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The personal is statistical: SATs and stress

Posted on 16 July 2018 by Emily Tanner, Head of Children, Families & Work .
Tags: Children (3), Mental health (3), Schools (1), children, primary schools, schools

Interim results data published this week show that a higher proportion of 10-11 year olds have achieved the national standards in maths and literacy than in previous years. Three-quarters of pupils (75%) reached the expected standard in reading, 76% in maths and 78% in spelling, punctuation and grammar. However, the good news has been tempered by those who highlight the potentially detrimental effect of testing on children’s mental health. With plans underway to book-end primary school with formal tests, it’s important that we understand how this is impacting on children’s well-being (as well as their learning).

As an education researcher, I always follow the Key Stage 2 scores with keen interest – children who perform well as they leave primary school are more likely to thrive in their secondary school years, so it’s an important milestone. However, this year, my interest is also personal as my twins are among the statistics. The May tests certainly dominated Year 6 and I was conscious of how challenging it was for them, as summer-born boys who won’t even turn 11 until the last day of school, to master all the grammatical and mathematical concepts and work at speed.

One way to approach it is to focus on the positives. SATs are an opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve achieved through primary school and to develop the coping skills and resilience they’ll need at secondary. And ultimately, the SATs are an assessment of the school not the child.

But I suppose this is easy for me to say, coming at this as a parent who had a positive experience of education and (weirdly, don’t tell anyone) quite enjoyed exams. What about the children who aren’t hearing positive messages, who may internalise the anxiety of their teachers worried about their own reputation in our high-stakes education system, or whose parents are dreading the tests on their behalf?

At NatCen, we’ve been investigating how schools support children’s mental health – what they do to promote well-being as well as how they identify and respond to mental ill-health.  Our recently published pen portraits highlighted a range of strategies relating to reducing exam stress such as employing a student welfare officer to help students cope around the time of exams and replacing the language of stress with ‘thriving, not surviving’. Such strategies are typically implemented by secondary schools – they aren’t so much of a focus for primary schools who, instead, tend to focus on preventative approaches such as building resilience.

The rationale for testing pupils is to measure school performance and hold schools to account for providing high quality education. Children should be the beneficiaries. If however, they end up shouldering the anxieties of the teachers and parents around them, perhaps we should take a different approach.

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