The National Curriculum and Key Stage, Standard Attainment Testing in primary schools has been controversial for years. My understanding was that it was introduced to try and drive up standards for the teaching of basic skills in Maths and Literacy, and I believe that it has on the whole been successful in that overall goal.
All children need these skills if they are going to be able to reach their full potential in their secondary education and beyond. But for my daughter Year 6 has been an endurance test in a way that I had not anticipated at all.
It all started about this time last year when my younger child had just started Year 6, the build up to Key Stage 2 SAT and the transition to secondary school. Her Primary School seemed to have adopted a very different strategy to the one prevailing 3 years earlier when my older child was at the same stage. Even at the welcome assembly in the first couple of weeks, they were flagging up the forthcoming tests and starting to wind up the pressure. We had an early parents evening that felt like a lecture on where my child needs to improve and what I had to do about it. There was a rather gloomy assessment of her present abilities, which given that at the end of Year 5 (just 12 weeks or so earlier) she had been promoted to the top Maths group and her Literacy levels while a little below the average level were improving. I was given a list of websites with learning resources and a list of areas for her to work on. I came away from the meeting feeling angry, it cannot be right that everything was good and on track at the end of July and by early October it was all doom and gloom. Now she had lots of ground to make up in Maths because of her promotion and suddenly, her literacy levels were just not good enough.
I asked my daughter about a specific question that her teachers spent some time pointing out that she had answered incorrectly in a recent maths assessment and was of course, one of the areas she needed to do additional work. The question was about odd and even numbers, so I spent a few minutes talking to her and it was clear to me that she had a perfectly adequate understanding of the topic. Then I asked “why did you get it wrong on the test?” Her reply was interesting, “because I misunderstood the question.” Now misreading and misinterpreting the question is an altogether different issue, one that going over odd and even numbers again was not going to help.
Then there were the stupid amounts of homework, including 2 huge workbooks on Maths and Literacy she was expected to work on over the half term break. It was at this point that I decided I needed to speak to her teachers, and let them know that I was unhappy with the way that they had started the school year. Even trying to arrange the meeting was bizarre. As a working Mum I was not often at the school gate at the end of the school day, but I took advantage of a rare opportunity to have a quick word with the main class teacher. I told her that I would like to arrange a time where I could speak to her about the recent parent consultation; she launched into another lecture about how much we had to do to get my daughter up to the required standard. I interrupted her and said no, I want to give you some feedback. Her face was a picture, jaw practically dropped to the floor but a date and time was arranged.
I explained my unhappiness with the points raised at the recent parent consultation. It is simply not credible that she finished year 5 in a pretty good place, and within a matter of weeks she is a cause for concern. I was very unhappy that they seemed to be making her Maths group promotion into a problem, focusing on ground that needs to be made up and not celebrating an important achievement. If a bit of catching up is required, then I expect you to handle that and do it without undermining her new-found confidence in her Maths ability. I believed that they were seriously missing the point on the odd and even numbers topic, it is not the understanding that is lacking but some help with interpreting test questions would be more appropriate. I completely accepted that her literacy needed improvement, but saw no reason why she should not be capable of achieving that improvement.
They did back down and apologize for being overly gloomy, that was not their intention apparently. However, in my opinion the whole thing was a deliberate attempt to co-opt parents into adding yet more pressure on the kids. Some other parents that I know had similar, heavy handed lectures. The next Parent Consultation was a very different affair. In general though the pressure continued for the next few months in the same tone. They were told that they weren’t ready, not working hard enough etc etc. While I have occasionally disagreed with teachers, I have never actively contradicted their views directly to either of my children until this point. Eventually, I decided to say to my daughter that these tests are really not such a big deal. We had by this time been offered a place at her first choice secondary school and I explained that she won’t lose that place if her SAT results are less good than expected. While I want her to try her best and do as well as she possibly can, she was not to worry about the tests and not be upset or nervous about the outcome. The SATs are just a step along the way for her, but they are a really big deal for her school and her teachers.
The tests came and went. She seemed so unfazed by them that I started to wonder if I had made a mistake in downplaying their importance. But then the fun really started. All Primary schools in England release their SAT results on the same day. Only we did not get any results, and school was saying nothing. The Deputy Head Teacher said that they are just not available yet and we don’t know why. Eventually after a number of e-mails to the Head and Deputy Head, the Head of the managing Trust and the Chair of Governors as well as the Dept for Education it came out that due to a complaint from a parent, (not me honest) there was an investigation into the school’s administration of the SATs. I had an e-mail from the Standards and Testing Agency that it could be half term before the investigation is completed and the SAT results for the school released.
Finally this week, just before the half term break, 3 months late, we get the results. In the mean time the Year 6 kids have successfully moved up to Year 7 at secondary school they have been tested and assessed yet again, put into the appropriate sets and no-one seems to have a problem that there are no SAT levels for one group of children. Of course the whole point of the Key Stage Testing was to assess the performance of the school. It is not a qualification for the child and it really is only of any significance to the school and hence, us parents and children are the last to know.
She did really well by the way, she got her expected level 5 in Maths and she also achieved level 5 for both the Literacy tests, Spelling and Grammar, as well as Reading. Level 5 is an above average score and was better than her teacher assessment score. So we are delighted and chuffed, but it all seems a bit of an anti-climax and a bit pointless. I’m sure that this better than expected test result will have come too late to change anything in the setting arrangements that new school have made, and I’m really not sure it matters.
So what was it all about? A performance related pay bonus for the Year 6 teachers perhaps, a newly converted Academy status primary school needing to show that they are delivering improved results. Will we get to know any of the details of the investigation? Why on earth did it need to take so long? How can it be right to make children work so hard to exceed at these tests and then just deny them access to their results for so long that now the results do not even matter any more? Was any of it in the best interests of the kids?