Revision classes in the holidays for GCSE and A-level students are commonplace; teacher-led revision can provide structure and direction. But for Year 6 SATs? Really? This Easter, hundreds of classes of 11-year-olds across the country spent their school holidays in school attending compulsory revisions classes. This prospect is deeply concerning and leads us to question why children are being put under this much pressure and why the exams are this difficult.
When I was at primary school, I don’t think I’d ever heard the words ‘exam stress’, never mind experienced the reality of the monotonous, self-discipline required during exam season. I remember wanting to do well and get good grades in my SATs, and probably took them a bit too seriously, but I never felt pressure from teachers. We probably had a few revision lessons (within class time) but they were just tests and teachers emphasised we shouldn’t worry about them.
With the new rigorous SATs papers, following a new, knowledge-heavy curriculum – introduced by former Education secretary Michael Gove – schools are under increasing pressure to meet requirements. There’s no leeway for children to fall behind, even though naturally, children develop academically at different paces.
As well as Year 2 and Year 6 SATs, the government have recently announced plans to introduce a reception baseline assessment for 4-year olds. Tests are defining education. It shouldn’t need to be said that testing kids when they’re only 4-years-old is wrong; reception is for running around the playground, playing in the sandpit, socialising and being gently introduced to the school day. Not throwing 4-year-olds straight into silent exam rooms.
When taking her Year 6 SATs last summer, I remember my friend’s younger sister getting upset and stressed. The school put on compulsory after-school ‘booster’ sessions and she would say that the children who weren’t the most academic were shouted at by teachers for not keeping up with the work. The exam-focused atmosphere in her primary school was unhealthy and completely unrecognisable. In other words, schools are exam factories. Churning out grades, test after test, is not what education, especially primary education, should be like.
Primary school is where we should learn literacy and numeracy skills – the foundation for a secondary education where we apply these skills to practical knowledge. Instead, Michael Gove’s education has replaced a nurturing teaching environment – where children have time to practise these skills – with an intensive curriculum with more focus on fact-based knowledge. Ensuring children have basic learning skills is no longer enough. Of course, it’s important to challenge students but not in an obsessive, grade-driven environment where teachers have to cram so much in that children end up falling behind because there’s too much to know – hence the extra classes in school holidays.
It’s important that student attainment is measured to some extent – to help measure school teaching standards and pupil progress – and a good time to do this is through standardised tests before pupils move to secondary school. However, these tests need reforming; they should be skill-based tests which do not require much revision, not a memory test on copious amounts of knowledge completely irrelevant to an 11-year old’s life.
Enjoyment of education is so important. Stressful exams, year after year, reduce academic talent to a number or letter and take away students’ natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn. Exam factories are unsustainable; children are made to feel like they’re failing, and that grades will define their lives, before they’ve even reached GCSE. Primary school children should never be put under exam pressure or feel stressed – and they should certainly not be spending their Easter holidays in school revising.