The ominous calm before the storm bursts this week.
In preparation for Sats, most Year 6s have been oiling their relative clauses, wiping down their contracted forms and trying to remember what a model verb looks like.
Year 6 teachers have been manically gnawing their fingernails while headteachers frantically shift through charts and graphs, trying to figure out how bad it has to be before they become self-employed educational consultants – or, perish the thought, an Ofsted inspector.
Racking up the results
And now it has started...Sats week is here.
Not that it makes much difference; I believe that Sats have become untenable. They are not a level playing field administered evenly or taught fairly.
I think last year's writing results told us much about the pressures and level of focus placed upon "getting good results". Somehow, the 10 per cent divide between writing and reading was glossed over (I know of one school who got over 90 per cent in writing and less than 30 per cent in reading) and here we are again, the beginning of the exam season.
A heartless few months where a cut-throat approach to what makes a good school is ruthlessly applied up and down the country. No slackers or time-wasters may apply.
It makes me sad that in this country, because we have Sats tests, some people (mainly politicians and parts of the media) actually believe that good results make good primary schools. There is some degree of sense in this – but deep down, test-based performance indicators are flawed.
If I wanted to turn my school into an exam factory I could, but I have chosen not to because I feel it's not the right thing to do. (Although, very sadly – like many things in education – I now feel I have little choice but to change what I do. I have little room for manoeuvre.)
Get out more
Our "knowledge overlords" have decreed that education is best measured through the Sats tests, despite many people in the profession saying that it is a narrow, flawed and damaging approach.
Interestingly, parents rarely tell me they want more literacy or mathematics. They usually say how well their child is doing in this area. What they do ask for is more PE, more trips, more experiences outside of the classroom. They want a broad and balanced curriculum.
They do not seem concerned about a primary school test that means nothing more than tears at bedtime. They trust that teachers know their child.
Even Ofsted now say it is only one factor of many they inspect. And yet it is seen as the most reliable way to compare schools, with decades of statistical comparisons on a national level – be it boys, girls, SEND, EAL – Sats are an easy option because it's hard to argue against them when some bright spark (who has likely never worked in a school) can always say: “But St Turin Test Juniors managed to get better results; it must be a better school.”
When you become a headteacher, you have deep moral choices to make: ensure your school offers a broad and balanced curriculum; celebrate and encourage the diversity of knowledge and skills that will be vital in the future; make sure that childhood and the journey it takes them on become central to the curriculum your school offers; acknowledge that the hardest tests in life are very rarely paper-based...
Most schools try to do both, but we do them badly. I now feel that I need to do one well and I think you can guess which one it is…Yeah, it makes me feel sick too.
Let us be clear: Sats have become high-stakes, very high.
Every year headteacher job security is tested by them and I have seen many fall, their lives destroyed and jobs lost – sometimes in shame after years of great service. You need capital in the bank if you hope to ride out a shock year or (worse still) a second year of "ok" results (never mind "bad" results).
Your leadership rests on not being complacent, naive, having low expectations, not tackling underperformance...the list goes on and on.
You can’t be coasting; ignore pupil premium children, service children or children who were born in the summer You have to make sure you never lower your expectations because our children deserve the best exam factories in the world.
Tip-top performance – for a week
In my 14 years as a headteacher, I have seen an incredible rise in the knowledge and skills of children in our primary schools. What our Year 6 pupils can do now is streets ahead of what I would see even five years ago. This is a good thing, but high-stakes testing is in danger of strangling the life out of the primary school curriculum.
It's a shame because if there was trust in the system, the high expectations of this curriculum would only have great benefit in the long term. Instead, we have a system where primary schools are fearful of getting bad Sats results and focus on those tests so that, for one week in May, performance is as good as it can be.
It's nothing more than an illusion of true ability which soon breaks down. The pace, focus and priority slips back to normal.
Who picks this up?
Year 7, that’s who. Those children have to contend with a new school and a test that has no real meaning whatsoever to the teachers at that school. The tests tell our secondary schools nothing that an internally administered test would not tell them in September.
But still we keep on doing them because, if we don’t, primary headteachers will all lower their expectations and start coasting; teachers will slack and start teaching knitting. We have no trust that schools want to be the best and want to enable the children in them to be great.
This is sad and says more about our country's attitude to its people than any real system of excellence. Our freedom to express how we "professionals" think and feel about education policy may be the reason that so little changes and trust is so low.
Fear stalks the corridors
Every child I speak to in school feels the pressure.
It's different for each and every one. They don’t want to do badly and no matter how many times you use the #grannywisdom of "just give me your best", they look to their left and they look to their right and they know that they are about to be judged.
They are about to be put on a list that goes from worst to best. They are not stupid.
High-stakes testing, with little real benefit to pupils or schools, is damaging the mental health of our children. At age 11 they are very clearly told you are a success or you are a failure.
The implications of this are so stark for schools that I imagine that the weight feels even heavier for some pupils. They can read their teachers faces. They can sense the fear as they walk the corridors. I have been in schools where the anxiety hangs like a shroud.
As I said, children are not fools. Passing or failing a test should mean nothing to an 11-year-old in the grand scheme of things.
Tests, at this stage of schooling, should pass on what a child can and cannot do (that’s what I’d want in Year 7) but it seems that we are firmly spending money on ascertaining which school can pass the test and which schools have failed it. This helps no one.
Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1