Why SATs are bad for our children

There are many moments that have stayed with me from my ten years of teaching. The overwhelming majority of them are positive, but there is one in particular that has been circling around my head the past few days that makes me feel so sad about what current government policy is doing to our children’s experience of learning.

Early on in the first term of Year Seven, I often broached the question to my English class “What makes good writing?”. It’s a big question, and not one I ever expected to hear answered in its entirety, but still the responses that I got were pretty telling. The particular set of responses I remember was from Autumn 2012, just before I disappeared on maternity leave. Fresh from SATs preparation, hands shot up as I wrote the question on the board, and the answers spilled out proudly into the classroom: “varied sentence starters”, “correct use of conjunctions”, “fronted adverbial clauses”, “using semi-colons”.

Now none of this is strictly wrong, of course – and I dutifully noted each response on the whiteboard before mooting my own ideas. But it was still incredibly deflating to hear it from a room full of eleven year olds. Where was the talk of imagination? Of storytelling? Of creativity? Where was the space for them to fly?


It is this reduction of learning to rote mechanics that worries me most about the SATs, because the world doesn’t work like that – and yet in order for children to be able to succeed in these exams they have to be trained as if it does. When Key Stage 3 SATs were still around, I remember as an English department poring over questions trying to work out what it was they were actually getting at, and then teaching our students which right answers to put down for which type of question to make sure they got the marks they deserved. It was a preposterous waste of time and energy at a delicate stage in young people’s lives when the cocktail of hormones they were dealing with made the conventions of school pretty challenging anyway.

Still, I can get the argument that (at least within the limitations of our current system) being able to ‘do’ exams is kind of necessary. And I can just about stomach the concept of putting thirteen year olds through that process – at least we could explain to them the whole idea of the hoops they had to jump through, and begin to separate out different types of learning so that the experience didn’t completely extinguish the fire within.

I find it harder to justify for ten year olds, and I think it is such a crushing shame that children’s final year in primary school, a period in education which for many has been characterised by creativity and imagination, is reduced to drills and mock exams and learning ‘right’ answers to the most complex of questions making reopening the door to the potential for real learning a dauntingly challenging task in the years that follow.

Except of course primary school isn’t really like that any more. Not since the reintroduction of KS1 SATs, where children as young as six are now expected to sit formal tests in spelling, punctuation, grammar, reading, arithmetic and reasoning. SIX! The notion of what constitutes correct answers is, from what I have seen, just as convoluted as it was in KS3 – and so drilling is, if teachers are not going to sacrifice the children in their charge (and themselves) on the pyre of government assessment, inevitable.

And then of course there is the question of what all of this drilling occurs at the expense of. Play, for example, and creativity. Various other government initiatives are squeezing out the arts as children move up through the school system, but it is beyond belief that they should be marginalised at this crucial early stage. It goes against all of the research, the experience and the professional instinct that should guide our education system. When I admit that as a result of the regressive nature of government reforms I am reluctant to enrol my child in nursery, friends are quick to defend the relative freedoms that are still enjoyed in the early years. They go quiet when we get on to what starts to happen in year one.

All of this is part of why I am no longer teaching, and is a major driver in my decision to home-educate my son – for the first few years at least. My approach as a teacher always meant that there was a degree of rallying against the system – I wanted to see my students grow as individuals, to try to find creative ways of managing assessment that did not compromise their own personal development. During the bulk of my career, it felt at least as if I was moving with the tide – that what I innovated with one year I could integrate the next as Labour education policy responded to the needs of teachers and schools. And then the Tories came to power.

I could still be fighting the battle from the inside – I have untold respect and admiration for my former colleagues that are – but it is just so exhausting to have to make your classroom a fortress against the outside world, and I have a family to think about now.

My son is three: he is curious, brave, funny, unique and creative. He has many subjects he is passionate about, and is developing his own clear preferences for how he likes to learn about them. I want to nurture those in him, to enable him to find his way through the world in a way that it keeps its wonder, and where he gets to cherish his uniqueness, not play it down to fit in within the system and win validation for himself, his teachers and his school.

These KS1 SATs don’t give children levels; they don’t take a formative approach to identifying their strengths and areas for development; they don’t recognise that each and every child will progress in different areas at a different pace: they just indicate whether they have reached the required standard, whether they have passed or failed, whether or not they are ‘good enough’ at this stage in their lives.

