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Sats: ‘Are we in danger of “weaponising” the alleged misery of children for political ends?’

I wanted to support the 'kids' strike' initiative, says the director of the Institute of Ideas, but I’m worried that the arguments against the tests don’t do our nation’s children any favours

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I really wanted to like the 'kids' strike' initiative, organised by the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign. The shambolic testing culture associated with Sats drives me mad: I share fears that an obsession with data collection by a micro-managing Department for Education has distorted educational priorities and that “teaching to the test” has narrowed the scope of teachers’ autonomy. As Zoe Williams notes in the Guardian, it’s as if “all the most profound decisions in education can suddenly be made by an algorithm, with no human judgment necessary”.

So I should be delighted that a seemingly grassroots activist campaign has captured the imagination of tens of thousands of parents: even better, that this parents’ revolt has won the tacit support of many teachers and seems like an exemplar of adult solidarity. But as the campaign has developed and more arguments have been thrown in the pot, I’m now worried that the arguments currently being used against Sats are going to do no favours for the nation’s six-year-olds and seven-year-olds. The anonymous organisers of the campaign have declared: “These are our children and we must stand up for their rights.” But what rights exactly? And that is where the problems emerge.

Do children have the right to have fun at school? One of the campaigners’ complaints is that focusing on test results is at the expense of “children's happiness and joy of learning”. This makes me nervous that one message of the campaign is that learning should always be enjoyable and make children happy. This impression is reinforced when the campaign urges parents to keep their children off school for “a day of educational fun”. There are 270 planned events including lots of trips to the woods and local parks for painting, bug hunting and the like. Former headteacher Jo Scrimgeour has been widely quoted as declaring that she wants her sons “playing in the mud and finding mini-beasts, not underlining adverbs”.

All very lovely and everything, but is there anything inherently wrong with underlining adverbs? Of course children would rather be running around playing in the mud creatively, but teachers have a responsibility to ensure they apply themselves to what can be laborious, dull, repetitive exercises to drill home everything from times tables to piano scales. It is populist and indulgent nonsense to pretend that many aspects of necessary learning – even for young children – don’t require tough and tedious concentration, practice and memorising. It is one thing to note that jumping through externally imposed test hoops can stifle imagination and originality in the classroom but that doesn’t mean that lessons should be indistinguishable from break-times, or happy clappy free-for-alls. When parents complain about “crashingly dull curriculum” and urge teachers instead to teach “stuff that actually interests and engages children”, they are effectively arguing that teachers abandon the difficult responsibilities of education: to challenge children’s spontaneous urges and ensure they have access to and internalise the building blocks of knowledge, precisely so they can be equipped with the principles of grammar or whatever so that these can be applied without thought later on and allow pupils to be as imaginative as they like as they develop.

What's wrong with testing?

Do children have the right to be stress-free? Inevitably, what started as a complaint against the prescriptive nature of particular tests has quickly morphed into focusing on the alleged fragility of children’s emotional state – associating testing with psychological problems. Hyberbolic denunciations of “factory-farming” and the “inhumane testing treadmill”, with endless complaints of stress, panic-attacks and anxiety, steer dangerously close to an argument that any pressure on the young is intolerable. So the DfE’s mental health champion Natasha Devon has weighed in, declaring “the culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to mental health”.

Should we conclude that children should never be discomfited by hard work? Surely this risks socialising an over-pampered, coddled generation. Or is it only an argument that the young should be protected from academic pressure? Parents seem less up in arms about the undoubtedly stressful assessments associated with their children’s hobbies: what about ballet grades, piano exams, pony club demonstrations, Brownies’ cup-cake competitions? Should these be boycotted? Children may worry how well they will do, but adults generally encourage the young to do their best. Some of this may well be children picking up on adult anxiety. Children may not be enthusiastic about exams, but claiming to be “traumatised” by Sats may be a self-fulfilling prophecy if all the adults around you say you can’t cope, exams are damaging etc.

Do children have a right never to fail? My fear is a baby and bath water one: that the campaign has become an attack on testing as iniquitous per se. An aspect of this is the argument that the prospect of failing undermines children’s self-esteem and that results can be stigmatising. One mother wrote on Facebook that: “My son, who is 11, came home and said to me: ‘What happens to me if I do badly in my Sats?’ I thought that was such a terrible statement to come from an 11-year-old. A child that age doesn’t have the comprehension to deal with it.” But surely the answer to the question “What happens to me if I do badly in my Sats?” is, “Let’s work hard so you can improve and do better the next time,” followed by a cuddle. Regardless of whether we approve of these particular bench-marked tests, whether they are age-appropriate, whether they should be set by teachers autonomously, surely it is important to defend the notion that a child’s development is helped by testing. As an ideal, being able to judge one’s own performance against peers to monitor progress is beneficial, not “terrible”. Yes, some will pass, while others fail, but such distinctions are not harmful; they are part of a meritocratic way of ensuring those who are struggling get additional help, while those who do well can see the outcome of their learning. 

So I’m not in principle opposed to parents organising a mass bunk-off, and education secretary Nicky Morgan’s comment that “Keeping children home even for a day undermines their education,” is plain daft.  But when those headteachers who are backing the campaign mark absences as "educational" rather than "unauthorised", are we sure what educational ends are being fought for? Inadvertently, there is a danger of parents “weaponising” the alleged misery of their offspring for political ends – far beyond their children’s comprehension – based on educational theories far more complicated and contested than “subordinating conjunctions” and “fronted adverbials”.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

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