Voices: Stressed and crying about exams – at primary school. This is not the childhood I want my kids to remember

·4-min read
The effect of stress upon our children should not be underestimated (Getty Images)
The effect of stress upon our children should not be underestimated (Getty Images)

“SATs tomorrow! You are great and will do amazing (sic). It’s just a few silly tests and it’s all over. You will have worked really hard and get lots of treats. Don’t stress, worry or overthink anything. Just do your best and that’s it.”

Sound like an Instagram quote – or something a life coach might trot out to comfort and soothe people who are worried about taking a leap to a new job, or choosing a career break, or taking their university finals? You’re right. It does. Only... the author is my daughter. And she’s 11.

She’s talking about SATs (or standard assessment tests), and she’s at primary school. Incongruous as it may be, given her age and (you’d think) relatively minor stress levels, she’s been in tears and had tummy aches for weeks, worried about the exams that mark the end of primary school. In England, they are rolled out in year 6 and year 2 to children in state education, as a measurement of their progress. I forgot to mention that I also have a son, who’s six. That means that this week, both of my children are doing them.

And they’re not faring well – yes, despite the fact that I’ve put precisely zero pressure on them, because I personally think the tests are nonsense. They’re a way for one school to measure themselves against the academic achievement of another; for the government to grade the quality of the education being provided by local councils. They’re not “for” the kids at all.

They’re a form of assessment that is, effectively, unrelated to the children’s attainment or success, and the only conclusive argument about them as far as I can see it is that they are a terrific source of stress. If I could withdraw my children from taking them altogether, I would.

I take a similar stance on homework – though it doesn’t win me any favours with school staff. At a recent parents’ evening, the year 2 teacher enquired gently as to why my son wasn’t doing any, and reported that he usually says he “forgot”. But that’s not the truth: the truth is that I don’t believe in it.

Not only do certain statistics show homework has zero negative effect on primary school aged kids, but it has no positive effect, either. It simply has no benefit (other than to stress out my kids and their – ahem – very busy working mother).

Other studies have shown it has a downright negative impact, and still more that it has a positive effect only under certain conditions – and only if they’re over 12.

Baffled? Me too. The obvious answer, in my opinion? Don’t do it. Because it’s a complete waste of time. My kids spend all day at school, and they’re little. When they’re home they need to decompress... and so do I. (And Kirstie Allsopp agrees with me, so there).

The effect on stress upon our children should not be underestimated: one study found that primary school children are almost as stressed over exams as GCSE pupils. Apparently, alongside a third (33 per cent) of parents saying their child feels stressed by exams, two in five parents (40 per cent) of pupils aged between five and 11 feel there is too much pressure on their children to perform well in them.

I agree with those parents. How else would you expect me to feel when my six-year-old clasps my face between his hands at bedtime and sternly – lovingly – speaks like an adult when I tell him I’m nervous about a work event: “Mama, you go in there and you get it done. You just focus and you get it done.”

It’s not usual for him to speak this way – he’s more inclined to chant a made-up spell or describe the complicated frill of a Dilophosaurus. What he’s doing is SATs speak – and I don’t like it one bit.

My daughter, whose SATs results will be used solely to enable her high school teachers to place her in a preliminary stream for maths and English next September (which they can of course change anyway), can’t see it that way. Instead, she’s anxious and withdrawn; easily moved to tears. She cried this morning because she couldn’t find her school shoes. It’s no coincidence that it’s day one of SATs today, too: SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar).

My little girl has a note to herself now on her bedroom door: “Believe in yourself and you will be unstoppable”. She’s right. But we need to help our kids believe it – and exam pressure is not going to help with that.