SATs, stress, and subordinate clauses - what kids make of exam week
By Charlotte Malton, Consultant

The country’s ten and eleven year olds are sitting down to a week of SATs which has demanded its fair share of the headlines. From an older and wiser perspective these tests may seem inconsequential, but to teachers and politicians, SATs mean much more.

For Year 6 teachers, there is not only pride at stake but also money – with performance-related pay introduced in 2013, SATs results provide a stark final indicator of how far pupils have progressed under their tutelage. For politicians, SATs are used to measure how schools are performing at a national level and to evidence the success of education policies. For children, according to the headlines, SATs mean tears, tantrums and night-time terrors.

However, our research suggests there is a more nuanced story to be told. It can’t be reduced to a simple sentence, but involves as many subordinate clauses and coordinating conjunctions as the tests themselves.

In the research for BBC Newsround we went straight to the children to ask their opinion with a survey of 750 ten and eleven year olds in England. The most striking finding is that 87% of children feel pressure to do well in school tests - although it is worth bearing in mind that the majority (59%) say they feel some pressure, with a smaller proportion (28%) saying they feel a lot of pressure.

Nevertheless, this is still a significant proportion of children. Although the education policy landscape is notoriously ever-changing, Key Stage 2 SATs are not due to be scrapped anytime soon.  Understanding how this pressure affects children and how to mitigate it will give practical insight if this is to continue. So here are our top 3 lessons to be learned.

1. Time to relax is key

With a weekend in the sun fresh in the mind, it’s easy to remember that time to relax is important - this is no different for youngsters. The research shows children who say they have enough time to relax after school during the week are more likely to feel confident, happy and excited about tests at school than those who say they don’t have enough time. Conversely, those who say they don’t have enough time to relax are more likely to feel nervous stressed or worried than those who say they do have enough time.

While giving children more time to relax may seem like a sure-fire route to the bottom of the class by effectively reducing time for homework and revision, our data suggest it is possible to have the best of both worlds – those who report revising for SATs at home are equally likely to say they have time to relax during the week as those who don’t revise (both 81%).

2. Be aware of gender differences

There are stereotypes aplenty about how boys and girls react differently in the classroom, but it seems there may be a genuine gender effect in how school tests affect children. When asked how having tests at school affects them, girls are more likely than boys to say they feel worried about school work but also that they want to show how much they know. On the other hand boys are more likely than girls to say they struggle to concentrate. With boys being consistently likely to perform worse in Key Stage 2 SATs than girls, that difficulty in maintaining attention could be a reason why. Perhaps teaching children strategies to improve attention (such as mindfulness exercises) could help remove a potential barrier impacting boys’ performance.

3. Family support

So who is supporting these stressed out kids? Positively, almost all children (97%) say they get help preparing for SATs from a parent, teacher or friend, and four in five (79%) report receiving help from their family. Given Government concerns over the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, it is encouraging to note that the proportion of pupils receiving help is consistent across socio-economic grade.

However, parental involvement could be a double-edged sword. When asked who they would be most worried about knowing a bad test result, children were most likely to say it would be their parents (41%), more so than their class teacher (14%) or friends (17%).

Of course, what we can’t conclude is how children’s feelings about tests relate to attainment. On the one hand perhaps this doesn’t matter. The mental health of children and young people is a hot topic at the moment, with concern that children in England are some of the unhappiest children in Europe and more widely across the globe. For this reason, reducing stress among youngsters could be valuable in and of itself.

However, there is also a wide body of psychological research which shows that positive emotions are linked to increased cognitive fluency, creativity, problem solving and ability to sustain attention for longer. Helping children to be happier when they’re sitting those SATs could not only be good for their wellbeing but may also have positive impact on their performance.

If SATs are to remain a highly valued educational currency to all in the sector, then it is vital to understand the experience of children sitting them. Children’s experiences are likely to affect their results, affecting teachers, schools and politicians in turn.