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Parent Power

When my youngest was in Year 4, I decided to boycott the SATs. He’s now in Year 5. I strongly believe that the SATs tests, as they currently stand, are damaging to children and to schools and that the only reasonable option for parents who are concerned, is to refuse to allow their child to sit them. If you’re a parent of a primary aged child, please consider this as an option available to you.

Let me set the picture. When I went to see their Yr 5 and 6 play at Christmas time, the head stood up before the children began.

“You’ll notice that Year 6 pupils are reading their lines from pieces of paper,” she explained, “This is because they have been working so hard for their SATs, they’ve not had time to practice.”

The tests are not until May. Surely, they could have spent some time on their play? The lines were short and they had one each! In the last week of term, leading up to Christmas, the Year 5 class were told they could have their Christmas party only if they did a Maths test first and on the first day back in January, they sat two practice SATs tests and a comprehension test. Happy New Year! Like many schools, Maths and English fill the long morning of curriculum time and all the rest (Art, Music, Languages, Science, History, Geography, PE, RE and anything else) are crammed into a short afternoon usually lasting no more than 90 minutes. There are literally not enough hours in the day to cover them all, so some get lost. By no stretch of the imagination is this the “broad and balanced” curriculum that is a statutory requirement of all publicly funded schools.

The picture I describe is not an isolated one. There is relentless pressure put on young people to perform all over the country. In one school I visited last year, the whole of year 6 were in exam halls doing a mock paper on a beautiful, sunny day. In another school Year 6 were told by their teacher that if they didn’t pass their SATs she would cancel their planned play day – a supposed reward for hard work over the year. All across the country, stressed teachers are imposing expectations on stressed children that are completely unrealistic and unfair. And for what? Of course English and Maths matter and there’s a strong case that they should take priority over other subjects, but an hour of each per day should be more than adequate – still way more than other subjects and more than they’ll have in secondary school. It’s what my older boys (now 24 and 18) got. So what has changed?

The new tests are so demanding and the results from last year so unreliable that schools are in a blind panic about not meeting the floor target. They are concerned that poor data will lead to a poor Ofsted inspection. They are right to be worried. This is the government that declared they wanted all pupils to be above average, demonstrating a poorer understanding of mathematics than they expect of their 11 year olds. Take this exchange at the Education Select Committee in 2014 when the changes were first being introduced by then Education Secretary Michael Gove.


There are no excuses for failure, yet the writing results show a frightening level of inconsistency across the country in terms of moderation and marking and overall the number of pupils meeting “expected standards” last year fell from 80% to 53%. Let me be clear, when half of our children are told they are failing to meet “expectations” at the age of 11, there is something wrong with the expectations, not the children.

Now, I’m as pushy a parent as any middle class woman I know. One child went to Oxford, another is off to Edinburgh. The youngest juggles three instruments with his school work. I don’t mind tests. I value knowledge. But I resent my children being put off school. I resent the fact that all the skills my eldest son, who is now grown and working in London, needs for work – presentation skills, report writing over time, holding his own in meetings, managing his own time, thinking both critically and creatively – all those skills are being undermined by the current education system. I resent that my youngest is constantly being told that SATs matter, when in fact they matter not a jot to a child – only to the school and to a system obsessed with measuring him in a linear way. So I’m boycotting.

A quick scout on Mumsnet shows I’m not the only one wondering this. And over in the US, 53% of parents across Long Island refused permission for their children to sit the Common Core exams – a pattern repeating itself across the US. I’ve mooted the idea on twitter and to friends and had a very mixed response.

“You’re brave – I don’t think I’d dare have that conversation with the Head” said one parent, who was brave enough to take on the school about bullying, but not about the fact that her child weeps in Year 6 at the thought of going to school.

