A heart-shaped lollipop with her name on; an owl made out of shells; a collection of painted pebbles stuck on a slightly bigger pebble with the sign ‘Rock Concert’; a pencil, ruler, rubber and sharpener set and a pair of ankle boots with a two-inch heel.
This is what my daughter got for practising an 11-plus paper every day of the summer holidays last year, including when we were actually away on holiday.
You may sniff at bribery and instant rewards but they worked; it was the hardest she has ever studied for anything, but it scraped her into grammar school.
It was a good lesson. If you work hard, if you make a sacrifice, if you put in the hours then you get a reward. At the time, getting into a good school wasn’t exactly her idea of a glittering prize. But the rock concert pebbles? That really did it. Even if she didn’t get a place, she’s still got the pebbles and the owl.
When my stepdaughters tackled their GCSEs and A-Levels, they had grown past the heart-shaped lollipop stage. For them, getting good grades was the reward. These were the hard-won tickets to the next stop in their education, the key to opening the door to the next step in their lives.
This is why we put ourselves through exams, to achieve something, to move onwards and upwards, to make our families proud and boost our own self-esteem.
Except, of course, when it comes to bloody Sats.
The Sats – Standard Assessment Tests – are supposed to measure how your child is doing in maths and English, and how they compare to ten and eleven-year-olds in the rest of the country. This is important, apparently, to the Government, to the education authorities, to the schools and to the teachers. But not the poor little sods who actually have to take the bloody tests.
My daughter’s teachers have been banging on about Sats since last September. They have been holding maths booster classes instead of music lessons, handing out holiday revision packs and conducting mock exam after mock exam. A friend was taken out of her beloved PE class in order to practise joined-up writing; three years ago my son had to give up his hugely enjoyable violin lessons to concentrate on arithmetic. He never picked up an instrument again. Waytogo, Sats.
Parents were invited to a special evening where we were given advice on how to remember grammar rules and told to bring our children in for the tests even if they were ill. “One class I had were struck with food poisoning from a party the day before so we had sick buckets all around the classroom,” one teacher told us proudly.
Sats suck. The stress is terrible, with some children in my stepdaughter’s year working themselves up into such a state they were shaking before they went into school. Preparing for them overshadows the last year of primary school to no purpose, other than ensure the school has a half-decent league table ranking and the teachers hang onto their jobs. It leaches away the sheer joy in learning that children have at that age, and replaces it with the need to understand the pluperfect tense.
Children have enough exam stress waiting for them when they get to senior school; 11 is too young to be worrying about making the grade. And what possible benefit can there be in telling a 11-year-old they aren’t as clever as most of the other 11-year-olds in the country, that they are ‘below average’. It doesn’t get them extra tuition or sent to a different school. It just makes them feel a failure.
And if they do come out above average, what’s the point, apart from making the headteacher feel smug? They don’t get a certificate, a bang-on job or letters after their name. All that hard work, all year, for sod all.
There are a lot of things you can work your backside off for that ultimately come to nothing, such as weeding ground elder, ironing sheets, getting through level 147 on Candy Crush or knitting socks (too big. Always too big). All of them are more worthwhile than Sats.