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‘I just want to get them over with’

With SATs underway, we find out how kids are coping with exam pressure, and why mental health should be a priority in every classroom.

BORING is the word we were hearing most from our Beano Trendspotter kids while they were preparing for SATs (standard assessment tests).

Our kids were not impressed with the amount of work they had to do:

Maya was unusually tired and grumpy this week because of SATs study. It’s the repetitive learning which is driving her mad. ‘I want to leave and go to secondary school and learn new things. I just want to get them over with.’

Daisy is concerned about an all-day exam and difficult questions. She reports that she is bored at school and would much rather be hanging out with her friends.

SATs are taken by kids in May, in their last year of primary school (England only). The exams have been the topic of much debate over the years, particularly regarding mental health.

girl worrying about her SATs exams
SATs can cause worry and sleepless nights for kids

How do SATs affect kids?

Around three pupils in every classroom have mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, found a UK Department of Education report.

While research by NASUWT teaching union found that nearly all of its teachers (96%) had seen pupils of all ages experiencing mental health issues, with pressures of exams (66 per cent) among the main triggers.

‘Exams and tests can place a huge amount of pressure on children, which can be even more intense if they are dealing with other issues like bullying,’ says Jo Hardy, head of parent services at YoungMinds.

‘Parents may have seen a sudden change in their child’s behaviour: they might have started refusing to go to school, be misbehaving at home, or have changed their eating and sleeping patterns.’

Our weekly Trendspotter interviews show that SATs casts a shadow over the lives of our kids, and can make them feel insecure and lose confidence:

Cody has been given SATs practice and is really aware they are due in May. He reports that he's ‘quite scared’.

Sienna is worried about SATS: ‘If you get a question wrong you could go to the bottom and I don't want to feel like I'm dumb.’

Our poll found that more than a fifth of kids said they felt nervous about SATs, although they were trying not to let it get to them (22%), with some feeling worried or stressed (15%) and others having sleep problems (6%).

Extra studying gets in the way of the sports and activities our kids love – a disadvantage, as exercise can be a great stress antidote:

For Max it was all SATS SATS SATS this week! He even missed scouts and karate to concentrate on studying.

Meredith is feeling the pressure of homework, so much so that she is limiting her sports activity.

What are SATs for?

Although SATs are set to measure kids’ progress, they’re also used to compare schools, with results published in primary league tables.

Critics argue that there is no evidence the tests improve pupils' learning, with some teachers saying they de-motivate kids and reduce their learning potential. One primary school in Leeds banned its pupils from taking SATs exams after the head teacher saw too many children crying over them.

A movement by senior teachers is urging the government to scrap them altogether. A survey by YouGov for the campaign More Than A Score, found that 96% of the teachers questioned were concerned about pupils’ wellbeing due to high pressure from tests, with 93% thinking SATs narrow the curriculum, prioritising English and maths over subjects such as music, art, science and drama.

‘As most young people, parents and teachers agree, the education system places a greater focus on exam results than on the wellbeing of children,’ says Jo. ‘Schools that prioritise wellbeing actually tend to do better academically, so it makes sense to focus on promoting good mental health rather than putting children under lots of pressure.’

Help for kids at exam time

There are steps in the right direction. New government guidelines mean kids will be taught in schools how to look after their mental wellbeing and recognise when classmates may be struggling. Plus there will be more funding to train senior mental health leads.

Our kids who are able to fit in their external pursuits seem to be coping the best with SATs:

Cody (10) has been doing loads of SATs prep at school and at home. He’s done three ‘pretend’ exams and is feeling confident. He’s managing to keep up his football practice and squeeze in time on his new iPhone!

Our poll found that listening to music (15%), gaming (13%) and spending time with friends (10%) were the top three relaxing strategies during exam time. Young Minds has some top tips to help kids get through SATs week, including:

  • Concentrate on the tests one at a time. Do your best and however they go, try to let the last one go and then focus on the next one.

  • Write a timetable for the week. Make sure you add some treats, like watching your favourite show, doing sport, or having your favourite meal/ snack.

  • Talk to the people around you and tell them what you think would help you in that week, e.g. I might need more hugs or down time; I need to get to bed on time; I want you to walk me to school in the mornings.

And remember – SATs won’t last forever. When they’re over, we see a dramatic shift in school and home activity as kids get more freedom to indulge in creativity, sports and socialising – areas that have been suppressed by SATs:

'We had to be really quiet because of the SATS but now we can play – we've invented new games.’ Sienna

‘I’m excited about Friday because we are having a SATs party at school and we get our leavers sweatshirts. Mine’s is soooo cool.’ Kamiyah

Keep up to date with what matters to kids by signing up to our fortnightly trend report (details below). For more info on coping with SATs and other advice visit YoungMinds.

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