Is it coincidental or ironic that Key Stage 2 SATS this week coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week? With concerns for the impact of high stakes testing being raised in 2016 but also last year and again in this assessment cycle with parents expressing their worries so much as to suggest a boycott of this year’s tests.
Take a scroll through Twitter or Facebook today: search Key Stage 2 SATS and/or Mental Health. Though social media provides a vent for frustrations it is also a powerful tool for the expression of genuine concern. Just this morning we have seen ‘homework’ for Year 6 children being set along the lines of ‘eat an ice-cream/go trampolining/swim half a dozen lengths/don’t injure your writing hand’; which begs the question of what the content of the other homework every weekend since Christmas have consisted of.
We heard last week of schools where the Year 6 children, possibly with parental support or maybe without, protesting to their Headteachers about the pressure of SATS preparation and the failure to have a broad curriculum, missing the opportunities for art, music and design that for many of our children will be their area of strength. We should be providing breadth and balance as a legal requirement and because it will hopefully lead to children with a broad range of interests and talents. Whether you believe in a knowledge led or a skills led curriculum, neither are best served by a regime dependent upon sitting test after test as preparation for ‘the real thing’. Mathematics and reading are life skills, something in danger of disappearing in the reams of paper copies of past papers spilling from the photocopiers of our primary schools.
Let us not forget we are addressing our comments and teaching a curriculum (or not teaching some of it until June) to children in their final year of primary school, nearly one-third of whom will still be 10 years old when they take SATS. Many of them will have had the talk that ‘these tests are important’. Some Heads and Year 6 staff may be transparent enough to admit that the results are important for the school and how it is judged. The children may also have been told that their results will be used by their secondaries to group them and predict targets for GCSE. When we were 10 and 11, the age 16 seemed long distance and the implications for our futures of confusing area and perimeter and not identifying a relative pronoun passed us by.
To label a child as a success or otherwise at the age of only 10 is surely going to impact upon the mental health of their young minds, regardless of the degree of resilience and self-confidence they may have. High stakes testing is exacting for both children and teachers. The picture under ‘life without levels’ has barely been a focused one, particularly given the perpetual confusion and mixed messages surrounding the frameworks for writing. Schools being honest or cautious are prone to being identified as under performing, schools with a more liberal interpretation of the frameworks, free of the yoke of moderation, may find their writing scores considerably higher than their reading test scores.
In the week where a further £50 million has been found for grammar school places, at a time where some schools are cutting paper budgets and make glue sticks last a term, it is worth remembering that many of these additional places will be filled, if they materialise, by children who have been afforded the luxury of a private tutor or a tutoring business to guide them through the 11+. Grammar schools in the days of levels were suddenly finding they had children reaching them will Level 3, where realistically they needed to be admitting children with Level 5 or higher. Under our current regime ideally the grammars should be full of ‘Greater Depth’ children but we know that there will be many ‘Working Towards’ children arriving in September. SENDCOs in grammar schools may be finding their registers more full and with a more diverse range of general learning needs to address than previously.
We don’t want to suggest that measures of accountability be removed for Primary Schools, but here is a suggestion. Sit the SATS in November/December of Year 6. Don’t permit cramming, test overload or the stripping back of the curriculum. This will require some careful monitoring by schools and local leadership, particularly through Year 5 and the early Autumn of Year 6. Tie the whole process in to the secondary school application cycle so the secondaries know the scaled scores when places are offered to their new intake. Of greater importance though is taking the pressure from Year 6 and their teachers. Let them have that time from Christmas onwards to develop a really deep and meaningful curriculum experience and to be really prepared mentally for that transition.
The care mental health of our children and of our teachers needs such radical thinking.