Secret Teacher: Sats stress is crushing children's love of learning

The drive to hit targets is putting primary pupils under too much pressure. All Sats really teach them is that school is a chore

It’s funny really, we’ve all been there. We all remember sitting on the carpet with our legs crossed, listening wide-eyed to our teachers reading a book to us in class. That’s what many of us recall about primary school – how fun it was and how free we were to explore our ideas.

In many ways, that’s the point; to immerse our children in a world where learning is fun, to open up their imaginations and encourage them to be inquisitive in a safe space. As Socrates said, education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. As a primary teacher, that’s a good guiding mantra. Let children discover, their eyes light up and sparks ignite.

Unfortunately, in the wake of their Sats preparation, my year 6 class – and I’m sure every year 6 child across the land – would probably say this isn’t so. Flame lighting has been swapped for vessel filling. Yes, they’ve been learning and yes, they have made “progress” (lots of it for some). We know this because we’ve measured their strict diet of test, drill, repeat twice every half term for the entire year.

The issue here is whether it was worth it, because in so many respects the drive for floor targets and pupil premium percentage increases have robbed students of their primary school experience. The regime is focused on spelling and grammar, reading comprehensions and mental maths – combined with extra practice tests, interventions and booster clubs fitted in anywhere between dusk and dawn. Children can hardly remember what an art book looks like, or what a decent PE lesson feels like, or what a music lesson sounds like. They’re so confined to their desks that the process of developing the whole child has gone out of the window and their actual interests and other skills no longer have a place in school life.

Little Ricky, for example, loves geography. He’s fascinated by the world around him and can’t wait to get the atlases out on the search for capital cities, rivers, mountain chains and forests. This is where he comes alive and feels worthwhile. Excitement fills his wings and he’s ready to fly anywhere in the world – until he is pulled out for his maths booster. Yes, he needs extra support in adding fractions and rotating around a point, but seeing his shoulders drop and his smile fade is heartbreaking and frustrating. Nobody is denying he needs his maths – he has to be ready for secondary school and his future – but it’s just as important that he gets time and space to be him. He needs to connect with what he wants to learn because that’s where he switches on. That’s what he’s good at; that’s where we get him.

It’s at this point we need to wonder who we’re doing this for. Is it really for him? Because it feels like we’re missing who he really is, who they all are. What sparks their flame gets dampened. If your dyslexic child flourishes through art, tough. If the quiet, timid child at the back of your classroom comes out of their shell through drama, forget it. If the young carer, who comes in late because they’ve been changing their parent’s bed, feels they can express themselves through a map, no chance. Get down and give me the area of a quadrilateral.

Already so many children are being turned off school. It’s not just my Victorias and Emilys, who read every night and write stories for fun. It’s not just these children who are going home and telling mum it’s all getting too much. At least these children can complain – my Jaleels and my Delanes don’t know how to, their protest is not so eloquent. They share their thoughts through their poor punctuality and lack of focus.They are sick more, turn up less and don’t want to be there because it’s easier not to try than fail to get the results they “need”. A regime of test and repetition, rote and regurgitation is putting them off. They’re bored. They’ve had enough. They are saturated.

Apart from lesson objectives, all these children are really being taught is that school is a chore and a burden. Because of their Sats, these children are anxious and unhappy, rather than excited or inspired. They are only 11 years old and already asking for extra papers to take home so they can cram over the weekend. Some have trouble sleeping and can’t eat, while others stop attending school altogether. This is all before they have even started secondary education.

Of course, their levels will be great; we make sure of that – we have no choice. But what are they really learning? They are learning that education isn’t stimulating and nobody is listening to their needs. The kindling of their educational flames is fast being extinguished by tracking and targets.

We need to ask ourselves what we want for our children. Do we want them to learn that their passions, interests and dreams don’t count? Do we want them to learn that bottom lines and level 4s are more important than their self-confidence and talents? Or do we want them to know that we hear what they have to say? That the question is more important than the answer? That learning is a lifelong journey that should inspire?

As teachers, it’s our job to ensure that the flame of learning gets kindled and burns brightly for all, whatever their capacity, interests or age. But we need to think really carefully about what we put children through, because there’s no way we can engage them through more years of study if they’ve already run out of appetite.

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