Secret Agent Training (otherwise known as SATs)

If you are a parent of a school-age child you’ll probably be aware that it’s currently exam season.  SATs, GCSEs, AS and A Levels, Mocks… May and June are not fun months for either parents or children when it comes to school.

When Ella and Mimi (currently in Years 5 and 4 of primary school respectively) were in Year 2, their school called their SATs tests ‘quizzes’.  There was a brief meeting held at school each year for parents who hadn’t been through it before to find out what these ‘quizzes’ involved.  I attended both years and each time I came away feeling pretty relieved – there would be no pressure on the girls, they wouldn’t even realise they were being tested, and it would be made to be as fun as possible.  That was the extent of our knowledge of it.

Fast forward two years to now and suddenly it’s Lola’s turn.  (I still can’t believe my baby is seven years old.  Slow down time!)

This time around it feels very different.  For starters, in January (four whole months before the SATs actually take place) we had a letter from school requesting that we parents attend a meeting so we can ‘learn how to help our children revise for their tests’.  Yes, you read that right.  Seven year olds.  Revising.  Sorry, what?

Firstly… they are six and seven years old.  SIX AND SEVEN!  They need to be outdoors playing and running around and making up imaginary games and twirling and making daisy chains and kicking a football and getting muddy and playing ‘tig’ and ‘catch’.  Not revising.  Not being put under pressure to achieve certain standards that the government have decided are acceptable.  Not worrying about ‘failing’ or ‘not being good enough’ because they got a couple of questions wrong, or didn’t quite understand something, or missed learning about subordinate clauses (whatever they are) because they didn’t attend a day of school due to chicken pox.

Secondly… every child is unique and every child learns in a completely different way from the child sat next to him or her.  In simplified terms, some are visual learners and need to see things illustrated in diagrams and colours to be able to take the learning on board.  Some are kinaesthetic – ‘feelers’ – who need to actually, practically do something to understand it.  Others can read a set of instructions on the whiteboard and it all makes sense in their heads because it’s in word form.  And some need the teacher to explain it audibly and then need to talk themselves through it out loud as they go through the steps in order to absorb the method and figure out the answer.  What single test can take all of that into account?  Answer: none.  There isn’t one that can do all of those things.  And so those children who don’t fit with the test paper structure simply aren’t able to let their light shine, through absolutely no fault of their own.

Needless to say I firmly and politely declined to attend the meeting and I haven’t done any form of ‘revision’ with Lola.  She does the homework she is set with her best efforts and hands it in on time.  She participates in class.  And when she’s home she has much needed down-time, watches a bit of TV, reads (a lot!) for pleasure and she plays – in her bedroom with her toys, in made-up games with her sisters and in the garden.  At weekends we do our best to get outside to explore new places and introduce the girls to new experiences.  To me, that is all that’s required.  Certainly no need for any revision.

Last week Lola came out of school super-excited and vigorously waved a letter under my nose which had big letters saying ‘TOP SECRET’ across it in bright red ink.  She was falling over her words trying to tell me that she was going to be doing some kind of secret agent training and that it was going to be so much fun and how she couldn’t wait to get started.  When I eventually managed to prise letter out of her fingers, this is what it said:

“Next week Year 2 will be in ‘Secret Agent Training’.  They will be sitting some tests as part of their Secret Agent Training.  They will carry out lots of training combined with teamwork to complete the mission.  Please make sure all Secret Agents have a good night’s sleep and are fuelled in the morning ready for their training”

(Note: ‘Secret Agent Training is an acronym for SATs – it took me a minute to figure it out when I first read the letter!)

Let me be clear here – I love the school that the girls go to.  It’s absolutely brilliant in many, many ways and all the teachers work damn hard to make sure the children are happy and healthy and learning what they are supposed to be.  But it’s that last part that’s causing the problem.  ‘Learning what they are supposed to be’.  The new curriculum means that every school gets set virtually impossible standards to attain and scores to achieve and those standards inevitably get passed down to the children.   Everyone is doing their absolute best, but as I said earlier, it feels very different this time – there is an air of expectation, of pressure, of urgency.  It seems to be a much bigger thing this year than in previous years.  And I don’t agree with that.

Lola was so excited all weekend about this secret agent training. She thought she was going to be playing all week at school instead of working.  I was unsure as to whether to correct her or just let her get on with it and see for herself.  In the end I tried to gently let her know that she’d still be working but hopefully there would be some fun stuff too.

Thankfully, I needn’t have worried – Lola’s class have had a ‘quiz’ (ie: SATs test) to do each day (under exam conditions as far as I’m aware – desks in rows, no talking etc) and then the rest of the time they’ve been solving clues and puzzles and, quite literally, playing at being secret agents on a top secret mission (even I don’t know what the mission is!).  So her teacher and the school as a whole have generally got it sussed and are handling it really well – she has no clue that she’s being tested on anything (or if she does, she’s not bothered by it in the slightest) and she’s having a brilliant time doing different stuff at school to what she would normally be doing.  So hopefully she’ll come out of it unscathed.  I hope the rest of her classmates do too.  Ages six and seven just seems far too young for tests.

