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.

Advice on GCSEs

So, yesterday you got your GCSE results – congratulations!

In all seriousness, whatever your results were, well done. There is a lot of hooha about exams getting easier, about grades getting higher, but there is no doubt this is one of the most stressful things you will have experienced up until now. Are students getting cleverer? Are teachers teaching better? Are exams, in actual fact, getting easier? I am in no position to comment, not being an expert in any of these areas. I would suspect, certainly a combination of all those factors. The only one I have a quibble with is the one about teachers – without the slightest disrespect to teachers who in general do an excellent job, and with my only reference the experience of my father who has recently retired from secondary school teaching but continues to be a Senior Marker for GCSE English, my personal view of the matter is that teaching now is geared to exams, exams, exams, results, results, results.

This means, if I’m right, that your education over the past 5 years (or even 11 years) has been focused on this moment. This is your reward for your compulsory education – the little piece of paper that right now has you either on Cloud Nine or down in the dumps. I remember getting my results – 13 years ago, oh my – and nothing else in the world seems as important. Now, I’m not going to lie to you – when you do your A-Levels or uni exams or vocational exams or driving test or whatever your path in life leads you to, GCSEs will not seem as vital as they do now. But they are important – they sum up your school career. They make you either rethink your career options or feel very smug that you are obviously fulfilling your destiny.

My advice? Treasure the moment. Hold on to that piece of paper. Let it inform your choices for a couple of years. Then let it go. In ten years, it is highly unlikely you will be on the same path you are on today. That does not, absolutely not, devalue anything you are doing now. Every exam result, piece of coursework, boring hour spent doing maths homework (apologies to maths buffs, but, you know…) is forming the person you will become in ten years. But it is not the be-all and end-all of the essential you. Your skills and talents may be highly academic – mine were – or just not being recognised right now. But you will, YOU WILL, get a chance to develop those skills and to shine in your true calling. The most important thing you can do now is celebrate your triumphs (and just getting through one of the most stressful experiences of your life so far is a triumph in itself), file your mistakes, and keep an eye out for your chances, without worrying how old or young you are when they come along. I have had about 3 careers since leaving school – 4, if you include my choice to stay at home and care for my family, and it’s taken me until now, nearly thirty years old, to discover and pursue my vocation. I may never have measured success, or it may come tomorrow. My husband is nearly 32, and he has only found his path over the past 18 months, with mistakes, mishaps and missed chances along the way. You can regret them, looking back, or looking forward. But if you keep looking back, you will continue to trip up.

And final tip? Take all advice on GCSEs, including mine, with a pinch of salt. Good luck!