My child won't benefit from Sats exams – so we're boycotting them

My son’s primary school drills pupils for years to take the exams in year 6, at the expense of wider learning. I feel I have to act

I worked away from home last week, and didn’t see my child for a few days. When I returned, I asked him how school had been. He shrugged and said: “We did seven tests. I’m a 2.3.” I asked him what that meant. “I don’t know,” he said. “But Alice is too.”

This week, for him and the other year 5s, there were another three tests. At the school move-up day – where we met his teacher for next year – we were told that “we teach maths and English up to Christmas, then we do practice Sats papers”.

We told the school we’re boycotting Sats. Surely it’s better to keep teaching maths and English than practise for tests?

Although we’ve only just informed the school of our boycott, we began to feel it was the right thing to do when our son was in year 4. He started telling us his class was doing Sats practice papers, even though the tests don’t take place until year 6. It took the children two hours to complete a 40-minute paper. They were told they’d get faster with practice, but they’d not yet been taught much of the content needed for the exam and it hit their confidence. My son now hates English and maths, and more worryingly thinks he’s “rubbish” at the latter.

Two important reports by the cross-party Education and Health Select Committees this year strengthened our resolve. One, on primary school assessment, noted in strong terms that the new Sats tests had been poorly implemented [pdf] and that they were having a negative impact on schools and children. There was an acknowledgement from the minister for vulnerable children and families, Edward Timpson, that although good standards of literacy and numeracy were necessary for future success, children “need to be in a mental and emotional state to be able to maximise that opportunity”.

The second report, on mental health and wellbeing [pdf], pointed to evidence to suggest that academic pressure and the narrowing of the curriculum were having a negative impact on youth mental health.

As a parent, of course, this is all a great worry. I see my son experiencing a curriculum that is narrowing daily. He goes to school unwillingly and I’ve noticed an increase in him feeling “unwell” – I think in part down to a reluctance to attend school.

There are so many myths surrounding Sats – the most pervasive is that secondary schools need the results to group children by ability on entry. Quite aside from the fact that research suggests that setting isn’t necessarily good for children, most secondary schools reassess on entry.

And a child hot-housed for a test in May is unlikely to retain the information in September. As Dylan Wiliam, professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, points out, information learned for a test tends not to transfer to proximal contexts, such as another kind of test. In short, the tests do nothing for children. They exist to hold schools accountable and that makes our children nothing more than pawns in a power struggle.

Of course, although we’ve made the decision to boycott Sats tests, believing them to have no benefit for children, we’re nevertheless unable to impact the quality of curriculum experience. Throughout the school, all mornings are dedicated to maths and English. That leaves 90 minutes a day, or seven-and-a-half hours a week, for all other subjects. Science, languages, art, music, physical education, computing, design and technology, religious education … we’re already out of time. And that doesn’t account for history, geography, assemblies, trips and performances. But we’re not alone in our concerns. At our parents’ evening the other day, several other parents came to speak with me afterwards about how they, too, might boycott the tests. Other parents are also mobilising, joining organisations like More Than a Score and questioning the wisdom of the current system. I believe this will gain momentum as parents begin to realise they have more choice than they think.

I want my child to love learning and to love school. I want him to have his imagination and curiosity fired up; to learn to live in and love the moment. But where Sats are allowed to dictate so much of how our children learn, the importance of these things is being forgotten.

Debra Kidd is a parent of three boys and a member of More Than a Score. She tweets @debrakidd and blogs at Future Proof Your Child

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