It’s that time of year again: children are looking forward to getting those pesky SATs over and done with so that they can concentrate on preparing for the Year 6 prom or auditioning for the lead role in the end of year performance. You know, fun stuff. What are the adults doing? It seems many, including educationalists, are falling over themselves with worry about how SATs kill children’s ‘creativity’ and mental health etc. Well, I’d like to step forward as one of very few primary (maths specialist) teachers who thinks SATs are not just not that big of a deal, but are actually really important.
Let’s begin with this:
We’ve all saw it last year and then had the great joy of seeing it again all over facebook this year. What’s great about it is that it handily sums up the opinions of many relatively wealthy, privileged and middle class people who have no clue about the lives of disadvantaged children in this country. They see childhood as an endless carefree jaunt in the woods, but they don’t realise that their childhood home life (which would’ve included plenty of opportunities to read and write), even the very conversations they had at the dinner table, would’ve provided that extra education and boost towards academic success that the disadvantaged child would not receive. So, just because they’ve been given a leg up in life and didn’t need, for example, knowledge of how our wonderful language is constructed*, they seek to deny that knowledge to other children and then they seal it off with a ‘And Shakespeare didn’t know any grammar either!’
I don’t know which is worse. The fact that this children’s author compared herself to one of the greatest playwrights in history, or the sheer audacity with which she implied that even Shakespeare didn’t receive this ‘intense’ a schooling. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that Shakespeare had a very traditional education and would’ve been able to parse the hell out of a sentence, in Latin. Abi’s missive that one should simply ‘dream BIG’ also reminds me of that popular song which many primary school children sing: ‘Believe’ by Lin Marsh. It’s a very catchy, emotional song that has, on the face of it, some empowering lyrics:
I can do anything at all; I can climb the highest mountain and I can hear the ocean calling wild and free. I can be anything I want, with this hope to drive me onward if I can just believe in me.
I can’t be the only teacher and parent who thinks this and Abi’s message might be setting children up for failure when they realise, half way up Mount Everest, that believing is not quite enough; you also need a vision, a plan, hard work, perseverance and the maturity to not wimp out when the going gets tough. Plus an oxygen tank.
I think many people lose sight of what the SATs are for and instead opt for the odd view that they are somehow about labeling children, making them feel miserable or because ‘exam factories’ etc. To be fair, much of the misery comes from the fact that many children rock up to year 6 with gaps in their learning that go back as far as the educational eye can see and suddenly there’s a panic about school data. This leads to a massive diversion of manpower and resources towards these children who end up being tutored to the nth degree. If there were ever an example of how bonkers progressive (child-centred) education is, it is this total farce whereby children are allowed to fall behind or take a less steep trajectory compared to their peers in the name of ‘differentiation’ and then they’re subjected to intense pressure at the 11th hour to make up for all those years of staring out of the window or having a massive cob on whenever they were expected to work hard. It’s actually quite cruel, but this isn’t the fault of the SATs, it’s the fault of a system that does not expect all children to progress together and yet at the same time expects all children to be secondary ready at exactly the same time. It never ceases to amaze me how so many in education either cannot see this paradox or who seem to think that their amazing skills as educators can somehow override the space time continuum. I also feel sorry for many year 6 teachers who are having to tutor through lunch periods and after school, as well as run all those breakfast clubs and Saturday schools, yet at the same time have to put up with other teachers who berate them for being ‘driven by data’ or ‘careerist’.
What is also apparent is that many teachers and primary leaders would prefer for the SATs to be abolished so that the children would not need to be put through the pain of breakfast or Saturday clubs etc. I believe that this would lead to many more children rocking up to year 7 without the basics in terms of reading, writing and mathematics because, at the end of the day, SATs are a proxy for ensuring children are able to read, write and add up such that they’re able to get the most out of their secondary schooling and therefore life. We should also remember that while children may, of course, prefer to mess about, play and do ‘creative’ lessons, we need to be responsible enough to ensure they have the opportunity to experience the simple pleasure of reading a good book. So, whenever a primary teacher makes the argument for ‘happiness’ (ie more art and drama) in year 6 for children who are not fluent readers, writers or who cannot do basic arithmetic, she is also inadvertently making an argument for potential misery in year 7 and beyond.
