A survival guide for Year Sixes preparing for their SATs (from an autistic teacher)
There are so many advice articles out there for parents. This one’s for children.
In particular, this is for the thousands of Year Six children who are about to take their end-of-primary-school SATs tests. You know, the tests that are famous for causing enormous amounts of stress for teachers, headteachers, parents, and (worst of all) ten and eleven-year-old children.
So, as a former primary school teacher who’s guided children of so many differing backgrounds, abilities, confidence levels etc through their SATs (and managed to keep them in one piece), I thought I’d give these children some advice.
(Before I begin, I’d also like to thank the parents on Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community [all links open in new windows] for the discussions in preparation for writing this. Their insights were very useful in writing this.)
An open letter to all Year Sixes preparing for their SATs
Dear Year Sixes,
Ok, let’s all be honest here.
SATs absolutely suck. You know it, your classmates know it, your parents know it. Secretly, your teachers know it too.
But I’m not here to turn you against SATs. That wouldn’t be helpful to you at all. Instead I’m going to offer you some positive advice, as someone who has led Year Six classes through SATs (and been through them himself), and probably feels the same about them as you do.
To start with, I’ll give you a quick list of what SATs are, and what SATs are not.
- An opportunity to practise for real exams later on in life (because SATs are not real exams. And it’s unfair that some children are told they are).
- An opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to your primary school before you leave, by showing how well they taught you.
- For children who are talented with tests, SATs are an opportunity to show how awesome you are at taking them.
- For children who struggle with tests, SATs are an opportunity to show how awesome you are at facing the things you don’t like!
SATs are not:
- Something worth wasting months of your life being scared of.
- Something that will have any impact on your GCSEs. (I know a Year Six who’s actually been told this. It’s pure rubbish.)
- Something that will decide what kind of job you have in the future.
- So dangerous that the Earth will be invaded by clown-faced aliens with broccoli-loaded machineguns unless you “meet expectations”.
I hope that clears a few things up. Because as a former teacher (who now works with children who have learning difficulties), I have seen far too many children worry far too much about SATs.
I’ve worked with children who struggled with their school subjects, but felt that SATs were some kind of epic showdown to primary school that must be passed.
I’ve worked with children who didn’t struggle in school at all, and felt pressurised by adults to get extremely high marks. That can be awful too.
I’ve worked with children who spent years feeling afraid of normal tests, so when they got to SATs it felt like some kind of scary ‘final boss level’.
I’ve also worked with children who weren’t afraid of tests at all. But they were afraid of SATs because they were basically told to be nervous.
(Oh, and in case you missed the title of this article, I’m autistic. A bunch of the children reading this might be autistic too, so give yourself a high five from me. I know what it’s like to face questions that are written in confusing ways, just because the people who write the questions think differently to us. Not to mention all the other challenges. I’ve been there, done that, and here’s some advice for you as you grow up!)
Anyway, let’s move on.
I’m a big fan of countdown lists. For some reason, I always have been. So I wrote one for you!
Top Five Things You Really Need To Know About SATs
5: Teachers don’t like SATs either!
I was pretty honest about this when I was a teacher. The rest of the staff were as well. Maybe that’s a reason why our pupils weren’t particularly stressed.
You may have heard people say “SATs are for the school, not for you”, and that’s entirely true. The whole point in SATS is to show how good the school is at teaching, not how good the children are at learning.
But even headteachers have bosses. And between you and me, they’re usually people in the government who have never had a job in a school. And for a long time now, most of these people have been far more interested in test results than anything else that happens in a school.
So if a school takes good care of its children, fills them with confidence, teaches them life skills and gives them a love of learning – but they don’t do well in their SATs, the government thinks the school is rubbish. (And if a school doesn’t do any of those good things but their SATs results are great, the government will think the school is perfect.)
Teachers hate SATs, but they depend on their pupils to get good results. It’s an unpleasant position to be in (and believe me, I’ve been there).
4: Secondary schools don’t just use SATs results.
I’ve often told children that SATs are only for the school. But some of them have answered with “they are for us! They decide which tiers we go to in secondary school!”
Personally, I think preparing for secondary school is enough of a challenge by itself. SATs should not add to it.
I’d like to let you know something important: any secondary school with half-decent teachers will use more than just your SATs results. They will try to get to know you as well as possible before you start. They will try to get a picture of who you are as a person, as well as knowing your strengths and your targets.
No good teacher would look at a list of children labelled as ‘emerging’, ‘meeting expectations’ and ‘exceeding expectations’, and then think “yep, this tells me everything I need to know about these kids, ever!” Teachers are smarter than that. (Most of them, anyway.)
And yes, a lot of secondary schools use SATs results to decide on tiers. But do you know how quickly those tiers can change? By the time Christmas is over in Year Seven, SATs results are usually ignored.
3: SATS shouldn’t put you off reading and writing for fun.
A lot of people are afraid that in twenty years, we won’t have as many famous authors. Why? Because too many schools are teaching the strict rules of reading and writing, rather than teaching children to love reading and writing.
And believe me, good stories are not written by following strict rules.
Oh no- I just started a sentence with the word ‘and’! I guess that means I don’t know the Laws of Writing very well, which means I won’t be able to write awesome stories for my younger cousins, or get two A grades in GCSE English, or an A-Level in English Literature, or publish my own book complete with a photo of me inside it, and I can’t possibly be a few months away from getting an actual Masters degree in creative writing.
(In reality, all of the above has happened to me in real life. I’m just hugely sarcastic.)
The more books you read, the more you’ll learn that successful writers aren’t very keen on following ‘The Rules’. They’re successful because they love writing stories, they create awesome characters, and they’re good at building their own worlds and helping readers to imagine them.
