There is a lot of debate around education at the moment, with the ‘pupil’ primary school boycott Tuesday 03 May attracting a lot of attention. The tests affect children at the end of Key Stage 1 (year 2) when English and Maths are tested, and at the end of Key Stage 2 (year 6) with tests of English, Maths and Science. Year 6 tests are taking play 09 – 13 May 2016.
These new tests, have reportedly been drawn up to assess children’s grasp of the recently introduced primary school national curriculum, which is widely considered to be harder than the previous one.
Regarding the boycott, apparently some 40,000 parents signed the petition to government under the pressure group ‘Let our Kids be Kids’. Numbers of how many actually took part in the boycott seem hard to come by. According to The Guardian newspaper support was scattered, most vocally perhaps in Brighton and also Newcastle; and quoted a Whitehall source who said the number of children involved may have been as few as 1,000, a small fraction of the more than 1 million of those state school pupils in those year groups in the United Kingdom.
The debate is not going away … The BBC on 09 May released the findings of a survey for Newsround. The NUT plan to meet in Autumn to discuss possible action over the tests in 2017, and claim 86% of primary teachers oppose the tests. Labour has accused the government of ‘causing chaos and confusion’ by altering primary school tests.
My interest of course is the headline that SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) of primary school children affects their mental health.
So I followed the news articles, posts and radio shows debating the boycott. I listened to opinions from parents and teachers, including those kind enough to share with me directly. Everything went quiet after the ‘boycott day’ of Tuesday 03 May. I’ve picked some examples representing the range of views.
These are the 3 key points I found out …..
1. Are SATs for primary school children harming their mental health?
Parents from the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign said children as young as six were labelling themselves failures. I’ve seen a parent quoted as saying her son is scared of how hard the tests will be and having friends whose six-year-olds are in tears: “They can’t sleep for worrying about how they will perform.” I read another quote from a parent about friends of her daughter crying themselves to sleep (about the tests).
The BBC reported on 09 May a survey from ComRes researchers for BBC Newsround. In April they interviewed 750 10- and 11-year-olds who will be taking Key Stage Two SATs …
The headline was ‘Nearly 90% of 10- and 11-year old pupils in England feel pressure to do well in tests.’ Further details of the figures however noted just more than half (59%) said they felt some pressure to do well while (28%) felt “a lot of pressure”. But most were not unduly distressed: almost half (48%) said they did not mind taking the tests and an additional 14% said they enjoyed them. Only 10% said they hated taking exams. Some 32% said they worried more about schoolwork when they had tests coming up and 25% said they found it hard to concentrate.
The NUT at their Easter Conference were reported to have a proposal that: “Many parents, teachers, academics and other professionals have noted an increase in stress-related conditions in very young children and high levels of anxiety and stress particularly in the time leading up to formal tests.” Parents from the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign said children as young as six were labelling themselves failures. A parent was quoted as saying her son is scared of how hard the tests will be and having friends whose six-year-olds are in tears: “They can’t sleep for worrying about how they will perform.”
This followed research commissioned by the NUT from London Metropolitan University in June 2015 (‘Exam Factories?’) which made the case for stress from testing and exams causing emotional harm to children and young people, perhaps as the trigger point for other underlying stress and emotional issues.
Natasha Devon, the government’s former mental health champion for schools (whose job was cut on 03 May, not sure how That helps the children’s mental health agenda) has also emphasised the level of mental strain being put on pupils by rigorous testing.
Mostly I have heard a lot of parents saying that their youngsters, even quite anxious ones, are not bothered by tests, some don’t even recognise they’re being tested, and some even enjoy being tested.
The government of course say that the tests are not designed to cause children stress, that the results should not label children ‘failures’ or otherwise “and we know that good schools manage them appropriately”. Teachers say they do their best to ensure children do not become stressed by the tests.
So the jury’s out on ‘harming children’s mental health’ through testing. Given all that I’ve read and heard, I’m not convinced. Is there another issue?
2. Are SATs for primary school children any use?
Is there a risk though that in expressing those concerns we lose sight of why standardised testing may be an important feature of the education system?
The protest, organised by the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign, complained of a damaging culture of children who are “over-tested, over-worked and in a school system that places more importance on test results and league tables than children’s happiness and joy of learning“. They raise concern that the SATs are being made more stretching with changes to the curriculum.
Some parts of the teaching and education sector seem to agree with them. One Headteacher in an open letter to Let Our Kids Be Kids reported: ‘Obviously there is a necessity to test children in order to ascertain their level of understanding. As professionals, we are quite capable of managing this within school without causing stress or undue workload (rather than the national SATs tests)’. There were also claims that some of the grammar content is also incorrect, and questions about their value.
CentreForum in its 2016 Annual Report highlighted, based on OECD data from 2015, that ‘only 38 per cent of pupils achieved a world-class standard’. The report claims that teacher-assessment will inevitably vary from school to school, preventing reliable national or local comparison of how well a school is supporting children to progress. This, the report states, restricts parents’ ability to express choice based on reliable data.
