Best of times and worst of times: SATS and a tale of two Kittys

As every parent of a state-educated Year 6 child know, last week saw their son or daughter go through the Standard Assessment Tests, or SATs, in English and maths. Their very existence has caused controversy and there is a very vocal group of parents who appear in the press claiming that they cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. In this article, I use the examples of two children to show why I think SATS are flawed but that pulling your children out of them is plain daft.

Kitty#1 is from a middle class family, is bright and sociable and enjoys school. She attends a community primary school with a broad curriculum in a high achieving borough. Her school takes the SATs tests seriously, and there is much emphasis on them in Year 6. She doesn’t always do as well as her brother in tests, and her position in her family is informally discussed as the funny, but not intellectual child. She is withdrawn from SATs.

Kitty#1’s dad doesn't believe in testing and the use of data for accountability. She hears her parents talking about tests all the time, discussing how the schools put too much emphasis on results and make children feel anxious. Mum explains that the data that tests produce are useless and meaningless and schools don’t think about the child and are driven by Ofsted.

Kitty#1’s dad makes international comparisons and says other countries don't do as much testing and their educational systems are better. Kitty#1 is relieved that she doesn't have to experience the anxiety she has heard her parents talk about but is also a little bit disappointed she can't show what she has learnt. She feels isolated that she isn't having the same experiences as her friends. She knows it is difficult for the adults in her school as she can see by how they respond to her that they don't know how to deal with her now that they know she is not doing the tests.

Kitty#2 is also from a middle class family, is bright and sociable and enjoys school. She attends a different primary community school with a broad curriculum in a high achieving borough. Her school takes SATs seriously, but it doesn't limit what they do in Year 6. She doesn’t always do as well as her brother in tests, but she's August born and so quite a bit younger than the other children in year 6.

Kitty#2’s Mum does believe in testing and the use of data for accountability. She hears her mum talking about tests, discussing different questions and how meaningful they are and occasionally, she says that’s a stupid question or debates some of the finer details of conjunctive connectives with her Dad in a way that she understands means they think it’s not a useful concept.

She’s heard her Mum say that she values the fact that her school isn't entirely focused on SATs in Year 6. Indeed the week before SATs, Year 6 spent the Friday morning on a fun run in the local park and the afternoon gardening at school. She's told Kitty#2 it’s important to do well in her SATs, but that they aren’t a good measure of her intelligence. Kitty#2 hasn't asked, as she isn't interested, but her Mum thinks the data from SATs are very important within schools to drive school improvement. Kitty#2 is looking forward to doing the SATs and showing what she knows.

I don't usually get emotional about things that aren't related to my family and friends, but I have felt a genuinely heavy heart this week as I have read about parents who have withdrawn their children from the Year 6 SATs tests. Kitty#1 is put in a situation where she knows her parents don’t trust her school and some things her class have been working towards have been pulled out from under her feet. What a conflicted position to be in when you are 10 or 11 and looking towards secondary school.

this really is an age of foolishness as well as one of wisdom

Parents have justified withdrawing their children by saying they don’t like them being represented by a number, that SATs make their children anxious, that schools over-emphasise the importance of the tests and that it doesn't make a difference to the rest of their lives. Debra Kidd, a former teacher and now education academic, boasted on Twitter about the things her son had done during the time he would have been doing SATs as more educational than the SATs would have been.

I feel for these children — and they are largely middle class, with significant social capital — who have had to manage a lot of conflicting views and feelings over the last few weeks.

I am genuinely perplexed by these parents. I wonder what their motivations really are and whether or not they are able to think about the impact of their actions on their children and how the children feel about and think about this experience. And the impact of knowing that if there is something you don't like, it’s OK to just opt out and not do it.

Parents tend to blame the schools — they put too much emphasis on these tests. Year 6 is lost to their children, they say, with too much of an emphasis on the things children need to know in order to get through their SATs. This leads to a narrowing of the curriculum in year 6 and their child’s experience is diminished.  

What astounds me about this argument is that the parents have kept their child in a school with which they disagree. And their way of disagreeing is to withdraw their child from some tests (which by the way the parents think aren't very important, so why bother?). If there is something going on in my child’s school that I think is wrong, I address this with the school at the time, or if necessary, move my child to a different school. I don't withdraw them from one aspect.

If I think my child is stressed and anxious, or angry or frustrated, I try (ha ha ...) to give them strategies to deal with these emotions before they become overwhelming. While it is natural for parents to want their children not to experience difficult emotions, the appropriate adult response is to help with coping with emotions in order to enable the child to grow into a functioning adult.

I think the current set of tests are badly designed, favour children with a middle class vocabulary and are largely irrelevant to the rest of the child’s education and working life. (But let’s not underestimate the difficulties caused to secondary schools in trying to monitor the progress of children for whom they don’t have SATs data). The focus on obscure grammar concepts is meaningless, although I do admire the fact that many of the maths questions are now contextualised. But in the end, the meaningfulness of this test is the same as the meaningfulness of any test — what one person achieves at a particular time with a particular set of questions. And responsible, contributing people do not just pull out of things they don't like. To paraphrase Dickens, this really is an age of foolishness as well as one of wisdom.

More about the author

About the author

Penelope Trunchbull is a pseudonym for a governor at two state schools in North London. She has a long and varied career in education but sadly she cannot reveal where.

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