RiverTribe’s parenting guru, Dr Virginia Morris, remembers the stress of primary school tests and takes a look at modern Standard Assessment Tests, explaining what they mean for your child.


I still remember waiting for the test results as a young pupil. Names were called in order of achievement; the teacher’s eyes shone with warmth at first, then as they moved lower down the list, that warmth turned to daggers accompanied by the test paper penned in red ink, with the words ‘See me’ written at the bottom. 

Today the tests that primary school children take are compulsory and are called Standard Assessment Tests (SATs). Each May, children across Britain do these at the end of Year 2 (6-7 years old – Key Stage 1) and at the end of Year 6 (10-11 years old – Key Stage 2). Children are assessed in the areas of English and Maths. 

Do these tests matter? The results are used to hold schools to account for the retention of their pupils and the progress they make; and measured by comparing the results of the tests taken in Year 2 with those taken in Year 6. The results of the tests taken in Year 6 are also published each year in primary school league tables produced by the Department for Education. In addition, SATs are part of the picture when it comes to secondary schools deciding how to design lessons for their new Year 7s, especially if a school streams its children by ability.

Nevertheless, SATs are controversial because some say that they put children under too much stress. The YouGov survey for the campaign group ‘More Than A Score’ (a coalition of parents, teachers, heads and education experts) found that 63% of parents of 7 to 14-year-olds felt children were under too much pressure, with nearly half saying their child has been anxious about taking SATs. A separate poll for cereal company Kellogg’s found that 40% of pupils said their biggest worry about the tests was letting down their parents. More than one in five children said SATs stress meant they no longer enjoyed learning.

Much of the pressure comes from how the school, teachers and parents handle matters. High SATs scores generally equate to school popularity and a noted Ofsted rating. This has led some education establishments to manipulate figures in SATs tests to boost their results, drum extra revision lessons into children who are less able, and to oust children with special education needs from their schools. Consequently, critics say that the tests encourage competition between schools in local areas and can lead to middle-class parents pushing to get their children into top schools. This in turn further drives down standards at less popular schools.

Ministers say the tests help push up standards by providing valuable information for parents and increasing local accountability. Research carried out by Bristol University suggested the abolition of league tables in Wales in 2001 had led to a drop in standards in about 75% of schools.

Although there are no plans to scrap SATs altogether, there is now an initiative from various pressure groups to put a new measure in place; one which takes into account extra-curricular activities on offer such as sport and drama, as well as teaching ability, learning and details about a school’s pastoral care system. 

Fortunately, exam pressure has moved on from my experience in the 1970s, when individual test results were displayed more publically. Nonetheless, some type of exam pressure will become a fact of life and children need to be prepared for this. If you are concerned by the impact of tests on your child, there is no substitute for visiting a school to which you are interested in sending your child, or talking to teachers and parents of your present school. Ask how how testing is administered, what advice they give to parents to aid their child, and how they help their pupils through exam pressure.