I cannot imagine putting my little boy through that in three years time.

And it looks like I am not alone.

A campaign is gathering pace to undermine the KS1 SATs with a children’s strike on the 3rd of May. Yet more parents are calling for a boycott of the KS2 SATs, where the expected standards have risen so sharply that children are being set up to fail more than ever before. Parents up and down the country are uniting to say that this dismantling of their children’s childhood is simply not OK, that to stop their kid’s learning in its tracks by subjecting it to meaningless assessment is not something they want to be a part of.

My son is too young for me to be able to make a stand in this way, but I will be taking the opportunity on that day to demonstrate just what learning can look like when we set it free: to tell the story of our learning journey on this blog and on social media, to show how much fits into a day when it is not constrained by the need to learn to jump through hoops.

If you too are angry about what current government policy is doing to our schools, teachers and most importantly our children, then I hope that you will join me.


Edited 16th April 2016:

In response to our general disbelief at the way the government are decimating our education system, myself and Maddy from Writing Bubble have started a campaign to show them what learning really looks like. 

To find out more, check out our launch post and join our Facebook group. It would be awesome to have you on board.


Writing Bubble

18 thoughts on “Why SATs are bad for our children

  1. Reneé Davis Author

    Brilliantly insightful post lovely, and I’ll be sharing today. This is how I feel, but ‘just being a mum’ means that I’m not really qualified to have such opinions (apparently). As selfish as it is, I’m just pleased we pulled Polly out of school to start home ed when we did, because from what I’m hearing I’m pretty certain the SATs would have destroyed her! I’m in favour of the 3rd May strike (obviously) but I worry that the damage will have already been done by that point to too many kids 😦 xx

  2. mgduck2014

    I need to reply to you. Oh wow I adore your blog post on this. Amazing.

    I have a stressed and emotional seven year old. A bright child who long completed the reading scheme. Does amazing work at school.
    People assume its because I am or rather was a teacher, a year two teacher for many of those years. Maybe it is. But not because i formally taught her a thing. She had chance to enjoy books from birth, she investigates, creates, enjoys making and writing books. But from her own ideas. If she asked me how to write a letter i showed her in sand. In the bath or with chalk. I didn’t sit down and rote learn with her. She learned because we played.

    I hated applying those darn tests. But seeing it from the parental side, in a way they are penalising this year group with their new, miles harder targets. They totally moved the goal posts on these tiny little people. The tests full stop are wrong. But the children in reception now at least will gave spent all of their three years gaining that info. I feel like my daughter has had to play catch up, as have the teachers.
    Apparently these tests won’t be stressful… Will be fun. Not at all. 30 mins not talking is not fun for little children.the year’s worth lacking play and creativity is taking its toll on all of them. Tempers are shorter, there is less time to be free, learn about friendships, be creative.
    Its wrong. I’m so close to home ed. With a four year old and baby too it feels too much but i am putting my feelers out for h.e.

    Anyway my ramble there
    But thank you again for this amazing post.

  3. Linda kobayashi

    I think the year six tests are potentially more crushing because they are a lot more competitive and self critical – potentially impacting their self esteem. When my two sons had their ks1 they didn’t seem stressed or bothered by it atall. I think it was the parents who were more bothered. I hear my sons talking about the construction of sentences using all the technical terms and I think the article is right they’ve totally taken the creative freedom out of writing… While it gets them to think about the structure of their writing it robs their imagination of running free… It’s ashame….. However, testing isn’t completely wrong, I think t prepared them for the real world which is performance focused.

  4. Rebecca Ann Smith

    This is a really great post Sophie. Both my kids are avid readers and passionate creators of stuff – stories, comic strips, videos, plans for computer games they want to code – and always have been. They’ve always been interested in knowing about the world, they want to understand how things work, they ask great questions. On the face of it, such good learners ought to thrive in school. But progressively year on year I see school sucking the life out of their creativity and love of learning and honestly it’s heart-breaking.

