Personally Speaking

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EARLIER THIS year, an unlikely title hit the bestseller lists - the Sats test papers. I was one of the parents who just couldn't resist - well, they were on special offer (buy two, get one free) and they promised to ensure that my daughter wouldn't freak out at the sight of the real thing and would be able to keep her mind on the questions for the required time. I probably should have known better - after all, she is only seven.

It's all a far cry from the first Sats eight years ago when her brother, now 14, was in the vanguard of the test-takers. In those days, the notion of preparing children for the tests never entered anyone's head; the general feeling was that the children shouldn't be aware they were being tested in case it stressed them out. Now parents get prepared, too: in February, Alice's school held a meeting to look at old papers and exhort us not to get too serious about the whole thing (fat chance).

So while my son had no inkling of taking tests with results that might matter, my daughter and her classmates come over all drama-queenish if you mention the S-word. Some developed tummy aches on Sats days; some even refused to come to school; one little girl burst into tears in the middle of the first paper. If it's like this in a primary that takes a decidedly low-key approach to the tests, what must it be like in schools that coach their pupils for months before?

There's no doubt that the process of testing has got quicker and less cumbersome - no more making waterproof sun hats out of Safeways carrier bags, which my son had to do. I used to feel incensed that huge swathes of time that could have been spent learning something useful were being wasted on tests that seemed chaotic, pointless and made the teachers even more frazzled than usual. Tasks that were meant to be tested in groups - such as floating and sinking, and making Plasticene boats - had to be done individually, which made organising a class of 30-plus a logistical nightmare.

That practical element - eventually dropped - gave the early testing an informality that couldn't be more different from these latest tests, with seven year-olds sitting at tables silently working through official booklets. Sadly, one thing hasn't changed - the competitiveness between parents when the results come out. I know it's wrong but this year I'm as keen to know what the cleverest boy in the class got as how Alice herself did.

It can be highly reassuring to have some measure of your child's progress, but this unavoidable competitiveness - between parents, between schools vying for a prime position in the league tables, and even between children - surely isn't progress.

So I can't help feeling a bit nervy about the results. Of course I want Alice to have done well, but her Sats results are as much a test of her school as of her, and I don't want to question my conviction that it's the best place for her. Most of all, I don't want her to feel any sense of failure at the age of seven - something that just wasn't on the cards for her elder brother.