying reading is boring, because it’s never forced upon them.

    I know this is a generalisation; and unschooling is hard, hard work. But I just don’t think that institutionalised schooling is necessary and I do think that, fairly often, it can be harmful and SATS is the most depressing example of why.

    Disclaimer: I don’t think school is evil, by the way! I just think that unschooling, by engaged, willing parents is better! 😉

  2. Thank you for an excellent & very interesting comment! I didn’t realise you home-schooled; I am seriously awed by anyone who does that well. I know that I would not have the skills or patience so I am genuinely impressed.

    You make some brilliant points there Clare; thanks very much.

  3. Not sure I do it ‘well’ 😀

    You don’t really need any skills. All you need is to enjoy spending time with your children and are happy to talk to them and provide opportunities to find new interests.

    Some home educators do a school-at-home thing, but our life (as ‘unschoolers’ or ‘autonomous home educators’) is just like a massive summer holiday (except better ‘cos all the museums etc. are empty when we want to visit them! 😀 ). We play, read, watch tv, converse, use the computer, see friends, go to museums, go to home ed groups, go to dance/swimming classes etc.

    Patience is the real issue, I think, and the need to manufacture breaks and time for yourself. But I don’t have to battle with them to get them ready each morning; or stand over them while they do their homework, so I think that bits horses for courses, really 🙂

  4. Like Clare, I want my daughter to be happy and confident but I am afraid that in today’s world that will mean doing well in her exams – she is sitting her standard grades just now. She wants to work in publishing – today, at any rate; it does tend to change with the weather – and that will mean doing well at both school exams and University. Secondary schools already have continuous assessment in the essay based and arts subjects in addition to the final exams – which are much shorter than the ones we had to sit back in the seventies. And for each subject, the teenager site a different paper depending on their aptitude and ability. So, for example, a bright kid would sit English Credit, a mediocre at the subject would sit General and someone who struggled with it would sit foundation. This was supposed to be so everyone could have a qualification when they left school but all it does it patronise the less able – everyone “knows” that a 5, which equates to a foundation level pass, is a fail, especially the kids who achieve it.
    From primary school the kids are assessed continually against the Scottish guidelines and this continues into Secondary when, after the age of 14, they have to sit NABS (no idea what it stands for) in each subject, to assess their aptitude and decide whether or not they are allowed to sit the general and credit papers. So results orientated are the schools that if a kid doesn’t do well in the prelims, our mocks, they will not be put forward for the standard grade or higher – they don’t want a ‘fail’ to bring down the statistics for the school.
    Like you, I loved exams. My husband, a very smart man, has always found them stressful and as a result hasn’t achieved on paper what he could have. This irks him, understandably. But what else are we to do?
    Life is a series of ‘tests’ and I can’t think of a better way of whittling down to those best suited academically for university. Do we start the testing too soon? Undoubtedly, but successive governments have been, like secondary schools today, looking for statistics to back up how well their educational policies are working. I think it’s a pile of horse manure. Childhood should be about having fun while learning, not the stress of a test. But there are some people who, because of their personality and nature, always find exams stressful, no matter at what age they start them. Perhaps there is a case for primary school to introduce testing gradually, to help these people, so that they are not seen as such big, scary things. And maybe one of these days that’s what they will do, instead of pushing for results to justify the school’s existence.
    Apologies for my rambling.

  5. Hi Nettie thank you for commenting – not rambling!

    I know that GCSEs and A-Levels (or their equivalents in Scotland or elsewhere) are important – it’s the earlier exams I really have an issue with as I think they’re totally unnecessary. As you say, it’s all about the school stastitics. In fact, SATS are all about sats!
    My argument for universities has always been that they should be free but that they should only be for those who could pass the exams; degrees are not suitable for everyone. That doesn’t IMHO make them more or less valuable, just different. Those who are academic but with an extra challenge (eg dyslexia) may need support but that’s a different issue.

    All of which is a long way to say that I definitely do think that exams are starting way too early.

  6. I’m a teacher in a sixth form college: all I do is prepare kids for exams which are supposed to get them into university. I agree that the younger ones don’t need to be tested (but would add that it can be done by stealth – my 7yr old is doing SATS now, but she isn’t aware of it, they’re just completing work).

    The pressure for uni now is incredible, and kids (and parents) are completely sold a line that this is the only way they can ever be anything (well, that or X Factor). Many of my (particularly male) students would benefit from leaving school at 16, getting a job and then perhaps doing an Access to HE course when they’ve grown up a bit. Carrying straight on because they feel they have to only means, for some of them, that they waste their chance, as there isn’t funding for a second attempt later – and they feel they’ve proven they aren’t clever enough, when really they’ve only proven they weren’t ready or didn’t want it enough to make any effort.

    Anyway, I’m blathering now. Basically, I agree that primary kids do not need to be tested. It just adds unnecessary pressure for them and for their teachers.

  7. Thanks Beth, great comment. Reflects what I think is my dad’s opinion (retired KS 3&4 English/English lit teacher), and I agree totally.

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