  5. Miss A K Stephens

    I am a teaching assistant. For the past two years I have worked exclusively in special needs schools, but in the term just ended it changed somewhat dramatically and I’m aghast at what I have seen. Firstly the change has been generated by dissolving special needs units within mainstream and planting the children in mainstream classes with support. For one group of four children I support them in Maths and English – but only some of their lessons, leaving the rest to someone else. This leave the children with lack of consistency. Then there’s the complication that the children are all at different levels, but sit together in KS3 classes. Teacher teaches the class at KS3 and I teach the other 4 at their three different levels. I work with what I am given and that does not include time or opportunity to meet in advance with the teachers to prepare their work in my mind – I litterally work off the hoof from photocopied sheets provided at the start of the lesson. And the teacher? well how can they get to know the children and the difficulties they experience.

    Then there’s the mainstream. Frankly I get bored with every lesson starting with a formal objective which the children have to meticulously copy down from the board – how is this aiding learning? Then it gets even better (lol). We then have too look at the four levels of answer that can be given and what grade each kind of answer will provide. By this time we are 10-15 minutes into the lesson and we have done absolutely nothing that adds value to the learning experience. Roughly speaking that’s a lesson’s worth of time a day lost or one day a week…… 39 days per school year………….which is more than half a term.

    Very cynically I’m left thinking that this is all part of a wider plan to REDUCE what a child can learn in statutory school years, by selling the ideas as measuring improvement. Sorry, when I assist pupils in preparing for their GCSEs and showing them things that I had to know to do my 11+ I KNOW that standards have dropped, And 40 years on with no reason to revisit most subjects in the meantime, should I really be able to support all lessons I learned with no additional input (or pre lesson preparation) if education is progressive in improving standards? I really am not convinced by any political argument that has been masqueraded in recent years which even half suggests we are doing the best for our children.

    Earlier in my working life I was the Graduate Recruitment Manager for a one of the UK’s largest recruiters of graduates. Frustration abounded around basic ability. The Universities insisted that they could only do so much with what they received…………I couldn’t see it at the time as it all sounded like a bunch of excuses. but now………… but now it is so obvious not only what has happened but also how it happened.

    Whether we stay in Europe or leave, to carry on along the educational road we have recently been travelling we will surely sink due to our persistent dubbing down and the risk is we will snuff out the light. We need to be on the ball and find a way of making teaching staffs’ voice heard and booting politicians up the rear end.

  6. caramckee

    Seeing what’s going on under Tory rule in England is horrifying, and makes me willing to stay in Scotland despite the weather! I hope that the popular resistance can bring change.

    I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of Curriculum for Excellence, and especially of the Nat 5 exams, but at least we don’t start in P2 (which I think is the equivalent of English Year 1).

    Love and light to all.

  7. Annie Stratton

    In 15-20 years, England is going to be paying a huge price for taking this approach to education. Either they will be stuck with young people who are afraid to think outside the box, and are unable to come up with creative solutions– the things that propel advancement of knowledge and innovation. OR there will a lot of kids who give up and stop trying. Some of them will blossom on their own and will do wondrous thing but many will be so drained and disgusted they are all too likely to be unable to contribute much of anything to their society. Let’s hope it somehow balances out. The best solution is if parents and kids and teachers get together and quash this insane travesty on education. I am in USA and ended up putting my older kids in an alternative community school, and home-schooling my youngest. The two older are fine, The youngest is amazing. She was a successful (as in self-supporting) artist for years, then started college. She is just finishing up her undergrad degree and then will start a PhD program in neuroscience research. And all I did was let her learn.

  8. Saloe

    Brilliant … but scary article and great comments. Schools have become exam factories, nothing else, it’s all about attainment, whatever the age. But what is attainment? What is the ‘thing achieved’. Surely, more than anything the goal should be to have happy, healthy, well rounded young people who will contribute positively to society??

  9. maddy@writingbubble

    Wow, what a post Sophie so thoughtful and insightful and heartbreakingly true. I am SO with you… well, obviously! I’m really hoping we can make a difference with our #THISislearning campaign. Thanks for linking to #WhatImwriting and for being so great to work with! xx

  10. Alice @ The Filling Glass

    I wish you had been my English teacher! It sounds really positive in your classroom. I have been so saddened by the effect of Key Stage 1 on my daughters, who loved Reception and learned loads but hit a brick wall going into Year 1. The exam papers are a joke, and some of what they are required to learn at age 6, I never learned in school at all. I shall be raising my voice by taking my girls out of school on May 3rd, but I wish I could help them avoid the SATs should they still go ahead. Thanks for your amazing work on this issue. xx

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