by KEVIN OVENDEN
EVERY 11 year old in England was put through a nerve racking, pointless exercise last week. This week saw the turn of 14 year olds. The reason for the unnecessary pressure on these young people is the national SATs tests for 14, 11 and seven year olds-who sat theirs earlier this year.
Lewis Cockram from south London has just taken his modern version of the 11-plus. "I am fed up with the pressure of SATs," he says. "Now other children are worried about them. That seems to make them behave strangely. It is all so pressurising I sometimes think my life is over. People might think I am unable to work hard or do sums, which is not true. It feels like being in prison."
"These tests can shape what school you get into. They can affect the rest of your life. The stress is too great, particularly for the seven year olds," says 11 year old Jamil Dillon from Hackney, east London, who had his SATs last week. "A lot of children try not to show it. But you know they are really worried about failing."
When the Tories introduced SATs, they said children would scarcely know they were sitting them. But the exams are driving many children to despair. A recent report found an alarming increase in mental health problems in children as young as six. It pinned much of the blame on increased pressure at school.
Infant school teachers do their best to cushion children from the impact of the SATs. But, as seven year old Rosie Phillips from Manchester says, "I did my SATs last year. The teacher only told us a week before what we would be doing. That was good. It was still scary though. A lot of my class were saying, 'Oh no!' " Katie Ashcroft, aged 13, from Manchester, says, "Everyone knows the SATs determine what sets you go into."
The government is considering extending SATs so children face the exams every year. "I'm definitely against that," says Katie. "The school already sets tests every year. It would mean going from one exam to another. You'd spend all your time revising."
Parents, too, feel the pressure to get their children through the SATs. Bookshops now devote whole sections to exam primers for parents to use. The SATs are used to grade schools in league tables. Schools are pressured to abandon good educational practice and concentrate on coaching children through exams.
"I feel that kids are being pushed just so that the head teacher can take all the credit," says ten year old Tajesh Patel from south London. "If we get bad results and they get printed in the paper, other people will laugh in our faces. Learning is not a competition."
New Labour wants to link teachers' pay to their pupils' SATs results. "SATs have got nothing to do with how good your school is," says Jamil. "They don't say anything about what you've learnt. You could have a good day and do well, or have a bad day and fail under all the stress."
School students know what needs to be done to improve their education. "They should get rid of the SATs," says Jamil. "If children weren't pushed so hard at school they would be relaxed, and that way you learn more." Rosie says, "We need more teachers. "Look at all the money spent on the bombs. That could be spent on education." Katie has a simple answer to the underfunding of schools in working class areas. "Stop giving the money to the grammar schools," she says. "It's unfair. Every school should get money equally."
But the government refuses to listen to these school students, who have more right than anyone else to say what should happen in schools. Instead it piles on more pressure and attacks their teachers.