SATs – When teachers don’t teach

“But my best is not good enough!”

This was the heartfelt statement that my 10-year-old daughter made at the end of what was supposed to be an encouraging chat with her mum.

“I didn’t do well in the test!”

“But did you do your best?”


“Well then…”

“But my best is not good enough!”

This is of course a hard life lesson that we all have to learn at some point. Despite all the effort I gave as a student, at GCSE, A-level or degree, I was never an ‘A’ grade student like some of my friends. My effort was not going to be enough: I was restricted with the brain power I had. However, SATs are about the progress of students in a school. They help give the school a place on the league tables, not the students (in fact on arrival into secondary school, most students are re-tested, showing that the value of Year 6 SATs as a measure of student attainment is not universally accepted).

Year 6 children don’t walk out of school at the end of the year with a SATs qualification – again, this is for the school and not for the children; yet all of Year 6 is geared around SATs. So the truth is that teachers are not teaching for learning – they are teaching for a test. This is where the damage is done.

So why is it that teachers seem to teach only to the test? Surely that’s not why they entered the profession! Where is the pressure coming from?

As a society we don’t like nuanced answers to big questions – we like hard facts more than we like ideas. So we want to assess a student, teacher or a school’s progress as a number. Scores are standardised so that all can be measured by the same stick, and assessment is therefore restricted to a limited number of things. The result of this is that in Year 6, schooling is not about learning but about exam technique, booster classes and an all-permeating sense of pass or fail.

You can’t fail a SAT, can you? Ask a Year 6 student that!

So what gets pushed out by the ‘teach to the test’ method? Creativity, the arts, play times and teacher initiative. The result of this is finger biting, a drop in confidence and the kind of pressure we normally reserve for adults. All for what? What do the students get out of SATs? Nothing that will aid them in their future.

From my experience in education, by the time children reach formal exams in Year 11, the examination hall holds no trepidation for them. One of the main pressures I faced as a secondary school teacher was to get students to take their exams seriously: if anything they were too familiar. This seems not to be an issue for Year 6 – they are much easier to cajole into exam worry. Maybe we could hang onto this for later in life?

So what is to be done? In our home we will endeavour to counter the idea that top effort is not good enough, because we believe that you won’t always succeed but trying is what builds character – and that, surely, is a British value. As a nation we should consider what really counts. Why not a teaching oath, like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath?

“First, last, always teach!”