The introduction of tougher SATs for six year olds has proven to be so contentious that many parents took their children out of school, but were they right to do so? They may have been protecting them from pressure, but we like in a competitive world and our educational standards are way below those achieved in many other parts of the world, especially Far Eastern nations.
Here we look at SATs and why they are important; how our kids perform compared with other nations, and how we as parents can help them given that educational requirements are going to get even harder.

What are SATS?
SATS are “Standard Assessment Tests” which children will need to take at various phases of the education. Following recent legislation SATS will be set at the end of years 2, 6 and 9, which means that 6 and 7 year-old children will take them.

SATS are broken down into “Key stages”:
• Key Stage 1 – this takes place in May of year 2. It involves basic skills such as reading, writing, maths and science. The test involves pupils being set short pieces of work and their performance is assessed by the teacher.
• Key Stage 2 – held in May of year 6, they cover English, Maths and Science. Formal exams are taken and are sent away for assessment.
• Key stage 3 – held in May of year 9, they cover English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, Languages, Design & Technology; ICT, Art, Music, PE, and RE.

The introduction of SATS for year 2 has proven to be highly controversial amongst parents, teachers, politicians and other educational experts, and later we will look at the how opinions have been split, but first we will look at what SATS are supposed to show.

Essentially, SATS are supposed to demonstrate the progress of children who are born in the same month. The results are transposed to ensure that their mean is 100 and their standard deviation is 15. There are nine levels of achievement which range from level W (weak) and then through levels 1 to 8, though level 8 is only achievable in maths. Individual levels are also subdivided into three bands: a, b and c.

Why do SATS matter?
If you are interested in your children’s education, it is important that you take SATS seriously, particularly Key Stage 3, though the other Key Stages are also important. Key Stage 3 results are used to determine the GCSE set your children will be placed in, and this can have a big impact on their final GCSE results. For secondary schools that stream children, the stream in which they are placed usually depends on their Key Stage 2 results.

Why are SATS Key Stage 1 controversial?
You must have read the headlines such as “Parents keep children off school in test protest” and perhaps you were personally involved in some of the protests. The main objections to SATS for 6 and 7 years old is that children are becoming over-tested and over-worked and that SATs encourage a school system that places a greater importance on “test results and league tables than children's happiness and joy of learning".

Those who support SATS take a different view. For instance, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief of Ofsted, argues that they are important to achieve social mobility by ensuring that children don’t fall behind, and that it is important that those who are protesting about SATs “consider England's mediocre position in the OECD education rankings”.

What are OECD education rankings?
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) rankings compare educational standards across the developed world, and they don’t look particularly good for the UK who are ranked in 26th position for maths out of a total of 65 and 23rd for reading. The UK overall ranking is in 20th place which to be fair is better than many other European countries and significantly better than the US which is 28th.

In fact, the league tables are dominated by East Asian nations and in particular China, Singapore and Korea. Various politicians as well as groups of teachers from the UK who have visited schools in China report back that the students there are typically three years ahead of UK children.

Should we care?
Absolutely we should care, and at many levels. There is a strong link between the level of education and economic growth. In the UK around 20% of children leave school with achieving even a basic level of education, and according to the OECD just reducing this and improving the skills level of our kids could boost our economy by trillions of dollars.

And it’s not only our economy that would benefit. If our children are to compete on an increasingly global stage, they need to achieve similar levels of educational standards to those from the countries at the head of the league tables.

How do we do that?
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD Education Director, said that the difference is that in an Asian classroom you would find teachers who expect every pupil to be successful. Such countries attract the best teachers in the most challenging classrooms, with every child having access to excellent teaching.

Are Asian teachers really so much better than those in the UK?
We don’t believe this to be the case. Teachers seem to get blamed for all the problems in education and rarely get praise for the achievements. Perhaps Asian teachers are an exception, but really there are good and bad teachers everywhere; all of us must have come across both kinds.

But there are significant differences between Asian and UK education systems, which is why for instance Chinese students consistently score so highly in international assessments.

Chinese Education System
The Chinese education system is tough on both pupils and teachers. While in China many children aged 6 and under attend nursery school, compulsory education doesn’t start until 6, and primary education in China lasts for 6 years compared to 7 years in the UK. But when they do start school Chinese children face long school days and strict discipline. School days last for 12 hours during which there are two meal breaks; there is a focus on rote learning with much copying from board; and the testing regime is severe. If you are one of the parents who thinks that SATs places too much pressure on your children, consider that Chinese children are presented with tests that last for 9 hours, and they are expected to do well at them; and of course they do.

But is all that pressure and rote learning good for them? Many people think that it isn’t. The children are great at passing tests, but there are many critics both inside and outside China who believe that they don’t receive the kind of rounded education that is available to UK children.

How parents can help
Few, if any, of us will wish to emulate the kind of educational regimes practiced in China. We don’t want our children to be turned into test passing robots unable to think for themselves, but on the other hand want them to do well at school and achieve good results.

The problem that many parents must confront is that tests and exams are more difficult than when they were at school. Even some SATs questions stump many parents, and when it comes to some of the more up to date subjects such as ICT, some parents haven’t a clue.

ICT and SATs
Over recent years there has been a revolution in ICT teaching. Not only do schoolchildren need to have a good working knowledge of programs such as MS office, Word, and Excel, and of course the Internet, they are also required to know how to code, in other words to write computer programs.

The new requirements for Key stage 1 (6 to 7 year olds) include:
• Understand about algorithms and how they are used to create computer programs
• Write and debug simple computer programs
• Predict the behaviour of simple computer programs using logical reasoning
And that is just Key Stage 1. The problem is that, unless we as parents are able to understand these topics, we are going to find it almost impossible to help our children with them.

Your next step
If you are going to be able to help your children get through, it is clear that you will need to develop these skills yourself. If you don’t have them, then it is vitally important that you get trained up in them too. A cost effective way to get yourself trained up is by using online based training courses available from places such as Start learning to use software such as MS office, Word, and Excel mentioned above; and once you have these under your belt you can think about moving on to more advanced training courses; you might even find you enjoy it!

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