“Miss? I can’t do this test in silence ‘coz my stomach’s rumbling like a washin’ machine. It’s gunna put people off their tests Miss”.
It was the early 2000s and my first experience as a Year 6 teacher. My class and I had worked so hard all year for this week, the notorious mid-May climax where all our hard work was about to pay off and they would smash through their papers with confidence and skill. As a (very) new teacher, it had not even crossed my mind that some of the little people sat in front of me would not have had breakfast; they would not have been dropped off through the school gates having had a confidence-boosting chat with their parents and a full tummy. I was handing out the “Magic SATs pencils” (we all have these, right?) when that one comment from a straight-talking young man, let’s call him Joe, caught me completely off guard and stopped me in my tracks. It hadn’t crossed my mind for a second that some of my pupils would begin their SATs week in this way, and I promised myself on the spot that I would never be that naïve again. I had a chat with our Headteacher, and for the rest of that week we delayed the tests for an hour each day so all the children could come in for a hot breakfast and a chance to get into the right frame of mind before they put pen to paper. Joe started his test will a full tummy that day, and indeed for rest of that year, and I never made that mistake again.
As another academic year rolls round to May again, it’s inevitable that our profession turns our attention to how best to support our children through their statutory assessments. With many years under my belt now, from Y6 teacher to Headteacher, here are a few of my top tips for leading your children through their SATs in a climate of compassion, whilst being a beacon of positivity for the school community that you serve.
1. Pay attention to Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’.
We need to make sure our pupils are physiologically regulated and feel safe and secure in their environment in order that the frontal lobes of their brain (the cortex) can switch to focusing on the test papers. I always find a team breakfast helps to set the day off to a positive start, followed by some quick-fire revision games with their familiar teachers and support staff.
2. Cognitive Science and retrieval practice
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) publish lots of research and peer-reviewed evidence on emerging trends in education that are rooted in research. In the lead up to SATs, Cognitive Science comes into its own, particularly in terms of ‘retrieval practice’. I always think of this as the dark art of rummaging through one’s brain to get to the key information we need to answer quick fire questions, away from the point at which we’ve just learned them, or in short… SATs! Here you will find some interesting data that reviews the evidence of this, and other aspects of Cognitive Science and its place in the primary classroom.
3. Familiarity, signs of safety and Context Dependent Memory
I always try, where possible, to have the pupils take the tests in the classrooms that they are most familiar with. This helps foster a sense of familiarity and comfort. Even with displays covered up, the human brain has a remarkable ability to ‘picture’ what is behind the poster paper. Anna, L. Ostendorf et al (2020) are a group of researchers who, along with many others over recent decades, looked at the impact of something called ‘Context Dependent Memory’ (CDM). This is the idea that familiar locations, sights, smells and sounds all contribute to a school-aged child’s ability to remember information; these ‘contexts’ are known as mnemonic cues and are believed to be helpful in retrieving memories and information from long term memory. Very useful in a test situation, and relatively easy to organise from a practical perspective in school.
4. Being mindful of ‘high stakes’ language
Take away the ‘high stakes’ language that sometimes accompanies Year 6 throughout their SATs year. In fact, referring to it as a ‘SATs year’ is a problem in itself. The year is so much more than this; it is a rite of passage from one chapter of education into another. It’s often a year of hormones and navigating the ebbs and flows of friendships. It’s a year that is geared towards personal growth and self-esteem building in readiness for Secondary school. I often find that sending this message loud and clear to children (and their families) is helpful in reducing anxieties about one week of test papers, that make very little difference to them as individuals as they move towards more formal qualifications in Secondary and into future careers. Will they remember their ‘scaled score’ for Maths Paper 2 when they’re 40? Probably not. Will you? Don’t get me wrong, I do think there is a place for SATs and I encourage all my staff and pupils to work hard, try their best and approach everything with a positive mindset. Most importantly though, I make sure they all know that if they do all three of those things then I will be happy, regardless of the outcome. Relationships with my staff and pupils are not conditional based on an arbitrary percentage, I choose to place greater emphasis on their effort, mindset and values. When children feel that sense of belonging and esteem, they are far more likely to feel less anxious and therefore perform to their best. We’re back to Maslow again!
Like many things in life and in schools, “this too shall pass”. As I reflect on the many years of administering SATs, I firmly believe that a teacher or school leader who can remain a steady presence, who can emit a positive energy, who can personally meet and greet the Year 6s with a genuine smile, who plans ahead to ensure the children are as comfortable as possible is the most powerful tool in our armoury. That’s our kryptonite. Be that person.
Oh! And don’t forget, we don’t want any tummies “rumbling like a washin’ machine”.
Amy Husband – Head Teacher; School Improvement Partner’ Inspire Ed Trust; ELE – Staffordshire Research School; Member of Gateway Alliance SENCo Planning Team.