Back to school as Sats are put to the test

Time for some last minute advice from Year Six pupils at St Nicholas Primary School
Time for some last minute advice from Year Six pupils at St Nicholas Primary School

There’s a certain feeling of dread reserved for the moment when you walk into an exam room.

It’s more than 15 years since I last put pen to paper in anger but the butterflies, the anxiety, the realisation your entire future could be decided in a couple of brain-taxing hours are all too fresh a memory.

Rob Stocks arrives at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

Rob Stocks arrives at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

That final exam was a paper in American fiction and the pressure to succeed (along most probably with a mild hangover) was all too real for a 21-year-old student.

So imagine being an 11-year-old sitting down to an examination paper.

The Year Six Sats tests are never far from controversy and this year’s papers have already been branded the toughest ever.

But how hard could an exam aimed at measuring primary school achievement really be?

Great teaching makes the difference not harder tests

Digging out a crumpled Old Boy’s tie and borrowing a school satchel from a bewildered eldest daughter, I set off back to the classroom to put the Sats to the test

The first thing that should probably be noted is my general lack of preparation.

On Sunday evening I had considered checking out sample papers online.

Instead I opted to open a bottle of red and enjoy the final few rays of weekend sun – a big mistake as it turned out.

Rob Stocks about to start the test at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

Rob Stocks about to start the test at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

What’s immediately striking about the Sats is how formal the papers look, they could easily pass for GCSE or A-Level scripts.

Andy Mellor, headteacher at St Nicholas Primary School in Marton, has provided three of this year’s tests to tackle – each one timed and sat under and exam conditions (apart from the perk of a morning brew).

The most controversial of all is the spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) element of the Year 6 Sats.

At first glance there’s nothing too sinister – some simple grammatical choices to make and some simple sentences to complete.

Rob Stocks ready for the SATS Test at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

Rob Stocks ready for the SATS Test at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

But the further into the booklet I delved, the tip of a freshly-sharpened HB fast diminishing, the more I realised how the mother tongue of Milton and Shakespeare has been reduced in the 21st century classroom to simple mechanics.

Having learned (and to a certain extent loathed) Latin, I can still recall having a language hammered home clause by clause.

And the approach evident in the SPAG paper is similarly foreign to me.

I’ll admit having struggled to properly identify the present perfect, the subjunctive, the active voice and either the subordinate or relative clause – at one point resorting to drawing a large question mark in the margin.

The paper left me more certain than ever that the best way to learn English is to listen to and read the works of those who have already mastered it.

Is it really necessary for an 11-year-old to know the names of the nuts and bolts of language if they can apply them properly?

Rob Stocks arrives at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

Rob Stocks arrives at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

Anyway, moving on.

Maths was always the subject in which I most struggled at school (other than physics which was really just more maths in disguise).

And I’ll admit the Sats paper at times challenged me – particularly in the field of long division where I eventually gave in and started filling the answer field with flippant remarks.

Every credit to an 11-year-old who can multiply and divide fractions and calculate sums with three or more decimal places without the aid of a smartphone and showing all their working.

At least I could take more confidence into the final paper.

With a degree in English Literature – admittedly a ‘Desmond’ (2:2) – Reading and Comprehension should have been a doddle.

And so it seemed, even if a rather blasé attitude to some very trickily-phrased questions coupled with rather spidery handwriting probably did cost a mark or two.

Of course, primary school testing is nothing new.

Many will remember having to show their mental arithmetic skills or filling in multiple choice sheets.

Some of us even took the 11-plus or the equivalent high school entrance exam.

But none were as formal, structured and tough as what the current crop of Year 6 pupils have just faced.

Every credit should be given to those who have taken the papers (some of whom couldn’t resist a snigger as I sat down to mine) and the teachers who drilled them to succeed.

Those lessons really do count because life, as it turns out, doesn’t prepare you at all for the Sats challenge.

Pupils and schools will have to wait weeks to find out their Sats scores.

Thankfully for journalists the turnaround is significantly shorter.

And the good news is, in spite of the questionable handwriting and lack of revision, concentration or mathematical aptitude I managed to pass in each subject.

A solid 90 per cent in Reading and Comprehension, 78 per cent on the SPAG and an understandably woeful 69 per cent on maths spark genuine celebrations.

But the tests were tougher than I imagined.

And my examiner Mr Mellor is in no doubt they should cease to be the only indicator of a pupil or a school’s performance.

He believes in teaching a much broader curriculum than the tests currently allow.

“I would say that tests are not a problem,” he said.

“Schools use them as part of an overall judgement about a child’s performance.

“However to use them as the only predictor of a child’s attainment and progress is misleading.

“Unfortunately because successive governments have done this and this data is how schools are judged, schools make sure that if these are the measures by which they are judged then they will put all their effort into these measures. What suffers is the overall education provided to each child. The curriculum narrows and become focused on maths and English to the detriment of other subjects and wider learning.”

Mr Mellor has seen the tests toughen up in recent years, a move he believes is stifling a love of learning among pupils.

He said: “The second mistake that the Government has made is to think that making tests harder will actually improve results.

“What they fail to understand is that it is great teaching by great teachers that makes the difference, not harder tests.

“The tests this year, as shown by Rob’s results, show that they are too hard and their test focus is too narrow.

“Teaching children the names of certain parts of the English language is being driven by Government and the focus is being taken away from a love of writing.

“When our top children’s authors slam the approach taken by government, it is time to listen.”

Rob’s Sat mark in reading and comprehension - 90%

Rob’s Sat mark in mathematics - 69%

Rob’s Sat mark in spelling, punctuation and grammar - 78%

Rob gets to grips with the first Sats pager

Rob gets to grips with the first Sats pager

Rob Stocks taking his SATS Test at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

Rob Stocks taking his SATS Test at St. Nicholas' CE Primary School, Blackpool

No distractions please...but if youre asking, coffee, black with two sugars

No distractions please...but if youre asking, coffee, black with two sugars

Our reporter tackled three of this years Sats papers

Our reporter tackled three of this years Sats papers