Since the introduction of the National Curriculum to UK education in 1989 and the creation of the Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) in 1991, everybody has had an opinion about them and few are afraid to make that opinion known. For 25 years, controversy has raged about the value of these tests and who, in fact, the tests are really testing – is it the children or the schools? The one thing that is not in any doubt is that these tests put our children under a huge amount of pressure to perform well, even when their skills perhaps lie in a different direction and little allowance is made for those who find formal testing an unbearable strain.
Even though it’s been 2 years since G was in Year 6, I can well remember the stresses and strains that the prospect of the year-end SATs put on her. Small, but telling signs of the pressure she felt were revealed through changes in her behaviour at home and her already shaky confidence in her literacy ability took a further battering as she struggled to understand what the tests were demanding of her. Her homework steadily increased to ensure that all maths and literacy elements were taught, revised and well-established by the time the tests themselves actually happened and she spent Saturday mornings working with my Mum, a retired Year 6 teacher, to fine-tune those skills that were proving a little elusive to my school-loving child. Her hard work and focus throughout the year stood her in good stead and we were all proud of her year-end results, most of all because they rebuilt her belief in herself. Despite that previous experience, I knew that M’s start in Year 6 would herald a very different set of experiences and that’s absolutely proved to be the case.
M has been expressing his worries about the SATs since well before he even reached Year 6. He loves reading and his imagination and vocabulary are impressive, but the ongoing struggles with his handwriting and spelling due to his dyspraxia and dyslexia have really knocked his confidence when it comes to his literacy skills. This September saw the very real manifestation of the stress and pressure he’s put himself under and pieces of homework and classwork alike have left him in tears. I realised just how bad things had got when I received an email from his class teacher expressing her concern about his wobbles in the classroom. She knows him well, having been the school SENCo since he started at this school in Year 3 and also his Year 4 teacher when he had his NG-tube, so she’s fully aware of his additional educational needs and personality quirks and felt that his response was completely unlike him.
We have been working hard with M to develop the basic knowledge that is missing due to the delay in getting a diagnosis for his learning needs and are seeing a slow, but steady improvement. He attends weekly lessons at our local Dyslexia centre and his teacher there is working on his phonic and spelling knowledge in particular. We have agreed with school that he will only learn the spellings set by the Dyslexia centre as there is a greater need to ensure he has a good base on which to build his literacy skills, than worrying about the finer nuances of prefixes and suffixes for the time being. M uses the Nessy computer program, which was developed to teach reading, writing and spelling skills through a series of fun and interactive games and challenges. He has access to this both at home and at the Dyslexia centre and will soon be able to use it during some of his intervention group sessions at school. I have also just invested in the Nessy Fingers course, which will teach him to touch-type, a skill we are all agreed will be of huge benefit to him, especially when he moves on to secondary school next September. The ability to make notes on a laptop or tablet will ease some of the angst he already feels about the workload he will face in Year 7 and we are hoping to investigate some dictation programs that will also make his life just that little bit easier.
During Year 4, M’s occupational therapist came into school and taught a series of lessons focused on improving his handwriting and teaching him how to form his letters correctly. He now has the most beautiful joined up handwriting and, whilst it may take a lot of time and effort to do, he shows great determination to produce a well-written, well-structured and well-spelled piece of work. Even better, M recently received a certificate at school recognising his hard work with the diary entries he had been asked to write and congratulating him on some great ideas and marvellous handwriting. He was so incredibly proud of being awarded that certificate and his confidence and self-belief soared as a result. All too often over the last few years, M has been praised for his courage in dealing with his EGID diagnosis, NG-tube and food allergies, so it was great to see him receive recognition for the hard work he’s been putting in to improving his handwriting over the last 12 months.
Truth be told, at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter what M’s SATs results are. They will not be a reflection of the bright, brave, cheerful boy that he is or of the huge strides he’s already made from an educational standpoint. They won’t show his breadth of knowledge on random topics such as the Illuminati, or expound his theories on anything Star Wars or his opinions about Brexit and the American Presidential race. They will never reveal the medical and health hurdles he’s overcome since the day he was born. Rather they will be a single snapshot of the ability of my 11 year-old to perform under certain pressures on a given day in May and will have no bearing on the journey he will eventually embark on for the rest of his life. They really are an unnecessary and unsatisfactory pressure that M and his friends could do without.