It's SATs week and, as usual at this time of year, I'm invigilating with my two Year 6 teachers. We've worked hard all this year, putting aside the construction of technological miracles from cornflakes boxes so that we can concentrate on the all important core subjects. I'm anxious to see how the children do, and I realise I'm almost as nervous as they are. I get to school even earlier than usual.
But at 9am the sun is shining, and so are all the faces of Year 6. A beautiful May Monday, and not a single absence. Every one of them is here: the able, the less able, the unable, the unstable. Spurred on by the powers that be, parents have been persuaded that SATs are very important, like Ofsted inspections and league tables. Year 6 troop excitedly into the hall and sit at the individual foldaway tables we've bought. Expensive, these tables, but replacing the worn out library books isn't that important, is it? The children examine their new pencils and unchewed rubbers with relish, we explain the mechanics of SATs week, and the tests begin. The silence is wonderful, and the day passes quietly.
They're all here on Tuesday, too. Even the unable. Especially the unable. Damn it, this could muck up our league table position. Gary's hair has been cut for the occasion, and Jade has a box of perfumed tissues to mop her troubled brow. It's mental maths today, and as I listen to the careful articulation of the voice on the tape I wonder why, just a few years ago, the powers that be were telling us that doing whole-class mental tests wasn't "good practice". The tape asks the children to circle the approximate weight of an apple. What apple are we talking about, I wonder? A cooking apple? A crab apple? The children hurriedly scribble answers into the boxes. Just as Haji's facial contortions suggest he's moving towards an answer, the tape moves on, throwing him completely.
We grind through Wednesday, and on Thursday it's maths test B. My wife and I eat the usual quick breakfast before dashing off to our respective schools. "How much does an apple weigh," I ask her?"Haven't a clue," she replies. I hurry to school to help find the implements needed for the maths test: new pencils, calculators, rulers, protractors. Year 6 are astonished at the daily production of new accessories and study their immaculately sharpened pencil points with interest. In question two, the children are shown six shapes, all differing slightly, and they're asked to find which one is identical to a seventh shape. The examiners have assumed tracing paper would be helpful and said they can use it. Silly examiners. Nine of the children, who manage to turn their tracing paper upside down and inside out during the process, become totally confused and get it all wrong. Gary wraps his comb in his tracing paper and looks as though he might play it.
But children are adaptable and by Friday they are almost blase about the tests. I know when they've finished now, because they turn to their neighbours to see how things are going and knock their pencils off the desks. As they bend to retrieve them, they knock their rulers, rubbers and protractors off as well. I tell them to try very hard not to drop pencils, and immediately three more clatter to the floor. The science test begins, and Mark buries himself in the food chain question. What will happen to the otters if an item earlier in the food chain disappears? Mark thinks carefully. "Otters might go dark," he writes with supreme confidence. I am constantly awed by the intricacies of young minds.
At 4pm on Friday I join my Year 6 teachers to pack the SATs into huge bags and post them onwards. I read aloud the incredibly detailed packing instructions. They involve appendices, manifests, bar codes, and a bag of sticky bits and pieces. I look despondent, remembering this confusion from last year. One of the teachers puts a SATs sack on his head and hums softly in despair. Clare, newly qualified and efficient, finally sorts it all out and our premises officer struggles towards the staircase with the packages. "These weigh a ton!" "They do indeed," I reply. "But I bet you don't know how much an apple weighs."
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, south London.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org