Mental health in schools is a hot topic. Recently, there have been calls for schools to introduce policies to foster good mental health and free CPD courses are available in “mental health first aid”. In SATs week and at the onset of the GCSE and A level exam season, it’s timely that our approach to testing students is being blamed for contributing to the burgeoning mental health crisis in schools.

It was therefore interesting to read Mark Lehain’s recent article in The Telegraph, “It’s time to stop demonising SATs – we need to test 11-year-olds”. He may, arguably, have a point that some kind of formal testing (externally marked to ensure unbiased results) is desirable at age 11, both to check pupils are on track before they move on to secondary school and to give them experience of formal testing before the high stakes of GCSEs.

However, his apparent overall message – that the fault with SATs lies not in the tests themselves but in how they are presented to the pupils, and that it is the responsibility of school leaders to change this – was thought-provoking. While in theory this may seem a reasonable way forward, in practice it is simply unrealistic.

The consensus seems to be that the tests have been less gruelling than last year’s. We shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that the overall SATs experience has been any easier for this year’s cohort, though: they have borne the brunt of the fall-out from last year’s experiment during the build-up to testing week.

Anecdotal evidence from several local schools reveals a variety of approaches employed to encourage year 6 pupils to up their game. These include voluntary after-school SATs revision “clubs”, an increased focus on group rather than whole-class teaching in maths and English in the run-up to the tests, and even suspension of the normal timetable for the period between Easter and testing week so that the majority of the time can be devoted to maths and English, while all other subjects are put on the back-burner.

Apprehension sparked by widespread negative coverage of last year’s tests has resulted in some pupils attempting numerous practice papers, both at school and at home. This may give some pupils confidence in their ability to tackle the real tests. For others, though, repeatedly struggling with practice tests is taken as evidence of the gulf they perceive between their current level of ability and where they feel they should be, thus stripping them of their confidence.

Lehain reminds us that it is not actually mandatory for the SATs results to be revealed to the children or their parents, suggesting this might downplay the importance of the tests to the pupils. Yet such an approach can only work if it becomes national policy. If left to the discretion of individual school leaders, it would simply become yet another factor making a particular school more or less attractive in the postcode lottery. The system must at least attempt to treat all pupils equally.

Even if this policy were to be adopted, all the while the tests remain a factor in assessing the performance of schools and, even indirectly, individual teachers, pressure will remain on pupils to perform, because there will be too much at stake for individual teachers and school leaders to allow their pupils to enter the exam room underprepared.

In the unlikely event that pupil performance in SATs could be divorced from overall judgements made about the performance of a given school, the tests would remain a source of tension because of the nature of the curriculum they are testing. Criticism of the content has been widespread, coming from all quarters including parents. Moreover, just this week we have heard that one of the experts involved in the initial consultations has apparently cast doubt over the robustness of the research and educational philosophy supposedly underpinning the revisions to the curriculum.

It would be naïve to assume that pupils are unaware of these tensions, or that keeping them in ignorance about the test results would somehow reduce pressure on them. Pupils have an uncanny way of knowing exactly how they are doing and where they stand in comparison with their peers, however much we as teachers try to avoid direct comparisons, particularly with younger pupils. They don’t simply rely on a test score to know if they have understood a concept or not: their sense of success or failure is also rooted in how they have coped in class or a homework task.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there is often a gulf between what we think we have conveyed to a child and what they have actually understood. Evidence suggests that some pupils don’t understand why they are doing the tests or what the results are used for. Some still believe secondary schools use them to decide which pupils to take, and that a place already offered may be withdrawn if their SATs results aren’t good enough. Others know that their chosen secondary school will make them sit more tests as soon as they arrive, so they don’t understand why they must do SATs as well. Some of the confusion may stem from what pupils have heard outside the classroom, but schools treating the SATs as high-stakes tests must also take some responsibility for putting their pupils under unwarranted pressure and for contributing to this confusion.
Until pupils are given clear, consistent, honest reasons about why they are sitting the tests by all parties – schools, the government, parents and the media – we surely cannot expect to shift from a reactive system that increasingly needs teachers to administer “mental health first aid” to a proactive one in which our pupils’ mental health is considered the highest priority, on a par with or exceeding exam performance.