Practice makes for perfect hell

16th May 2003 at 01:00
The SATs season is upon us and the purpose of being a Year 6 pupil is about to be realised. There's a story of a man who spent all his time dreaming of heaven. When he died, he was shown a land of breathtaking loveliness, full of streams, rivers and mountains. "Where are we?" he gasped. "You're on Earth; we haven't reached heaven yet," the angel replied.

The average Year 6 pupil spends so much time practising for the real thing that when it arrives it must be a let-down.

I remember those days, not so long ago, when we were being told not to teach to the test; it should be a snapshot of where the pupil is. Yet the local education authority recently urged our school to send a Year 6 teacher to a model school that achieved wonderful SATs results year on year.

How did it achieve this? Was it through innovative teaching methods, by paying attention to the learner, or taking account of each pupil's needs? We were intrigued and leaned closer to hear the magic formula. Wall-to-wall tests was the answer. They started practising in September and flogged the pupils almost every day until they were thoroughly prepared for the following May. We felt cheated.

I went to see a friend in Buckinghamshire at Easter. Her son, in Year 5, was spending his holiday going to a school where he practises for the 11-plus, which he will take next October. "Everyone does it," she told me.

Governments are on the same treadmill. Only recently, through one scheme or another, we were given the cost of a teaching assistant for four terms to help us raise the standards of six Year 5 pupils who lie in that "unfortunate" area just below a level 4. In normal circumstances and left without the extra support, these pupils would probably miss a level 4 by three or four marks. The assistant costs pound;12,000, so it is possible to work out how much each of these extra marks will cost: 6 x 4 = 24, divided into 12,000 makes around pound;500 a mark.

This year, we decided to prepare in another way, spending more time teaching and less practising, and we've found pupils can make amazing progress in the final half of the spring term. But without the continuous practice the tests demand, I'm not sure that the improvement will be translated into SATs scores. Practising, like the troops being sent to Iraq, has its own inevitability. Once they'd done the exercises and sat in the desert for a month, the war had a momentum. It was only going in one direction.

A few years ago, Year 6 was the glorious culmination of primary school, and I'm sure many children still love being top dogs and miss the security when they move to secondary school. But it looks as if the daily programme has changed their experience forever, and the constant preparation throughout their final year is here to stay. Whether practice makes for heavenly perfection is open to debate.

Bob Fletcher

Bob Fletcher is head of Hobbayne primary school, London borough of Ealing

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