Ella (age 10 and a half) is very aware that she will be doing her Year 6 SATs this time next year.  She’s been watching with interest the pupils in the class above her going through it last week and so far she doesn’t seem too worried about it at all which I guess is a good thing. She knows what test they sat on which day and what each test involves.  I hope she remains as calm and open minded about it this time next year as she is now, and I hope I can help her see it as an opportunity to show what she knows rather than it being something to be scared of or that she has to achieve a perfect score in.  She brought home a letter about an assessment day for a local grammar school and, after a quick discussion with the husband to make sure we were both on the same page with this, I put it straight in the recycling bin.  We both firmly believe that it’s the work that our girls put into their education that will help them get to where they want to be, not which school they go to, and we explained as much to Ella who seemed to take it on board.

Add into the mix the fact that this time next year the teenager will be beginning her GCSE exams as well and I have to admit I’m not really looking forward to Spring 2018.  I’ll absolutely be encouraging the girls to work hard and persevere and do the best they can with what they’ve got.  And at the same time I’ll be encouraging them to practice self care, to prioritise time to do stuff they love, and to understand that the results of these tests and exams don’t mean anything whatsoever about who they are as a person.

Because SATS tests and GCSEs can’t test how kind you are.  Or how creative you are.  Or how comforting your cuddles are to your little sister when she’s upset.  They can’t test your optimism, or your ambition, or the courage you can summon up when it comes to doing something that scares you.  They can’t test your infinite energy or your ability to take something apart and put it back together again purely because of your desire to know exactly how it works.  They can’t test how much you think of other people’s feelings and how carefully you word your responses so as to help them feel good about themselves.  They can’t test how much love you have to give and how big your heart is.

And really, when it comes down to it, those are the most important, meaningful things aren’t they?  Those are the things that make you who you are.  And those are the things that will shape who you become and how you interpret the world around you and help you decide which path you want to take.

I would love to find out everyone’s thoughts on this.  Do you agree with me that exam conditions at age six/seven is too much too young?  Or do you think that testing them at this age is a good thing because it prepares them for what’s to come later in their education journey?  I’m very open to hearing differing opinions on this topic – just as our children are all unique, so are we as people and in our parenting values.  So please do feel free to leave your comments below, staying mindful of respecting those who’s thoughts differ from your own (please and thank you!).

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1 Comment

  • Reply May 17, 2017


    Another wonderful post, Chloe. Firstly, I hope Lola (and you) get through the SATs with as little stress as possible. Unfortunately, whether we agree with them or not, they are part of educational life for our children and as parents we need to guide them through it in whatever way is best for them. It’s really hard to see our children experience pressure to perform, stress and anxiety, but sadly the constant assessments and examinations they will experience throughout their childhood, teens and even into their twenties if they opt for university are unavoidable. I have been through SATs, GCSEs and A levels with my daughter and she has just completed her first year at university and each of these presented a very different experience for her. I agree 6 and 7 seems very young to be revising and taking exams but I think the school are really doing the best they can to make it seem like fun and putting a quirky twist on it. For both her year 2 SATs my daughter had some little work books which she loved to complete (used to pretend she was playing schools!) and she used to ‘practise’ rather than revise for her year 6 SATs too. This was driven by her and she was never put under any pressure from her Dad or I. GCSEs and A levels are obviously very different. If you want to achieve your best, it’s necessary to revise as well as completing set work and I spent many an hour helping her revise. She used to create colourful lists, mind maps and revision cards and I would ensure I could help test her when she wanted me to. She was always self motivated to do her best (which is all her Dad and I ever asked of her) and we never had to nag her to complete her work or to study but if you have a more reticent child I imagine it’s difficult to know just how much nudging and encouraging to do. Her first year at university has been a very different experience for me as well as her. She is now self sufficient and responsible for her own studying and deadlines and, with the exception of proof reading an essay for her, I have had no knowledge of her day to day studies. All I do know is that she managed her time well and planned carefully to ensure all her deadlines, including her final submissions, were met. This skill is perhaps one of the positives we can draw from all the educational tests; the appreciation of what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and how best to manage your time efficiently, prioritising- all useful life skills. I agree totally with what you said about there being no way to measure your child’s kindness, empathy, sensitivity and nuturing skills and these are what make them into the wonderful adults we hope they will become. I was incredibly lucky with my daughter. Yes, she experienced some anxiety when taking exams (self inflicted by her desire to do well rather than pressure from her Dad and I) but she learnt to cope with the pressure and did amazingly well, we are so proud of all she achieves but more importantly for us is the young woman she has become. She has always been a kind, loving and intuitive little girl and she is developing into a truly caring and compassionate adult. She is the one to lend a hand to her friends, reassure them when they are worried, provide a shoulder and a sympathetic ear when they are needed and give the best hugs and wisest advice. These qualities are what define her, not her qualifications, and her kind and loving nature are what make us most proud. Your girls have the most wonderful Mum looking out for them, who appreciates what is really important, and who creates the most special adventures and memories. They know that you will support and guide them and this security will let them thrive and flourish

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