The other day, we were bemoaning the amount of time we spend working for SATs. We want good results, and you have to keep up with the pack. And don't all the other schools cram too? You can't afford to be left behind. When I was in my last year at junior school, the teacher spent most of her time preparing us for the 11-plus. As a young teacher, I devoted hours to showing my 11-year-olds how to crack verbal reasoning tests. Yes, there was an interesting lull in the anti-test Seventies and Eighties, but anything went then, and often children didn't learn much at all. Overkill, in the form of a new government, a national curriculum and oodles of expensive testing arrived to sort that out.
The trouble is, SATs affect other year groups as well. Schools are worried about leaving everything to the final year, and Year 5 now has "practice SATs". Even the last two years of primary school might not give enough time to master the art of putting tracing paper over shapes to see which two make a square, so hadn't we better design our own in-school SATs for Years 3 and 4? I sometimes think primary schools are becoming factories with the sole aim of getting everybody out of the building with a level 4.
There are knock-on effects, too. Ofsted inspectors seem to use SATs as a litmus test for everything. Before the team arrives, the registered inspector will have pored over graphs and percentages in those riveting booklets, the Panda and Picsii. Not to mention your S1, S2, S3 and S4, forms designed by VDPs (very dull people), purporting to give a picture of the school in miniature and not doing anything of the sort. Then, having found the tiniest weakness in your Year 2 SATs for 1835, where the graph trembled because able Daphne had moved to another school and your best teacher had annoyingly gone off to have a birthday, they'll home in to show that your school is falling apart. Even local school inspectors use these bits of paper religiously. Every year, when the delivery man risks a hernia getting SATs boxes up the stairs, my stomach lurches at what it must all cost. Even the instructions for sending the tests off contain unbelievably detailed instructions.
Parents have been persuaded that SATs are vital. In my school only two children have ever been absent for them, and one was only away for a day. Once the lift in a local block of flats broke as five of our children were on their way for the start of SATs week. Three were terrified. Not because they were stuck, but because they might miss science "A". And yet the SATs results don't matter to the children. They've got secondary school places, the schools have been informed about their abilities, and the parents are aware of how their children are progressing because the teachers spend time with them. They matter to the school though. My God, everybody, we've slipped two places down the league tables. We're coasting. Or failing. Next stop, special measures.
I had to smile when a mother approached a friend of mine, and asked if he could give her 11-year-old some extra lessons a couple of times a week. "SATs practice?" inquired my friend. "No bleedin' fear," she said. "He gets that all day long. Can't he paint a picture or something?"
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school in Camberwell, London borough of Southwark. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.