Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Insidious Oppression of England's SATs

As regular readers will know in my house lives a woman and her 7-year old son. Yesterday evening the woman was ill and it was the evening when the boy's school was going to give a briefing about the SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) that the boy has to do this May and June. As I have commented before, the UK, particularly England (Wales dropped SATs 2002-5; Scotland and Northern Ireland have different sorts of tests), is obssessed with setting targets and testing children at many levels. I have commented on the government's attainment targets for babies, which open us to ridicule from other member states of the EU. However, more oppressive is the SATs system which sets tests at ages 7, 11 and 16. The results are used to create league tables of schools' achievement that take little consideration of the ability of the children when they entered the school (no I am not suggesting a test at 4 as well, but just pointing out that every school is treated the same whether it is in the poorest or the wealthiest district or has a majority or a minority of pupiles whose first language is English). The SATs for 11 year olds (Key Stage 2) were almost ended last year because the examining company could not cope. Such regular and stringent testing is not healthy and creates lots of pressures for children and divisions.

Erratically from the late 1960s through the 1970s, county-by-country most of the UK abandoned the 11+ exam which divided children at that age into two types of school: grammar schools and secondary modern schools. There was supposed to be a third strand, mimicking the West German model, with technical schools too, but as is always the case in the UK there very, very few of these. This system persists in the counties of Kent and Buckinghamshire and some state schools have mutated into grammar schools meaning they can have a selection test for entry. The 11+ system was very unfair. As girls are often more intelligent than boys at the age of 11, if you were an 'average' girl you were far less likely than a boy of the same ability to get into grammar school as there set gender quotas. Availability of places at grammar school also varied considerably from district to district. Near where my parents lived there were three grammar schools within 5 Km, in other towns there would often be one. So if you took the test in one town and got a particular grade you would easily get a place at grammar school but if you got the same grade and happened to live in the next town along then you might have to settle with a secondary modern school.

Not only was the system erratic, being a lottery based on child's gender and residence, it was very divisive. The curriculum at grammar schools was quite different from that at secondary modern schools. In particular foreign languages were not taught at secondary modern schools and the emphasis tended to be on technical skills rather than any opportunity to do science. So children put into secondary modern schools, the majority, were excluded from subjects which they may have excelled in. In addition, we know that children change in ability quickly through their teenage years, their interest in school fluctuates and they may become excited by a subject area, yet they were locked into a particular curriculum at the age of 11 and had not chance to break out of that. In addition, it made it very clear that the majority of children were being labelled 'second class' and effectively excluded from the chance to get 'A' levels or access university. Of course things have changed, the bulk of the UK has a comprehensive school system in which all children are exposed to the full range of the curriculum and with the National Curriculum introduced in 1992 they all have to teach the same subjects (with some regional variations such as Welsh language).

At one stage it seemed that with the growth of selective schools as if the SATs at 11 would mutate into a new 11+ exam and I am glad they are collapsing. However, even though that nasty development has been halted, I remain concerned about the amount and nature of testing of children in Britain. The briefing yesterday evening was presumably supposed to calm the nerves of parents but I must say I came away feeling utterly alarmed for the future of the boy in my house. The teachers said that we should not use the term 'SATs' around the children so as not to frighten them. However, in this media savvy era (the 7-year old told me why we needed CIF cream cleaner and Bounty kitchen tissue in the house the other day) children pick up on this and you cannot censor what older siblings who have been through the process will say. I have already seen the 7-year old crying over the huge list of spellings he has to master. The teachers madly spoke of 'spelling patterns' in English and I felt like leaping up and asking her about: 'here', 'near', 'weir', 'pier', 'peer' and 'kir', which all rhyme in British English and 'bough', 'cough', 'though', 'through' and 'nought' which all have different sounds (given the use of phonetics in spelling in Britain nowadays these are real challenges).

Here I am only talking about the Key Stage 1 tests which cover 7 year olds. There is loads of stuff on the higher level SATs which you can find all over the internet. At 7, the pupils can attain Levels 1, 2A, 2B, 2C and 3. With the usual bell curve patten the 'norm' is 2B. We were shown examples of Levels 1, 2B and 3 work and I was stunned at the levels expected. Of course they had a brief statement at the end that they 'celebrate' the achievements of children at all levels but it was clear that any child falling below Level 2B would be seen as 'falling behind'. Children working at Level 1 get 'tasks' rather than 'tests' so that they can give oral rather than written responses. However, this clearly will open them up to stigma from the children doing the 'proper' tests. The assessment is done by the teachers who are clearly sympathetic to the children, but it did seem very clearly, that they were being compelled to begin dividing children up on a very 'Brave New World' basis (in the novel people are categorised as things like Alphas, Betas, Epsilons, etc. by intelligence and physical nature and have access to various opportunities accordingly), they might as well go the whole hog and give the childen a big badge to wear saying '1' or '2B' or whatever. Societies, including children's classrooms, are harsh places when you provide even more tools for them to discriminate.

