I’m tidying my office. It’s going to take a while. There are papers everywhere. They cover every surface.
Most of them are old SATs papers; specifically maths SATs papers. They are organised into piles – one for each of the children I have been working with. Piles and piles of past SATs papers alongside other piles of diagrams and calculations. Because, like many primary school headteachers, I have been spending my afternoons over the past weeks coaching children to pass tests.
Many of our children will reach the expected standard, or higher, in these tests which they sit at the end of Key Stage Two, without any help outside their regular lessons. A few struggle much more – you might even theorise that these tests are not appropriate for them. And then there are the children which are right on the cut line; who might hit the pass mark or might not. And it is these children, or at least some of them, who I end up coaching, having allowed my messiah complex to escape its shackles and convince me that I can single-handedly teach them everything they should have learned over the preceding four years in a few half hour sessions.
Maths is my forte in this unreasonable endeavour. When you sit down with children one-to-one and ask them what you can do to help, they are surprisingly forthcoming about what they do and don’t know. Fractions, decimals and percentages are top of most lists for some extra help, and I end up drawing a lot of pizzas. But the fun really starts with what we call word problems.
You know the sort of thing: “If I buy three apples and a packet of crisps while pouring out a litre of orange juice and paying with a fiver, how much shampoo will I have used by next Tuesday.” At least I think that’s how nonsensical they must seem, judging by the look on some of the children’s faces.
There is a structure to these sorts of questions, a pattern. Add these two things together and take them away from that. Add these things together and then add them to those things. Divide this much something or other by that many portions.
Here are some real examples:
A packet contains 1.5kg of oats. Every day Maria uses 50g of oats to make porridge. How many days does the packet of oats last?
Miss Mills is making jam to sell at the school fair. Strawberries cost £7.50 per kg. Sugar costs 79p per kg. Ten glass jars cost £6.90. She uses 12kg of strawberries and 10kg of sugar to make 20 jars full of jam. Calculate the total cost to make 20 jars full of jam.
Jacob cuts 4 metres of ribbon into three pieces. The length of the first piece is 1.28 metres. The length of the second piece is 1.65 metres. Work out the length of the third piece.
I suppose to be fair to the test setters they are trying to replicate real-life applications for maths. I’m sure Miss Mills is preparing for the school fair even as I write. But the questions fall within a fairly narrow range. What we actually end up teaching the children is exam technique, which at the age of 11 seems to be on the boundary between absurd and cruel.
Similarly the reading test, in effect a lengthy comprehension exercise, also has some less benign effects. For instance, we spend our days educating our young people to answer in full sentences rather than monosyllabic grunts – “What would you like for lunch?” “I’d like a school packed lunch please, Miss.” And we teach a specific, structured form of joined handwriting, praising its exponents for its beauty.
But when SATs time comes round we throw all this out with the bathwater. No need to write “This is because the writer is trying to convey…”, just get the key words down. And don’t take too long! Never mind about perfect cursive script; as long as it’s legible, that will do. Exam technique above all.
Meanwhile the grammar test is a ghastly nonsense, most of which would defeat any adult who has had the benefit of a sane, balanced education. (Do you know what a fronted adverbial is? Or the subjunctive mood? Do you care?)
By the time we packaged this year’s test papers up – using an amount of plastic which would have made David Attenborough’s blood boil and surrounded by a comical level of secret squirrelry – you could see in the in the children’s eyes that they had had enough of tests, and enough of people like me, and school in general.
Isn’t it about time we stopped putting them through this? Drilling them in test technique and hothousing them in the school hall for hours on end. Allowing maths and English to dominate the curriculum. Can we not find a more intelligent way of assessing what they have learned and how well their school is doing?