They’re not successful because of their appropriate use of subjunctive clauses, determiners, indefinite articles, and sticky toffee prepositional reflexology. (I completely invented that last one, by the way. Please don’t memorise it for the test.)
My advice as a writer? (In fact, a writer who’s actually published a book and sold over a thousand copies of it?) Study the grammar, learn the rules, do the tests… and once SATs are over, just write for fun. Read books by authors who write good stories, not authors who follow all the correct grammatical rules. Write stories that you would love to read, not ones that have all their clauses in a row or whatever.
2: It’s not worth feeling miserable about yourself. It’s just not.
Up in Nottingham where I live, I know a boy in Year Seven. He goes to a posh grammar school, because he was clever enough to pass his ‘eleven plus’ tests. He is ridiculously clever (in a good way of course). But in Year Six, he thought he was stupid. Because he struggled horribly with the grammar tests and was terrified of failing.
Think about it – this is a smart lad who had passed a grammar school test, but thought he was stupid because of a SATs test that even his teachers found difficult.
Down in Devon, I know a boy in Year Six who has exactly the same story. I could just copy and paste the paragraph above and it would suit him too. In fact, there are a whole load of smart children who are being made to think they’re not good enough. And that’s not fair.
If this is how some grammar school kids feel, I can barely imagine how it feels if you struggle at school. I once taught a boy in Year Five who had dyscalculia (which meant he struggled with numbers). Another boy had dyslexia – he was the most spectacular scientist I had ever known, but not good at tests. At the age of ten he had the brain of a teenager, but the writing skills of an infant. Even though he tried his best.
I’ll never forget sitting down with those boys at the end of the year, and telling them not to take their SATs results too seriously. Throughout their school lives, no test they take will ever give them a result that truly shows how intelligent they are. There’s a big difference between having a brilliant mind, and being brilliant at taking tests.
(Oh, and if a child with special needs or learning difficulties makes HUGE leaps forward with their education, it’s pretty offensive to say they’re “not meeting expectations” just because they get less than 100 points. Those kids are heroes and deserve to be congratulated for their achievements.)
Whether you struggle at school or not – whether you’re like those grammar school kids or the ones that find tests too difficult – you’re not alone in feeling stressed out by them. And it’s absolutely not worth it. Because this leads perfectly into the most important point…
1: Most importantly, SATs are no true measure of who you are.
Here’s a quick list of the things that are measured by SATs tests:
- Reading skills.
- Writing skills.
- Maths skills.
- Ability to take tests.
Here’s a list of some of the things not measured by SATs tests:
- Every single school subject ever, except English and maths.
- Your bravery in facing things you don’t like.
- Practical skills (building things etc.)
- How good you are at caring for other people.
- Strength of character.
- Your ability to come up with awesome ideas.
- How proud people are of you.
- How proud you deserve to be about yourself.
In the run-up to SATs, I’m sure you’re trying to cram as much information into your head as possible.
In my professional opinion as a former Year Six teacher, those five facts in the countdown are the most important things to keep in your brain.
And to finish, here are ten tips to deal with SATs stress!
- Listen to music. Music’s always awesome.
- Read a book- just for fun!
- Draw pictures which describe your feelings. I did this right into adulthood.
- Have a hug with someone.
- Design and make a board game. At your age I designed half a dozen of them and it was so much fun.
- Make something in the kitchen. Whether it’s a full meal or a plate of brownies. Cooking’s a useful skill to know for the future, and for bonus points you get to eat something afterwards.
- Play a sport. It’s a huge stress relief when you get out your energy by exercising.
- Playing videogames can help. But only if you have the self-discipline to set yourself a time limit and stick to it.
- Spend time with friends. Especially friends who are also doing their SATs this year.
- Try to say the word “bubbles” in your angriest voice. Trust me, it’s hilarious.
I wish all of you all the best in May. Work hard and do your best, but don’t let this become the most important thing in your life. Because let’s face it- it’s not.
All the best,
Chris (Mr Bonnello)
A quick note to parents of Year Six children
In my understanding, it is possible to withdraw your children from SATs tests. In most cases, this is done when a child with special needs would find the SATs tests inaccessible. But I believe – in theory – it is possible for any child.
If you believe that your school is pressurising your child to the extent that it threatens their mental health, it may be worth gently mentioning this fact to the teachers. If they are relying on your child to bring the grades up, you may be surprised how quickly they adapt their approach. Most schools would not need a reminder like that, but at the very least it’s useful to know.
But with that said, a little compassion for the teachers will go a long way. Although I’ve known plenty of Year Six teachers who have seen SATs as “a necessary evil” (because schools do need to be accountable for pupil progress), I have never met a Year Six teacher who actually likes them. And when you go into teaching for the kids, it’s painful to see them feeling stressed – especially with the little voice in the back of your head telling you you’re responsible for it.
If you discuss SATs stress with your child’s teacher, be honest and open about how it’s affecting your child. But at the same time, remember that SATs may be affecting them too.
Reading an article like this, it may be easy to work out why I left teaching. I cared deeply about the people, but found teaching to be a lifestyle choice rather than a job. Since leaving the profession, Autistic Not Weird is becoming an emerging job for me (thanks to speaking events, training sessions, etc). It’s not exactly a full-time wage, but if anybody wants to dig deeper into the community and support me in exchange for various perks, have a look at the Patreon page and see if any of the rewards appeal to you.
I wish you and your children all the very best in the coming weeks. And whatever you do to celebrate when it’s over, I hope it’s awesome.
Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk
Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
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