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SATs – screwed-up arguments

National school tests might have problems - but that doesn’t make them child abuse.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Forget violent pupils and middle-class parents taking their kids on holiday in term-time: the prize for Least Popular Aspect of UK Schooling surely goes to Standard Attainment Tests, or SATs.

Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, SATs have become one of the rare issues that unites parents, teachers and headteachers in disapproval – and for some good reasons. Children have to sit these tests at ages 7, 11 and 14, before their GCSE examinations at aged 16, all of which forces them on to a treadmill of assessment that invariably distracts from a more imaginative, rounded general education.

Teachers have to prioritise pass rates, which narrows the scope of their autonomy in the classroom and forces them to deliver boring revision classes on things that have already been taught to bored children who have heard it all before. Such is the pressure that we have the bizarre spectacle of some teachers resorting to cheating to get their pupils through the tests. Headteachers have their schools judged in narrow numerical terms, and spend their time mediating between anxious parents, frustrated teachers, government diktat and the tyranny of the school league table. For all these reasons, SATs probably deserve much of the bad press that they get.

But while these assessments might be misconceived, this is a far cry from the current most popular anti-SATs slogan – that testing is a form of child abuse. If SATs are bad for education, the arguments currently being marshalled against them are disastrous for children.

On Monday 6 May, headteacher Larry Malkin told the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) that SATs amounted to ‘Senseless Activities for Traumatised Students’. Demanding an end to the ‘annual torture’ of these tests, he expressed the need to ‘help all those bed-wetting children and stressed-out, needlessly exhausted teachers’ (1).

The image of a tearful seven-year-old clearly pulls more heart-strings than appeals to a headteacher’s managerial workload. But isn’t there something rather pathetic about hiding behind the presumed misery of children in order to object to an assessment procedure? Also at the NAHT conference, Jenny Simpson, of Lymington CE Infants School in Hampshire, argued in particular against SATs for seven-year-olds, saying: ‘A system that’s prepared to use six- and seven-year-old children to further its own political agenda is sick.’ (2) Presumably, she’s talking about the government – but the words pots and kettles come to mind.

The emphasis on the supposed stress and emotional damage caused to pupils by sitting SATs fails to confront the real problems with the exam treadmill currently operating in primary and secondary education, which is that it does not make for good education. Worse than that, it sets in motion an idea that children are damaged by testing per se, and that they should be protected from all kinds of academic pressure.

As headteachers and teachers project their political objections to SATs on to their pupils, parents are encouraged to project their own anxieties about their children’s achievements on to their children’s presumed feelings. Schooled in the notion that SATs are both very important and a waste of time, parents are understandably inclined to scrutinise their children for signs of SATs stress, and see the time-honoured tradition of children disliking exams in terms of a new psychological problem caused by these particular tests.

So parents feel honour-bound to bully their kids through their homework for the sake of the SATs score, while emotionally prone to indulging them, and seeing their dislike of the tests or their failure to achieve high marks as the fault of the tests themselves, and the ‘stress’ that they engender. This just makes for more confusion among parents and children about what they are supposed to be doing and why they are doing it, and blunts that straightforward parental aspiration – that your kids should achieve good results.

In late April 2003, a poll of nearly 200 parents, conducted by YouGov for the Times Education Supplement, claimed that more than a third of seven-year-olds suffered stress as a result of having to sit SATs, and that one in 10 seven-year-olds was reduced to tears and lost sleep because they were so worried about the tests. The proportion of kids stressed out by SATs had risen to two-thirds by age 11, the poll claimed (3). When BBC News solicited thoughts about SATs from its readers in February 2003, parents talked about their children crying themselves to sleep at night, or talking about suicide (4).

One parent, quoted in the BBC article, summed up the way that parents experience this problem. ‘For every one stressed child there are two stressed adults; a vicious circle of school-induced stress is then enacted’, he said. ‘My own experience is that the parents’ stress is worse than their children’s.’ (5) Faced with a system of assessment that has already failed through bad faith, parents worry about the stress of their kids achieving good results, the stress of bad results, the stress of being tested at all.

What started as a question about an appropriate assessment system turns into an ongoing worry about teaching methods, parenting methods, and the fragility of a child’s emotional state when faced with an exam. Meanwhile the children, savvy little creatures that they tend to be, are probably weighing up how far they can push the ‘stressed out’ excuse to get out of an hour’s hated revision.

Because whatever the educational problems with SATs, and however many legitimate gripes that parents have about the role that they are expected to play in them, for the majority of the children concerned they are presumably just tests, and no more or less stressful than any other kind of exam. Kids don’t have an alternative educational theory through which to express their specific concerns about one form of assessment over another – they just know that they don’t like exams, but they have to do them anyway.

If children claim to be traumatised by SATs, perhaps that’s because everybody expects them to be. And if making the experience less traumatic was really top of the teaching unions’ agenda, maybe they should stop using pupil stress as their central argument, and come up with a better alternative instead.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Heads say ‘sick’ tests are a crime, BBC News, 5 May 2003

(2) Heads say ‘sick’ tests are a crime, BBC News, 5 May 2003

(3) Exams taking their toll on children, Guardian, 25 April 2003

(4) Negative response to school tests, BBC News, 24 February 2003

(5) Negative response to school tests, BBC News, 24 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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