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Practice does not always make perfect

Cramming notes and model exam papers are now infesting the primary sector. Paul Noble sifts through some dummy key stage 2 tests

Practice Tests for Key Stage 2

ENGLISH. By John Aldridge and Keith Gaines MATHEMATICS. By Peter Patilla SCIENCE. By John Aldridge and Sheila Dampney Oxford University Press Pounds 3.99 each Photocopymasters Pounds 15 each

At the same time as I received my key stage 2 SATs, these books of practice tests arrived on my desk. Close examination of the former being strictly forbidden on pain of something really dreadful (use your imagination), I turned to the practice tests by way of compensation. In appearance they are very much like last year's tests and, although this month's will differ (I haven't looked, honest), these variations are unlikely to be sufficient to invalidate the practice papers.

The workbooks, at Pounds 3.99, are expensive because they are consumable, whereas the identical photocopy masters are cheap at Pounds 15. I expect that the workbooks are intended to be sold to parents, no doubt those who put too much pressure on their children already. There is nothing wrong with trying to give your child a leg up, but this may have the opposite effect. Most sensible parents will leave well alone. These are, after all, tests not teaching or learning aids.

There seems to be no consensus among teachers on the question of using practice SATs. Perhaps it is too early to form an opinion based on experience. Some are against them on principle. Logically, if you oppose the whole idea of the national curriculum tests, question their validity, distrust the motives of those who introduced them or simply think they are a waste of time, you are unlikely to subject your children to more than is required by law. Many schools have taken this view and it would be pointless for OUP to expend sales effort on them.

My own straw poll suggests that many teachers, driven more by pragmatism than ideology, have taken the line that as sitting SATs is compulsory, one might as well give children the best possible chance of success and introduce a little practice. They usually mean practice of the test situation rather than of the tests themselves. Most primary children are unfamiliar with working under rigorous test conditions and understandably find sitting in communal isolation in an echoing hall a little intimidating.

But there is practice and there is practice. One teacher I spoke to let her current pupils tackle last year's test papers in pairs and small groups with discussion encouraged. As a result of this co-operative problem-solving effort, the less able seem to have been reassured and the threatening dark clouds of the unknown dispersed.

Another teacher, with little ceremony and no warning, has been slipping the odd SAT into the normal routine of work. This educational Mickey Finn had not gone unnoticed by the class (like most 11-year-olds, they are much too smart) which, when you come to think of it, is the whole point of the exercise.

But while a SAT a day may keep anxiety away, and OUP clearly hope that many will take this view, some schools have deliberately stoked up the fires of anxiety by running full scale test trials in the belief that their children will become toughened by experience.

Alongside mock A-levels and mock GCSEs, we now have mock SATs. I hear of schools where focus on this activity has acquired an intensity reminiscent of 11-plus days, with the dross of education ruthlessly swept aside for the duration (no swimming this week, children).

Running dummy tests under strict conditions and marking the scripts, does take an awful lot of time and effort, effort that could be spent on teaching. Also, using past papers, or indeed commercially contrived "dummies", does not guarantee that children will get practice in the subject matter of the real tests. Those who used them will know, for example, that the focus of the 1995 science papers was markedly different from that of the 1994 models and 1996 will differ from 1995.

With the arrival of these Oxford workbooks it is clear that the whole paraphernalia of cramming notes and model papers that has been spawned by other public examinations now infests the primary field. I have already seen local education authority-produced science crib sheets.

We all want the best for our children and if this is the route we are forced to go down in order not to put them at a disadvantage, then so be it. Books like these can provide good practice in tackling SATs, and I may well use them, if sparingly, but didn't "good practice" once mean something else?

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire

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