Secret School: Why the case for a national boycott of SATs exams is growing stronger

20 April 2017 .......    Simon Benn,  leads the session running confidence-boosting sessions for  Year 6 pupils at Five Lanes Primary School in Wortley ahead of the SATs in an attempt to tackle stress as unions urge a national boycott of the tests. Picture Tony Johnson
20 April 2017 ....... Simon Benn, leads the session running confidence-boosting sessions for Year 6 pupils at Five Lanes Primary School in Wortley ahead of the SATs in an attempt to tackle stress as unions urge a national boycott of the tests. Picture Tony Johnson
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Thousands of Year 6 children completed their last SATs test in Sheffield schools today.

After months of skewing the timetable towards English and Maths, after-school revision sessions, piles of homework and, in some cases, private tutoring, it’s finally over.

We teach plenty of irrelevant material that stresses out our kids just so we can judge whether or not the school performs well in a ridiculous system

Those kids will be heading home at the end of school today breathing a sigh of relief and bidding ‘good riddance’ to the tests – as will many teachers and headteachers.

Over the years, SATs have been criticised from pretty much every corner of society.

Literary figures have slammed the prescriptive grammar tests, teaching unions have labelled them unproductive, headteachers have questioned their purpose and psychologists have worried about their impact on young minds.

For me, it comes down to a simple test.

When the wonderful Year 6 students of today apply to do their A Levels, consider going to university or attend a job interview, will they be asked what they got in their Year 6 SATs?

The answer, of course, is that they won’t. It’s highly unlikely anybody will ever ask them what they got in their Year 6 SATs.

Even they won’t really know how well they did because the feedback they get from them is so vague it’s practically meaningless.

So, what’s the point of them doing the tests?

It’s certainly not for the benefit of the children because many of them have had the wide-ranging curriculum they were used to swept from under their feet and thrown out in the skip near the caretaker’s house.

A recent survey of school leaders reported more than 80 per cent of schools saw mental health problems increase at the time when the tests are taken.

Some problems were physical, including losing eyelashes due to stress, while it was also commonplace for students to sit sobbing in the tests, experience heightened levels of anxiety or suffer from panic attacks.

It has a negative impact on the health of our 11-year-old children and doesn’t give them a qualification that’s worth anything in the real world, so I’m still scratching my head to find reasons why we put them through it.

Maybe it’s because we are teaching them such valuable information that society will reap the benefits of it when they’re grown up, graduated and using their knowledge for good.

One look at the criteria for the SATs English papers sees that argument crumble.

The grammatical nonsense we are teaching our children is so in-depth, prescriptive and antiquated that many of our top authors would struggle to reach the ‘greater depth’ level schools are aiming for.

Michael Morpurgo is the latest author to slam the content of the SATs papers, and if the man behind War Horse doesn’t understand what our kids are being taught, we’re all in trouble.

Pick up any best-selling children’s book from the last 10 years and you’ll see text structures within it that the SATs criteria deems as being wrong, incorrect – or certainly not good enough.

We’re in an age when language is evolving at a faster rate than ever before, thanks to emails, social media, texting and websites.

And at this magical time in the English language we’re teaching rules of grammar that are simply not relevant anymore.

If it created good writers, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it doesn’t.

The children are so concerned about whether their sentences include a variety of punctuation, a sub-clause, a preposition, a modal verb and an extended noun phrase that they forget all about what good writing should have – a creative flow.

JK Rowling, David Walliams, Katherine Woodfine, Rick Riordan and Cressida Cowell did not create masterpieces of children’s fiction by ticking boxes and conforming to a formula. And there is no benefit at all to squeezing out science and humanities from the Year 6 programme to produce a malevolent timetable top-heavy in English and maths.

So why do we have SATS?

The real reason – the only reason – is to assess the schools. This is why teachers and heads who don’t really believe in the system still conform to it, feel under pressure and pass the stress onto their pupils – because poor results can trigger an OFSTED inspection.

And so the cycle of lunacy continues. We teach plenty of irrelevant material that stresses out our kids just so we can judge whether or not the school performs well in a ridiculous system. And when will it end?

Unions have threatened to boycott SATs for years and then every time the tests come around they seem to lose their bottle over it.

Announcing a boycott in March or April is no good because some students have put in so much preparation they actually want to sit the tests. Taking them away at the last minute and using children as pawns to score a political point does not seem fair.

We need action now – a full year ahead of next year’s abhorrent SATs. We need a national boycott to be announced now so schools can get on with the more important business of teaching a broad curriculum.

Schools and unions should stand firm to send a clear message to the Government that the system is wrong. There are better ways to assess whether a school is performing well, and there are certainly better things we should be teaching our inquisitive Year 6 children.

The process of teaching to the test, the material in the SATs and the mental strain it causes our children are all Victorian in nature and should be condemned to history.