SATs strike: Teachers turn blind eye to absences as thousands of children miss school in protest

Over 45,000 teachers and parents have signed a petition to boycott new curriculum tests for six and seven year olds in schools

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The Independent Online

Thousands of absences were overlooked by headteachers as parents took their children out of school in protest over tough new exams.

A nationwide protest led by the campaign group, Let Our Kids Be Kids, was supported by school leaders after more than 45,000 people signed a petition calling for a boycott of national primary school tests set for this month. 

Parents of the primary school children argue the new examinations set for Year 2 pupils in particular are “inappropriately complex” and place too much pressure on children.

While parents can face fines of £120 for taking a child out of school without permission, several teachers have spoken out in support of the one-day strike, during which families took part in “fun outdoor learning” activities such as nature trails, picnics and art workshops.

At the National Association of Head Teachers' (NAHT) conference in Birmingham last weekend, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the campaign was “damaging”.

“Keeping children home – even for a day is harmful to their education and I think it undermines how hard you as heads are working. I urge those running these campaigns to reconsider their actions,” she said.

But the school leaders’ union said almost all primary school leaders in the country believed the government’s testing regime to be “chaotic and distracting”, adding that the exams had become “little more than a box ticking exercise for bureaucrats”. 

A NAHT spokesperson said: “It’s clear that parents are upset with SATs this year… at best they’re a snapshot of a child’s ability on one day.

“What parents and teachers favour instead is a 'little and often' approach to tests. Let's not forget that these children can be as young as six and ten.

“The government likes SATs because they allow them to rank schools against each other. Many parents don’t really value this kind of information, especially when choosing a school for their kids.”

According to campaigners, around 500 separate protests took place across England on Tuesday, with more than 200 educational events organised for parents and children to take part in.

One teacher said that 39 per cent of children at Skerton St. Luke’s school in Lancaster had taken part in the strike action. Another school in the area was reported to have taken all of its pupils for a day outside as part of an emphasis for increasing creative learning.

Schools in Brighton and parts of London also reported high numbers of absences on Tuesday, while other areas of the country were said to be “unaffected” by the day’s protests.

In Brighton, children’s laureate Chris Riddell addressed hundreds of families at a large public demonstration in Preston Park. Mr Riddell criticised the Education Secretary's claims that parents were irresponsible to take their children out of school, adding that teaching children to question government policy was “an important lesson”.

“My feeling is there should be more trust in teachers and their ability to assess children at this age, rather than through testing,” he said. “The children are being put under undue stress and my argument is what is the value of what comes from this testing. I think it is questionable.”

Parents have complained that Year 2 classes in England about to sit their first exams have had two years of preparation instead of the expected four. As a result, much of teaching within schools has become test focussed, placing emphasis on a “banking of information” rather than creative learning through outdoor activities and play.

One school governor from Lancaster said that children had complained of sleeplessness and headaches as the May examinations loom closer. “We don’t mind our children having hard work to do, but we don’t want a whole generation set up to fail,” she said. “These tests are a step too far – they are developmentally inappropriate.”

Schools Minister Nick Gibb faced scrutiny on Tuesday after failing to answer a SAT level literacy question designed for six and seven year olds.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4's World At One, Mr Gibb was questioned over concerns among parents that the tests were too prescriptive and risked putting chidren off reading.

Radio 4 presenter Martha Kearney asked: “Let me give you this sentence: 'I went to the cinema after I'd eaten my dinner'. Is the word 'after' there being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition?” 

When the minister apparently answered the question incorrectly, he said: “This isn't about me. This is about ensuring that future generations of children unlike me incidentally, who was not taught grammar at primary school we need to make sure that future generations are taught grammar properly.”

Anna Hopkins, a parent from Lancashire with a daughter about to take Year 2 SATs, said she had taken the day off work in order to protest against the examinations. 

“We need to have a lot more respect for the education,” she said. “It is far too early to have the fear of failing.”

“I hope the government take notice of today’s demonstrations. We want our children to have good education but let’s make it much broader, let’s make the questions more applicable and more relatable to everyday life. That is not getting our children a good broad education.”

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