CentreForum does comment that testing should not put unnecessary pressure on pupils or teachers – that is, designed and delivered in an age-appropriate way with enough time for teachers to adapt to the new approaches.
A Department for Education argue that the SATs help teachers understand how pupils are doing and identify where additional support is needed. They state that parents rightly expect that children leave primary having mastered literacy and numeracy. This is said to have a huge impact both on how well young people achieve at GCSEs and on the rest of their lives. They also refer to the OECD skills survey showing that too many of our young adults failed to master those skills while in school. A spokeswoman said that the proportion of functionally literate pupils aged 15, stands at 82% in England, far behind Korea, Singapore and Ireland.
So people seem to agree testing is appropriate, but there is opposition to the SATs. Why do they seem to attract Such opposition?
3. Is there another agenda?
The ‘Let our Kids be Kids’ campaign organisers were quoted that due to the SATs the ‘school system places more importance on test results and league tables than children’s happiness and joy of learning’ and creates a ‘dull, dry curriculum’. The boycott was held as the campaign was ‘not convinced that the government would list to just words’.
The Guardian newspaper reported that on the day of the boycott, families in Sheffield ‘gathered with banners reading “take a hammer to the grammar” and “sharpening my subordinate claws”. They reported that at some events parents were not just protesting about the tests, but about government plans to convert all maintained state schools into academies by 2022. [Note: that plan appears to have changed to only ‘under-performing schools’.]
Another protest group, ‘Rescue our Schools’ was quoted about one experience of a school becoming an academy: ‘No morning break time, no pastoral tutor groups, and pupil academic rankings posted on the walls resulting in bullying.’
A key point it seems to me was attributed to the same group: ‘Where’s the partnership? There’s no communication and no trust.’
The theme of trust seems to be common also with academic staff. One Headteacher was quoted: ‘My feeling is there should be more trust in teachers and their ability to assess children at this age, rather than through testing’. The school had to practice for the SATs in Years 2 and 6 (rather than a broader curriculum) ‘in order to retain our “good” Ofsted status so that we will be left alone to provide a proper education in all the other years’.
A Director of a regional Headteacher’s network was quoted in respect of the Key Stage 1 tests: ‘It used to be about identifying any gaps in children’s learning for teachers to work on but now schools will be assessed based on outcomes’.
I saw a further quote: ‘It is the high stakes testing where hard working and effective professionals are afraid of losing their jobs which causes the stress. This is passed on from leadership to teachers and thus to children. Is this why there are such concerns about the mental health of our children?’
There is conflicting opinion regarding the impact of schools becoming academies. One Headteacher said anonymously that the process would see funds and school buildings and grounds placed in the hands of private companies. However I understand both Free Schools and Academies to be not-for-profit and that the buildings and grounds remain the property of the state.
The NUT previously threatened to boycott tests in 1993 with the same issues raised – anxiety in pupils, focus of teaching curriculum, diminishing teacher judgement. There are plans to ballot members in the Autumn regarding a possibly boycott of tests in 2017. Their general secretary was quoted: ‘We are really concerned about the whole exam factory attitude to education. It’s happening in primary schools now as well as secondary. It’s massively demotivating to teachers that they have to focus so much on testing outcomes to the detriment of the rest of the curriculum.”
The CentreForum Annual Report (2016) referred to use of the tests as key in being able to ‘put pressure on schools, local authorities (for now, at least) and national government to improve’ and ‘a vital lever for the public more widely to hold both the system and government to account’.
The Department for Education were quoted: ‘These tests have no consequences for the children involved, they are about to holding the schools to account’. As Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan said of parents taking part in the boycott: ‘To those who say we should let our children be creative, imaginative, and happy – of course I agree, both as a parent and as the education secretary. But I would ask them this – how creative can a child be if they struggle to understand the words on the page in front of them?’.
It seems parents are concerned they are losing their voice in the education of their children.
Young people’s views? I quoted the study for Newsround reported by the BBC in the first section – feelings seem to be mixed but certainly not unmanageable with good age-appropriate systems and support. Reporting of the views of young people on the boycott seemed limited – I noted a few banners and a couple quotes but have to say these seemed to be adult-led.
The NUT seems to represent education views that: ‘There is every reason to cancel the whole programme of primary assessment for 2016, and to begin again, with genuine consultation on proposals that can command the support of teachers and parents’. [There are other teacher unions of course, but I have not seen them in the press during this time.]
And the Department for Education? Nicky Morgan is quoted: ‘We are always willing to listen to the views of teaching unions and are in regular discussion with them, working with them to ensure that this transition year goes smoothly’. (Well, perhaps that goal will need to be transferred to next year!)
I am not convinced that boycotting directly involving children is the answer. Is there a better way of addressing the issues while supporting children to enjoy their education? Mindfulness includes children, letting them be in the moment and not focus on worries about the past or future. Is there a more positive way forward? ……
- Please leave your comments with your views … I would love to hear;
- On a more practical level, if a young person is struggling with stress or anxiety, there are lots of sources of advice, and perhaps try some of the exercises suggested in my last post;
- Do contact me with any other questions or issues you would like me to address.