Lambs to the slaughter?

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Village school to army transit camp to a nun bearing sweets. Dinah Starkey does her rounds as a SATs auditor

Monday: The birds are singing and there's a song on my lips as I point the Fiesta towards the high chalk downs. For here I go gathering SATs in May, and I've got a list of schools and a key stage 1 SATs auditor's pack to prove it. My job is to visit Year 2 classes to watch a task being administered, and check marking and records.

My first call is a small village school. Lambs call to their mothers in the field behind the playground, and high above a lark is singing. There are 10 children in the infants, nine in the juniors, and they haven't had a non-reader since 1984. Needless to say, it's under threat of closure.

In the mobile, four self-possessed little girls whistle through the level two comprehension test with contemptuous ease, while the six younger ones bake biscuits, split the atom, and translate Homer's Odyssey.

The teacher finds SATs a trial. "The trouble is," she says, "they're not used to working on their own. They know I'm always around to help them, and I really have to bite my tongue."

Tuesday: Today's school is enormous. It's located in a grim housing estate in one of our less prepossessing industrial towns. Set amid a waste of concrete and graffiti, the security procedures to gain entry are awesome. The head looks tired and so do the three Year 2 teachers, who have had problems providing individual seating for classes of 37. Every room is ablaze with displays of pupils' work, but it's not a patch on the stories produced by yesterday's confident seven-year-olds.

All the children make heavy weather of the spelling test. Many find it difficult to sit still for so long, and a few bid incessantly for attention. At break-time, conversation in the staffroom centres on a prospective case conference until we're interrupted by a feral dog pack in the playground.

Wednesday: I'm at an army transit camp showing my ID to the sentry on the gate, who puts down his gun to address me as Ma'am, and to write out a pass. Inside the camp, past the firing range, the NAAFI, the corporals' mess and the married quarters, I come to a titchy school with a staff of two, and nine children. There were 37 last week, before the regiment marched out.

The head has done me proud. She's managed to rustle up two Year 2 pupils for me to watch, and they even have the records for one of them, because she's been with them for all of six weeks. The other, a boy, only arrived from Germany on Monday and they haven't got anything beyond the information that he has been to five schools already and his parents are splitting up. He plods through the set reading text, Amazing Grace, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm and just squeaks into level one. He'll be gone too soon to set up the remedial programme he needs.

Thursday: At the Catholic school, I am greeted by a portrait of Pope John Paul and the news that the seven-year-olds are preparing for their First Communion. SATs be blowed, teachers in this school know where their priorities lie.

"I have sweeties for children who sit nicely during Mass," says Sister. "But some of you did not sit nicely. Perhaps I shall eat the sweeties myself. " Eyes widen and there is a gasp of dismay. Sister nods. Her authority is total. There isn't a squeak out of the class as they steam into their maths test.

In the deathly silence, I look through the marked tasks and record-keeping. It is immaculate. Beautifully annotated tasks demonstrate that every child can use capital letters and full stops, and most are doing joined-up writing. I am not in the least surprised. As a matter of fact, I have been filling in my own forms with more than ordinary care. Sister's high standards have that effect on people. She has God on her side.

Friday: It's a brand new school in an upmarket village. The parent-teacher association is booming, the head is dynamic and the children are called Giles and Portia. They sit tidily at their tables, clutching sharpened pencils and new rubbers. There is a buzz of pleasurable anticipation in the room. These children are actually enjoying the tests. "The maths was easy," says Abigail. "We all like it." Harry, who has lost a tooth, is quietly confident. "I've done lots of practices at home," he says. "My Dad got a book."

Their teacher is not so comfortable. She's newly-qualified and the SATs worry her to death. We sit down to moderate the English tasks, and I reassure her that she's doing fine.

"But what will the parents say if they fail? I've got all the summer-born children, but nobody seems to take that into account. Do you think SATs are fair?" I open my mouth and close it again. Standardised tests, administered to children of the same age, under the same conditions and based on the same national curriculum. An army of auditors sent out to check that in every classroom they are conducted in the same way, and follow the same rules. Surely that must be fair?

Dinah Starkey is a key stage 1 SATs auditor and lives in Trowbridge, Wiltshire

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