What have we done to our children when they’re talking about failure?

My son came home from school on Monday and Tuesday visibly shaken and upset following the first two days of his SATs at a Sheffield school.

Friday, 10th May 2019, 8:33 am
Updated Wednesday, 15th May 2019, 2:18 pm
Children are taking their SATs this week

I’m not surprised – some primary teachers I’ve spoken to have told me even they couldn’t get full marks in this week’s tests. Like year six children across all Sheffield primary schools, he finishes his English and maths tests today following an academic year that has been steadily building to this moment.It’s been a strange year, all in all, because as a teacher I wanted him to do his best and get the highest result he could. But at the same time, as a parent, I have spent many evenings telling him it didn’t really matter about the result - just put in a good effort and that’s all we can ask.I came out with the usual anti-SATs rhetoric - nobody will ever ask you for your SATs results, it’s not a fair test and all the rest. And yet I still sent him to catch-up sessions and encouraged him to tackle the mountains of homework he received from teachers obsessed with SATs because their professional reputation depends on it.So, I’ve admittedly walked on a thin line this year between hot housing at home and urging a push to greater depth, and then downplaying the whole, rotten primary examination culture. At times I’ve been lost, both as a parent and as a teacher as I tried to balance this conundrum.Sometimes this week, I have been really pleased to see that he hasn’t been stressed about going in to school, but at the same time I’ve been heartbroken to find him coming home in a bit of a state. And it’s not just my son who has been up against it.Social media sites are full of tales about kids – some as young as ten – being up against it thanks to a SATs programme that is having a corrosive effect on the broader curriculum and family life. Every day as we’ve talked about the tests - English based on Monday and Tuesday followed by maths on Wednesday and Thursday - I’ve heard tales of kids having a meltdown.Tears were common place, and not just among the students. This week is the pinnacle of the academic cycle for the year six teams in the city. Whatever the results come back like will shape performance targets and the whole school focus for next year.Teachers aren’t allowed to help the students with SATs beyond reading the questions and transcribing, even though you do hear shocking stories on the grapevine of some schools pushing the boundaries. Cheating, basically. So when teachers see intelligent kids making mistakes under pressure and running out of time, it’s soul destroying and leads to worry about results. It shouldn’t be like this.There is widespread belief in education that the SATs system is not constructive, assesses the wrong skills and applies too much pressure to some children.For many years, there has been talk of teaching unions boycotting the assessments, but the threats have never amounted to much. This week, at a school in Suffolk, parents of a year two class boycotted their key stage 2 SATs. I’ve heard some reports of parents pulling Y6 children from the tests, but these tend to be isolated.And the truth is that after spending much of the year preparing for SATs the kids don’t want to boycott it. They want to have a go, they are mentally psyched up for it. But we need to have an understanding of the potential damage tests could do to the young people of the city if they think they are ‘failing.’My son has been pushed to get ‘greater depth’ all year and actually told me he thought he’d ‘failed’ this week because he didn’t do as well as he could have. What have we done to our children if they are talking in terms of failure and coming home stressed at the age of 11? We can’t try to combat the onslaught of mental illness amongst young people unless we try to tackle the root causes; we can’t have it both ways. Until we tackle these outrageous tests and reduce the obscene emphasis on advanced English and maths in year six, we will not be making giant strides forward to a better society.