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Primary School Assessment

Justine Roberts

The recent news that the Commons Education Select Committee has decided to formally review SATs at the ends of Key Stages 1 and 2 hasn’t yet occasioned much comment on the Mumsnet talkboards; for now, parents who don’t spend much time reviewing Hansard (which is most of us) remain blissfully unaware of the prospect of yet more recommendations and the possibility of further change.

Guiding a child through school over the past ten years has been – and, if ongoing noises from government are anything to go by, will continue to be – rather like the experience of peasants in England during the Wars of the Roses. There you are, trying to mind your own business and look after your family, while all around you incomprehensible battles are raging, mighty schisms emerging over obscure points of difference, and structures are noisily dismantled and rebuilt, only to be dismantled again a couple of years later. Frankly, it’s a wonder any of us produce any turnips at all (and by turnips, we mean well-balanced children).

To be fair, though, the select committee’s intention to ‘examine how children are assessed, how well the SATs are being delivered, and what steps the Government should take in the future to make sure our education system delivers for all children’ addresses questions that are causing school-run debates throughout England. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s important to drive high standards, benchmark attainment, help all children to achieve to the best of their ability, and correct the desperate unfairness that sees children from low-income families fall behind their peers. But among parents on Mumsnet, the consensus seems to be that SATs, as they currently operate, are not the right solution to these questions. When we asked our users in May of this year whether they thought SATs should be scrapped, 68% said that they should indeed be done away with.

The lively conversations on Mumsnet after the notoriously difficult comprehension paper from this year’s Key Stage 2 SATs showed that many of our users are worried that children are being left demoralised by the tests and drilled into numbness by the preparation. Each September, we start to see a disbelieving low-level hum on our forums as it starts to sink in that much of the final year at primary school is dominated by the tests. As the academic year progresses, conversations on the topic proliferate.

There are stories of ten-year-olds suffering stress-induced headaches, regularly dissolving in tears, or asking to stop post-school sports or hobby clubs so that they can devote more time to the ever-mounting homework pile. Some children labour under the impression that ‘bad’ results will mean they cannot progress to secondary school. Others, it must be said, seem to maintain their equilibrium or even enjoy the process, and the anecdotal evidence is that most teachers bend over backwards to protect children from the pressure as best they can. But there’s no doubt that many parents find the entire process unnerving.

The striking formality of the spelling and grammar curriculum also bewilders many parents who were educated in the more free-and-easy environment of the 1970s and 1980s. Most of us wouldn’t know a fronted adverbial if it sat down at the kitchen table and asked for a cup of tea, and it can be hard to believe that your young child can happily take on information that you yourself have never had to absorb. (On the other hand, those who make a living teaching modern foreign languages often argue that this sort of familiarity with the structure of language proves very useful indeed later on; our children’s struggles with SPAG may result in glorious proficiency in Spanish.)

Last, but not least significantly in the index of parental concerns, there’s the stress experienced by the parents themselves. The idea of external markers handing a black-and-white assessment of attainment to your child can cause a twist of anxiety in the gut of the most laid-back mum or dad. We spend years telling our children that they are fabulous, clever, captivating (if occasionally awful) little people, and it can be frightening to think that our boosterism could be undermined by one bad day or one unusually tricky test. So while most parents may currently be oblivious to the select committee’s deliberations, it’s probably safe to assume that any recommendations for change will cause more fierce and emotional debate among everyone who has a stake in children’s wellbeing.


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