At this point many will argue that my argument is too binary. What about those with SEN who will have to suffer through these exams only to be labelled as ‘failures’? Well, I have seen this ‘fact’ propagated far too often. Children with statements are not required to sit the exams and besides, the results are reported to parents who are then free to share (or not share) this information with their children. I am also quite amazed to learn that schools are allowed to provide readers for children who cannot read; this is surely proof that there is some leeway in the system to facilitate the needs of children with SEN?
There have also been arguments leveled at the entire SATs regime because of individual experiences of children crying over SATs. My counter to this would simply be that just because one middle class child has never experienced any hardship, harsh words or even lifted a finger at home and therefore can’t cope with tests, is no reason to deny all other children the opportunity to work towards something so important (basic life skills) and then be tested on it. For every mum on Facebook raging against the fact that her little angel Persephone is in tears, there are 10 others with children who are just getting on with the job without making a fuss. Why are their children able to do this? Perhaps because they live in cramped, damp homes and have seen their parents worry and fret over the bills; an hour long test in the warm followed by half a mars bar is a walk in the park in comparison. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ that anything that makes a child feel a little bit sad will inevitably lead to mental health issues.
I think that what we all need to remember is that for every parent who barges into the school reception and shouts at the year 6 teacher for making her son work towards having neat, fluent and spelling-error-free handwriting such that he is ‘forced’ to throw a strop, wail, shout and bemoan his lack of time in the ICT suite or on the playing fields, there are 10 parents who are worried that their children might end up in the low sets at secondary school and be subjected to bullying, low self-esteem and unhappiness because of their poor grasp of the basics. These parents are also worried that their children might not have choices in life, or, even worse, make the wrong choices, leaving them to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams when they themselves are struggling to make ends meet. These are the parents who tacitly approve of a few weeks of intense study towards doing well in the SATs because they have the maturity to know that doing well in the SATs is actually about having basic life skills and knowledge. Also, they know that working hard is a good thing because it gives you the opportunity to experience the true joy of success that comes from sheer effort and also deferred gratification. I am rather miffed at the way in which educators seek to undermine these opportunities for children to mature or even experience real happiness when they promote an agenda that effectively prioritises instant gratification.
What would help though (I believe) is if we had some kind of yearly exam and requirement to report the exact results and their comparison to the average to parents. This would go some way to mitigate the need for such intense teaching in year 6. Also, I think it would be a good idea to encourage primary schools to be evidence-based in their construction of curricula and use of certain teaching methods. For example, there is an increasing awareness that reading comprehension success is mostly to do with having lots of general knowledge as well as being able to read fluently. It behoves us to ensure that children are reading a wide range of non-fiction writing from the start of their school career, rather than focusing on endless fantasy stories. A middle way would ensure that even stories contain a modicum of general knowledge, for example using settings that give children geographical or cultural knowledge of the wider world. I’m sure many schools already do this to some degree, but that perhaps it is not sequenced or with the deliberate aim of improving the vocabulary and general knowledge of disadvantaged children. Certainly, when you check the websites of most primary schools, you will see a nod to child-centred education and skills based curricula despite evidence showing us that whole-class teaching and knowledge-based curricula is best for all children, especially disadvantaged children. ‘Knowledge’ is still very much a dirty word in primary education and this needs to change.
I saw our year 6s recently and I said well done to them for working so hard towards something that is so important; not the SATs, but towards being able readers, writers and mathematicians which is really what this is all about. I also let them know that I was excited for them because, next week, they would have the opportunity to show how amazing they are, to go for a personal best and to be proud that they can focus so well.
It’s all about attitude and I do believe that we need to model being positive in the face of adversity.
Who’s with me?
*I may not have the writing skills of a widely published author such as Miss Elphinstone, but without my self-taught knowledge of grammar and punctuation, I would not have the confidence or skills to write this blog.