Sats week: 'I believe in assessment, but I also believe every child should be a happy, rounded individual'

In the race to the top, the stress of Sats can cast a shadow on the light of creativity and enthusiasm we try to kindle in our pupils

Jo Brighouse

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There goes Sats week  the culmination of months and months of practising, revising and hammering-in of knowledge. The omnipresent data whose fluctuations have been more closely followed than the stockmarket have now been screengrabbed and cast in stone and, for many of the lines on the graph, it’s now a case of holding your breath until you see which side of the threshold it lands on. 

Like them or loathe them, there’s no getting away from the fact that in upper Key Stage 2, Sats dictate the rhythms of your year. For Year 6, it’s a slow burn from early autumn baseline testing through intervention groups and catch-up sessions to the maelstrom of the pre-Sats cramming sessions before attention turns to next year’s runners and riders in Year 5. 

“We are not defined by Sats. We offer every child a broad and balanced curriculum,” is the standard line peddled by most schools and, in some cases, it is so very nearly true. Many schools try desperately hard to keep their Year 6 children engaged and interested with trips, sport, art, history and music lessons right through the year. The teachers work their socks off to teach the all-important Sats subjects in a creative and cross-curricular way and generally bust a gut to fill the children with enthusiasm and self-confidence that the year of testing can so often drain away. 

But for every one of these schools, there’s a school that does the opposite. For some children, many curriculum areas are effectively shut down as they pass through the doors to the Year 6 classroom  leaving them in a landscape filled with practice test papers and papered with key revision facts. Then there’s the intervention groups: Sats and sweets, Sats and fruit, Sats and shovels; whatever you choose to call it, some children can’t go an afternoon without being ushered into a corridor with a teaching assistant for some intensive cramming before staying on for their after-school Sats “club”. 

And what about the children? Year 6 should be a fantastic year for them. They’re top of the school, showered with privileges and responsibilities: seats in assembly, greeting visitors, chairing the school council. On their way up, they have acquired skills that enable them to access the richest possible curriculum packed with exciting novels, art, history and geography topics and practical science. But, for many of them, all of this is completely overshadowed by the stress of the test; the knowledge they are underperforming and the monotony of the work. It’s no wonder that behaviour often takes a nose dive; especially in children with special needs, who can either be sidelined because their data’s too low to make an impact or become disengaged and demoralised through being made to work towards targets that are unrealistic and, in some cases, inappropriate for them.  Things can be particularly tough for schools in areas of high social deprivation where the all encompassing need to “close the gap” means the children most in need of a rich exciting curriculum are denied it.

Of course, just saying this automatically makes me an enemy of promise, someone who is complicit in selling the children short and hampering their life chances. Good teachers, we are told, accept no excuses for poor attainment. We should be unbroken and unbent, pillars of rigour and rigidity closing the gap, hammering in the sticking-out pegs of knowledge gaps (I have heard the last one used at least twice in the past week). The rhetoric of the current landscape has become so strongly based on teacher-as-stonemason that it leaves very little room for the idea that pupils might have to work a bit too, that the relationship between teacher and pupil is a hugely important factor in education and that primary schools do not exist merely to close the gap between nursery and secondary education.  

In the government’s eyes, the notion that testing and rigour will always win the day has become so engrained that there is little or no room left for nuance in the argument. I believe in assessment. I completely believe that no child should ever leave primary school unable to competently read, write and have a good grounding in maths. I believe every child should be happy at school and come out at the end of Year 6 as a more rounded individual than they went in as. 

Those who argue that a year of Sats cramming is necessary will tell you that you only get one crack at your education, it’s too important to waste. Well yes, that’s true, but you also only get one crack at your childhood, which, you could argue, is pretty important too. 

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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