Others expressed concern that it may impact on Year 7 sets. This is a fallacy that needs to be challenged. Most secondary schools administer low stress CATs tests on entry, not trusting the SATs results. Many don’t set at all in Year 7. Either way, your child will find their way into the right group based on the internal assessment of the school. But if they do enter secondary with a SATs score, that mark will lead Ofsted inspectors and government to judge the child’s projected performance from that day forward. Based on their SATs results, their GCSEs will be predicted. Yes, even in subjects like Art and PE where there is little connection to the tests. It is this nonsensical belief that a child’s future is set in stone; that their capacity to grow, change, develop is irrelevant, that really pushes me over the edge. I want my child to be assessed based on their performance at the time they are assessed. Not for an old score to follow them like a shadow. In our local secondary school, Year 9 children are placed in sets based on their SATs results. What about basing it on their performance in Years 7 and 8? If there isn’t a SATs score, they’ll have to do just that.

Some of the parents I spoke to worried that the law said they had to agree to their children doing the tests. It’s true that it is the law that schools must administer and report the tests, making the assumption that parents agree. They are also expected to do everything they can to ensure that children take them. But they can’t force them to. Strictly speaking, there is nothing in law to say you can’t refuse to allow your child to take them. And I can see that being in school on the day that everyone does the tests might make your child uncomfortable and create a difficulty for the school. So the best option seems to be to keep them off and make sure they’re getting a great home schooled experience in the meantime. I don’t think mine will complain too much if we spend time in museums, galleries and libraries on those days.

We have created a society which is beginning to demonise children. Labelled the “snowflake generation” they are deemed to be flighty and overly sensitive. These labels come from adults who have not experienced first hand anything like the pressure our young people are experiencing in educational terms. We, the older ones, went through a system where you could get into a Russell Group university with a couple of Bs and a C. We walked into a strong graduate job market with no student debt. We were allowed a childhood without endless external, high stakes testing. We took for granted the fact that we would own homes, have job security. None of these things are true for our children. It’s no wonder we’re facing a mental health crisis among the young, and more worrying still are the huge rises in calls to ChildLine from children under the age of 11, many of them citing pressure of tests as a source of their anxiety.

To rub salt into the wound, the government and exam boards seem bent on not testing what they know and understand, but on catching them out – even when they are only six or seven years old. Look at this KS1 practice paper:-

Spot the verbs in this sentence

She was wearing her running shoes.

Now you and I know that running in this context is an adjective. It’s a trick question. What kind of human being tries to trick a 6 year old in a test? And let’s not even go into the farce that the DfE admitted to last year when it was revealed that the actual KS1 tests the children were about to sit contained the same questions that were in a practice paper published on their website.

SATs don’t benefit children. Private schools don’t do them and where they have the Common Entrance Exam, the tests are very different, encouraging a level of independent and creative thinking in children.

I absolutely believe that we, as parents, are colluding in a system of abuse if we don’t stand up and speak out about such inconsistency and conflict of interest. That’s not to say we should all boycott – that’s a matter of personal choice, made between each parent and each child. But we should certainly question the habit of teaching to the test, the narrowing of the curriculum, the belief that the performance in one test is transferable to another to be sat in five years’ time and to any suggestion at all, that failure to perform in a test will lead to a punishment. That is not acceptable under any circumstances.

On a final note, in response to the parents who have said to me “but what does your child think?” in all honesty it’s not been easy. He would do well. He’s starting to dislike school, but he’s compliant enough to endure it and pass the tests. We’ve discussed it at length and he feels guilty that his friends will be taking tests that he doesn’t have to do. He thinks it won’t be fair for him to eat the sweets they get as a reward and he’s worried his teacher will dislike him for it.  While I have pointed out to him that every one of his friends and their parents have the choice to do what we’re doing, these concerns made me question our decision. No-one really wants to put their child in a position where they’ll feel guilty or bad. It would be easier for him to sit the tests. But then he said – “but sometimes you have to do what you think is right, even if it seems a bit scary. So it’s ok.” And I think that’s true of all of us. Standing moaning in the playground to one another will never change the world. Teachers on their own won’t change it – they’re too compromised and when they strike they’re demonised. Parents are the only group with the power to make a difference. It’s time we used that power.