These children are expected to write for a total of 2 x 30-45 minutes in two sessions, not only developing stories or reports and writing postcards but spelling complex words correctly. Words like 'tantrum', 'suspicious' and 'suggestion' were shown to be expected to be in their level. They should use punctuation like question marks and exclamation marks as well as commas. Many adults I meet in professional life have challenges with this. The testing is not only about writing, but they have to read books of many pages on complex subjects (West African culture was one book we were shown) and then complete a long set of questions about the book. The children also have to make presentations which are assessed and be able to use complex phrases to explain things and respond to questions from the audience. This is a test of not being shy and again I see adults in business who find these things a real challenge and yet the government expects 7-year olds to achieve what many 27-year olds find hard.

The mathematics at first seemed more down to Earth with addition, subtraction, handling money, etc. Then we were told they had to use times tables (I did not even start learning times tables until I was 8 and not tested on them formally until I was 11, not 7) and applying mathematics to problem solving. They also have to discuss three dimensional shapes. In science they have to record results from experiments and also understand what makes a 'fair', i.e. consistent test with only one variable. Again, if you stopped a lot of adults in the street they would find this a challenge.

I felt as if I had seen a presentation about the Key Stage 2 SATs for 11-year olds rather than anything appropriate for 7-year olds most of whom find sitting still for more than 10 minutes hard and who write and draw things that we find almost impossible to recognise without explanation. It is no wonder that British children start school at 4 compared to aged 6 in Sweden. It seems impossible for the bulk of children in the UK to pack in all that the government expects them to know by the time they turn 7. This is not education it is a mechanisation of childhood with no clear need in sight. Despite such methods over the past two decades, we seem to have no improvement in Britain's competitiveness in the world and certainly none in ability to speak foreign languages. Instead we are creating very stressed children and that is very apparent. You just have to look at the Japanese system which comes closest to the current British approach to education to see how many suicides of young people it ends up in. The rise of teenage suicide in the UK cannot be divorced from the type of education system the country is running.

Reporting back afterwards the mother of the child was incensed. This came less from the expected level her son is supposed to be reaching for, as she pointed out, he cannot 'fail', the worst he gets is Level 1. What angered her was the list of work the school expects the parent(s) to do with the child ahead of the SATs. There is a long list of writing, speaking, reading, mathematics and science exercises (all of which need some (or a lot of) internet input, so creating a social divide immediately) that the parent is directed to do with the child. Already I have witnessed how much stress the spelling list is causing and that is without getting the child to presentations and experiments. Most households in the UK have two working parents who lack the energy, time and often intelligence to engineer the things the school is suddenly demanding. They are putting huge moral pressure on the parents that if they do not do these things they are failing their child. The woman in my house asked why, if she was expected to do all this at home, did she bother to send the child to school and that she might as well home tutor him. She asked why was the school not teaching to the SATs. Of course the trouble for the school is that they are compelled by the National Curriculum to teach a full spectrum of subjects including as diverse as ICT, PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), religious education, geography, history, art, physical education and add extras like foreign languages as well as the English (which encompasses literacy, public speaking and writing), mathematics and science. By default the parents have to fill the SATs training that the school cannot jam into the day.

It is clear I should never have attended the briefing evening because the stress on mother and child has been immediate. There is three months of this, with the half-term break, until the SATs saga is over and clearly a lot more tears from mother and child along the way. It is clear that in this household and I am sure hundreds of thousands of others, it is in fact going to be detrimental to the child's development in terms of learning, let alone emotionally. The mother asked me why the government inflicted SATs on children and I said it was clear that at age 7 it was simply to enculturate them into the incessant testing that they are going to experience for the following 11 years (as with the school leaving age rising to 18, there are exams at 17 and 18 too). Abstractly I thought SATs were a bad thing in principle. What I have come to recognise this week, is that expected levels are totally unrealistic and put immense pressure on parents, teachers and children which is detrimental to all of them. Even if SATs are not abolished they need to be set at a level appropriate to 7-year olds, not trying to force them all to be geniuses at that age and attain levels which many adults find challenging (and yet function perfectly well in society). My father argued that the benefit of SATs is assure that teachers are working hard enough (he has a very negative view of anyone involved in education), but in fact they do not do that, they actually disrupt teaching immensely and sap the moral of teachers and their pupils.

I was stunned by what I saw is expected of 7-year olds. We need people to speak out not only about the unsuitability of all of this testing but also how dangerously inappropriate the levels of expectation for young children are. We are rapidly screwing up the rising generations of British people and all of us will pay the price in the years to come.

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