8th August 2019

SATS are damaging for the kids who score well too

I always knew that SATS were damaging and difficult for children who don’t easily score well on tests and have had an eye on the issues for some time. I had no idea however, until my daughter hit year 6, that the year might be difficult for those who score well. We blithely approached year 6, knowing that she tends to be fine with tests, and assuming we’d flow through the year with little difficulty. I was therefore shocked to discover how damaging the year was to her education, and to her mental health.

S is a child who thrives on challenge, she loves to learn and discover new things. She is interested in everything, and particularly enjoys sports and nature as well as schoolwork. This year, she has been bored. She has not been challenged all year and it has felt like a wasted year of education as it has been pretty much revision all year.

If it was just this, I might be resigned, accepting that it was necessary for the sake of others in the class with different needs. However, her mental health has suffered. Among other things, this year has involved school refusal and a trip to the GP about anxiety. On the first, she said she couldn’t see the point of going to school as she wasn’t learning anything, and with the exception of topic work, I am inclined to see her point. On the latter, she wasn’t anxious about SATS, she was just bored and unengaged and the lack of engagement has allowed space in her head for anxiety about nothing in particular.  The school cut music and Spanish from the curriculum, both of which she enjoyed, and the curriculum narrowed to have little space for much except SATS work, PE and topic work being the only exceptions.

S finished the year with a SATS score of 120/111/120, has a good secondary school to go to. She is excited about her new school and we suspect she will re-engage with school once it is interesting again. We are deeply saddened however to be ending her time at primary school in this way.

We are not the only family who have experienced this dynamic. I asked some friends whether they might like their stories told too, and two responded. One of these is K’s Mum.

K finished year 5 the same as any other year, excited for the holidays and looking forward to starting the next year in school. Her Mum writes: “I mistakenly expected year 6 to continue to challenge her and keep her motivated and inspired to learn as her previous school life had done. After a few weeks it became apparent that some key lessons were missing from the curriculum: art; spanish; and music were all promised to return after SATS but for the majority of the year were replaced by extra maths and english lessons.”

Being bright, she was to score 120/113/120 in May, she found the monotony boring and there was a distinct lack of challenge in all subjects. The solution to this was to encourage her to help the weaker students. The teachers gave her a group of her peers and a pen to correct the work they were doing. What this actually did was build animosity and made other children think she was the ‘teachers pet’. During the year she became more and more emotional and was anxious about things that had never bothered her before.

On dozens of occasions she asked to stay off school as there was no point going in as she didn’t learn anything. Complaints to the school just brought reassurances that things would go back to normal after the SATS, but the damage was done. Mum writes: “My happy little child who used to love school and was eager to learn has spent the last year getting steadily more demoralised. Even dropping 1 or 2 marks on work in school was picked up on as not as good as they expected from her.” She continues: “We’ve just spent the evening at her leavers party where every child got an award. Some were great and the teachers had obviously thought about what to say about the children. K got a certificate for exceptional behaviour, they said she was a fantastic role model, her learning and behaviour were excellent and her manners exemplary. She gave it me when we left and said she didn’t want it, said she was more than just the kid who behaves and works hard. She’s right, she is. She sings, she acts, she loves to draw and read, she’s spent a whole year missing those things while school have tried to get the best score possible out of her. What they’ve done is dampen her enthusiasm for learning and I only hope her secondary school can inspire her again.”

There are too many similar stories to tell. H says: “SATs totally wrecked E’s last year at school. What a tragedy that a set of pointless testing of such young children can cause such distress and disengagement with education.” She continues: “This was the first year in E’s entire education where she professed on occasion to not wanting to go to school, the first year she’s had any sickness absence. The pressure and constant reinforcing of scores and positions and ranks – probably meant to be motivational – disrupted some friendship groups too, in addition to the usual emotional friendship angst. Just not a fun year.”

E’s school was trying to climb out of Special Measures, a situation caused by a poor headteacher. A once outstanding school was attempting to salvage its reputation in the move to an academy and Ofsted had specifically pulled it up on the quality of maths tuition. The pastoral care and extracurricular activities, were excellent – but clearly not important in relation to SATs. The school started preparing for SATs in Year 5, so the children had over a year of drilling and test papers every week, then every day as the SATs drew near. All other elements of the curriculum were stopped.

H continues: “E was told in her parent teacher meeting before Christmas that her mock scores were all in the greater depth category and that doing as well – or better – in the real tests would help the school’s scores. That’s too much pressure for a child who naturally aims to please, and it brought with it anxiety about ‘failing’, not for herself or us as parents, but her teachers and her school. She did end up bettering her scores to 120/117/120 but we are left with a child who is acutely aware of perceived failure and who feels responsible for adults in a way no 11 year old should. As parents we told her constantly that SATs don’t matter, but she knew they mattered to her teachers and so they mattered to her. Her mental health has been affected as well as SATs robbing her of her love of school and learning. And for what? I still have no idea.”

All these are stories about children who achieved well into the ‘greater depth’ range in their SATS. I committed myself to write this the day after S’s school report containing her SATS results came home. The results confirmed my suspicion that boredom had been a significant factor in our difficult year, and I found myself angry for her, for such an experience of primary school. I wanted to channel that anger in a positive direction and as I explored what I might do, I discovered this campaign, joined, offered a blog and here it is. I hope that in some small way it will be a part of bringing about the changes necessary so that children who are still in primary don’t have to go through what our year 6 leavers have experienced. It seems that SATS aren’t good for anyone, no more for those who achieve well on such tests than for those who find them challenging. We need to bring back the breadth of curriculum, throughout the whole of school life, for the sake of them all.

Cate, 2019.


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