On Tuesday, thousands of children and parents went on strike in protest at the Year 2 Sats. A woman on the radio told how her daughter had been placed under such intolerable pressure that she was coming home crying and waking up with nightmares. As a parent of two small children myself, my heart broke. “My goodness,” I thought, “what an awful way for the school to behave.”
This boycott has put government and headteachers’ organisations in a quandary as to what position to take on the campaign and how aggressively to promote or attack it.
Because make no mistake: any situation in which a six-year-old is driven to tears is entirely the fault of the adults around them. If children are stressed about these tests – which have no consequence for them – then they have picked that up from the attitudes and behaviours of home and school.
Yes, these tests have consequences for schools and so put pressure on heads and teachers. But if being a professional who works with young people – or frankly, being an adult – means anything, it is having the maturity to absorb that pressure rather than passing it on to small children.
As a parent, the government argues, your job is to protect your child from issues that are not appropriate, including making it clear to the school when you feel that its messages are unreasonable. By contrast, ministers say, going on strike is a terrible way to respond. It gives children the added stress of being torn between parents and school. It also gives the message that, to some extent, schooling is a choice, and that on occasion you don’t have to do things if you don’t want to.
The government doesn’t escape all the blame here. The preparation for these new tests has been rushed, advice has on occasion been contradictory, and the leaking of a test paper has sapped confidence.
But the general principle is surely right: a curriculum that expects nothing less than is expected of children in other high-performing countries, and a system that seeks to measure progress and hold schools accountable for the outcomes.
The NAHT headteachers’ union probably comes closest to the solution when it calls for one external test at Reception and one at key stage 2 to measure progress through primary, combined with more frequent low-stakes assessment. But the simplistic “Let our kids be kids” movement, in claiming to protect children, actually does them harm by abdicating responsibility for the adults.
Thousands of schools are actually letting kids be kids, by educating them with an outstanding mixture of literacy and numeracy, and play and creativity, and overseeing the tests in a calm and reasoned manner. They should be the ones that are lauded.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron