Monday, 11 May 2015


Like many other parents in the UK SATs is the phase currently buzzing about like an unwanted wasp. An annoying entity that I would love to squash with a handy magazine, preferably my current copy of Psychologies!

So what are SATs?

SATs or Standard Assessment Tests are a delight put upon children (and their parents) in Years 2 (Key Stage 1), 6 (Key Stage 2) and 14 (Key Stage 3).  The purpose is to assess where your child is at in their learning at these points in their education.  In the early stages the tests cover knowledge in reading, writing and spelling and science and then a more lengthy list is tested in Key Stage 3 (think GCSE options). 

The children are graded as:

Level W - Working towards Level 1 - very weak
Level 1 Average for a typical 5 year old
Level 2 Average for a typical 7 year old
Level 3 Average for a typical 9 year old
Level 4 Average for a typical 11 year old
Level 5 Average for a typical 13 year old
Level 6 Average for a typical 14 year old
Level 7 Average for a typical 15 year old
Level 8 is only for Maths

Within each grading there is also an a, b, or c addition to grade within each level.

So what is the purpose of SATs (other than to make us sound more American?)

Well the original  purpose back in 1991 was to assess where children were in relation to their peers at a set point in time but over time it is a not so overly guarded secret that the results of these tests are used to place the school within the Schools League Tables which compares the performance of pupils, schools and LEAs.  In the area that we live in these results are immensely important. The house prices on one side of the street that is in the catchment for the "better" secondary school are ridiculously higher than their counterpart on the other side of the road. I live in an area where I've recently discovered parents actually pick and choose their pre-schools to make sure their child has the best start in their educational journey.  I chose Katie and Pip's pre-school on the basis that they liked being there and it would support them to become more independent from myself; the staff understood the needs of my children; the environment would aid their learning; a close friend tipped me off that she had trained most of the staff and that they were well trained; and mostly they would have fun.  It seems I have a lot to learn!

What do these tests really mean for children and their parents, and particularly for adopted children?

In one word?

Here is our experience of the Year 2 SATs thus far.......

Katie came home from school on the Thursday after the Easter holidays all of a dither and saying that her teacher had told them that they were doing their SATs tomorrow.  Really? Well l I knew it was their school sponsored walk the next day but I was confused as to how Katie was told about the SATs and me, as her parent, wasn't. I was also confused because I wasn't expecting them to start until mid-May.  I reassured Katie that there were no SATs the following day but of course she wanted to know more about what they were.  I explained briefly. However the following day she came home even more anxious about the SATs which included a note in her home-school book asking parents to ensure their child had a good night's sleep on Monday night plus a good breakfast on Tuesday morning (we don't ensure those things happen generally?) because our children were starting their SATs.

Katie didn't want to go to school on Monday morning because she thought they were starting then. She feigned an ear ache to try and avoid school. She was aggressive and rude and generally unpleasant.  I twigged what this was all about so reassured her again that there was nothing to worry about and that I would inform school that she was anxious. I told her that the SATs were a way to check how well her teachers were doing their job and it had nothing to do with how well she did in the test at all.  A comment I passed on to Katie's Head Teacher when I saw her that morning to pass on my annoyance that my child was so anxious about doing these tests. Tests that I don't actually agree with.  But Katie was worried.  She was worried about being stupid if she didn't know the answers.  She was worried about getting it wrong. She was worried because she didn't know what her day was going to look like once she entered her school gates.  Normally she knows what is going to happen at school. They have a timetable. She can get through the day with a recognisable semblance of self-regulation because she knows the routine.  Imagine that being taken away from you and not knowing what was going to happen. Katie's self esteem is fragile at the best of times so this is not an ideal situation. School are starting to recognise that even changing rooms can spark anxiety and hyper-stimulation in Katie so they were expecting a lot of her and it's interesting that they didn't raise this as a potential point of concern with us as Katie's parents.  Maybe they're not worried about her result. Maybe if she doesn't perform well they can just write her result off as being a LAC child. Maybe I'm doing them a disservice though and they feel Katie is capable of taking it all in her stride and performing well.  I would tend to argue with that though because Katie has morphed from a child who was a total delight over the Easter holidays to a disagreeable and aggressive child since being back at school.  You do the maths!

My instinct is that the children shouldn't be told about the SATs exams.  I don't see how it can help them, especially in Year 2 to know that they are being tested.  The assessment can generally be quite fun so there is no need for them to know or, indeed, worry about it.  That doesn't answer the issue of the disruption to the school routine though.  My nephew who is in Year 6 is also currently starting his SATs today and had a very sleepless night last night terrified that he is going to look stupid and all his friends will do better at the tests than him.

Why are these tests actually given then?  What is the real purpose? Even in Year 6 the tests do not really mean anything.  The results are not used by the Secondary Schools the children move to in Year 7. In fact the Secondary Schools generally like to do their own testing and streaming when the children start at the school so I can see no discernable reason to put the children through this stress other than to present statistical information to be used to cherry-pick which school your child goes to and for a moment of smugness in the playground or on Facebook, and a personal pat on the back for producing such a clever child, if your child performs particularly well.  What about all the children and their parents whose children end up not performing well? Could they run the risk of disengaging with education all together.  In the case of adopted children could the risk be that the disruption to their routine makes school become an unsafe place to be resulting in them becoming school refusals? I'm sure it's a real possibility.  The schools can assess how well a child is doing just as easily as part of day to day activities at school.
These tests do not highlight how good your child is at sports or if they are kind or caring or good in a crisis.  They do not show that you are adopted and might struggle with sitting these exams,; they do not show that you are a young carer and might not have time to do homework to aid your learning. They only show one side of your child.  How well they can perform in an exam.  An exam which is set in a specific way and generally supports a specific method of assimilating learning.  I am a great example of why these types of exams don't really highlight a person's capabilities.

I have quite a high IQ (and even passed a MENSA test) but I have problems with my memory storage and accessing facts. As a student who took O'Levels this proved a challenge because I could not access the information I needed to perform well in exams.  If I am assessed using coursework I will grade very  highly but I my results drop significantly in an exam situation where I have to recall facts. If I have a multiple choice scenario I will perform very well however because I can pick out the correct answer which jogs my memory recall.  O'Levels left me feeling that I was wasn't particularly intelligent despite showing an aptitude towards languages.  I did manage to gain sufficient passes to go onto college but my grades certainly did not reflect my ability.  When I went to university as an adult I did a degree that was coursework and assessment and performed very well.

My conclusion is that SATs should be abolished for the following reasons:

1. There is no reason I can see why Year 2 children need to be assessed above and beyond that done in the classroom. Ofsted monitors the school performance overall so this is unnecessary,

2. Year 6 pupils are assessed when they start Year 7 and the SATs results ignored so I'm at a loss to see a purpose for these students.

3. Year 10 pupils have just taken their options and settling into their chosen subjects,  They will be tested on their learning in these subjects when they take their GCSE's in Year 10 and 11.  Again I fail to see why you need to do SATs as well.

Come and join in.  What do you think? Can you throw me a bone and explain to me why these tests and exams are important or do you agree with my assessment?

Friday, 1 May 2015

If I Knew Then.....

Before I adopted Katie and Pip, and took some time out from working, I was a trained Counsellor who specialised in working with teenagers.  I took on a role working for a service called Connexions as a Personal Adviser because this was a new role that offered an exciting way of supporting and helping young people with multiple barriers to learning.  The role offered me a lot of personal and professional development and I also trained as a PSHE Teacher specialising in Sexual Health.  

I loved my job.  It was high pressure with the volume of workload and the responsibility for the lives of the young people we were supporting.  I set up projects supporting young parents and I delivered a lot of sessions in secondary schools and my linked college around sexual health and relationships.  I am proud that  I was able to help a great many young people through some unbearably difficult periods of their lives.

There are some cases that I think of with regret though.  There will always be some people that you are unable to achieve a positive outcome with.  That may be through a clash of personality with yourself and you're just not the right person for that particular young person.  It may be because the young person just isn't ready to move forward and needs a different type of support. I made many referrals to CAMHS over the years and there will always be young people that you tried everything for but it just didn't work out.  Over the past five years though my main regrets have been for the young people I worked with over a long period of time who were adopted.

I'm going to be very honest, because that is the point of writing this post.  I didn't really know anything about adoption back then, not like I know now.  I knew about attachment generally because I covered that in my counselling training but I didn't know about the trauma that our young people often have a part of their history.  If asked I may have assumed that the majority of children were given up for adoption, not due to Child Protection Orders.  I knew that my clients might think about their birth family or want to trace them - but I wasn't trained to think beyond that; to question fantasy or risk.  

My remit was to support the young person because we were a "client focused" organisation.  We signed confidentiality agreements with our clients.  I always encouraged my clients to talk to their parents about any support I was offering and would meet with parents as much as my clients would allow but the client was in control of that unless there was a clear Child Protection issue to address. That was tough on parents. The parents that I was given permission to work with by my clients would often say I was a translator for them.  The young person would explain to me what was going on in their world and in their emotions and I would explain that in ways that the parents could hear.  I think it was something that I was quite gifted at if I'm honest.  There are several clients though that I feel I let down badly through sheer lack of training and this is something that I still hear is happening through conversations with other adopters.  I can see why it happens but I do think it needs to be addressed. 

The clients I feel I let down specifically were two of my adopted clients.  Both clients had major difficulties that impacted on their ability to engage in education. I worked very hard to support them and their families. With these clients I supported issues around ADHD and paranoia, drug taking, running away from home; aggression and violence within the home from the young person; lying; stealing; truanting from school; unable to engage in school; school unable to support the young people effectively and resistant to my suggestions.  The list could be one written in books on trauma and attachment.  I didn't know about the link with adoption and trauma then though.  Both young people were adopted very young so, like many professionals. I didn't consider these issues as being the causal factor of the problems the young people were experiencing.  Instead I worked hard with the families to create behaviour contracts and ways to support the young person's learning.  I looked at the parenting model of the parents to try and ascertain whether there was a link with the behaviour of the young person.  I tried various methods of engaging with the young people. I met with weary and confused parents who seemed to have given up and I possibly judged them harshly for that.

Five years on, I would address these cases in a very different manner.  I have a much greater understanding of trauma and attachment in adoption. I see first hand the impact on my children of the choices their birth mother made whilst pregnant.  I would ask a lot more questions and I would question the confidentiality agreement with my managers in cases where I felt it was paramount that we worked closely with the adoptive parents. I worry about my daughter's experience of education and see the difficulties she is having already and the reaction from the teachers.  Whilst supportive I sense there is judgement towards us as parents because most of the behavioural difficulties are at home and not at school.  I see the behaviour models used in school with different eyes. I now see I could easily become the parent that I met during that period of my working life. What worries me most is that I am hearing the same, and much worse, from many adoptive parents.  They are worn down fighting the education system and fighting the judgements from professionals who aren't trained in trauma and attachment and make assumptions about the parenting these young people are receiving with no insight whatsoever that the difficulties are not of the adoptive parents making but are far deeper and much harder to access.

I want to send some advice out into the ether with this blog post so I would be grateful if readers could share this post with agencies they know who work with young people. My advice is this: 

1. Get some training on trauma and attachment, specifically Reactive Attachment Disorder.  Take this post to your bosses and explain to them that this is really important.  You can't possibly understand the world of an adopted young person by applying the normal rules of assessment.  Damage is done in the womb through drugs and alcohol, physical neglect and domestic violence and that brain damage can impact the whole of the young person's life. There can be a massive impact on the young person's ability to form healthy attachments because these issues weren't addressed when they were first placed in care and when subsequently adopted.  The young person may have been adopted as a baby but may still have had several Foster Carer placements prior to being adopted.  This is highly disruptive to the ability to form healthy attachments and there is a list as long as your arm as to how the young person will demonstrate their reaction to this. Learn about the different types of attachment and how they present clinically.

2. Listen to the adoptive parents.  Hospital Consultants have learnt that it's important to listen to the parents when diagnosing a child because the parent knows that child much better than anyone else. The same could be said of all parenting but I am specifically focusing here on adoption.  Listen to the history that the adoptive parents are telling you. Don't dismiss them as being overly protective or exaggerating their reality. Ask them about the young person's early life prior to adoption to help you understand the experience of the young person.

3. Don't assume that the young person is always telling you the truth.  They may not mean to lie to you and they may struggle to tell the truth after a lie due to their internal stress regulation.  Again the same could be said of many of the young people I worked with who had disrupted attachments for varying causes including divorce and domestic violence. I now see lying in a very different way since becoming an adoptive parent.  My daughter often believes the lies she is telling me. I've heard of terrifying allegations made against adoptive parents that are unsubstantiated. 

4. Young people who are adopted are possibly much younger emotionally than their chronological years so be aware that might be a possibility and assess for that. Don't assume they can engage in activities that someone else of their age might be able to do.  

5. Be aware that behaviours that only happen at home aren't necessarily because there is a problem at home.  The reality is that the young person probably feels safer to express themselves at home than in education or other settings.  

6. Be on the look out for how the young person is expressing their anxiety at school. Are they restless?  Do they struggle to concentrate in class?  Could this be due to hyper-vigilance? Are they on their own a lot? Do they cope with frequent room changes? 

7. Find out whether the young person is able to sustain friendships. If not then ask yourself why this is the case.

8. A feeling of shame is something that is triggered very easily in many adopted young people.  It's not something that is easily rectified by being giving positive feedback. It's embedded deep down within.  It can be triggered by doing well at something where a need to sabotage that success follows immediately because the achievement doesn't mirror the young person's internal dialogue.  You might see them destroy certificates or notice a negative behaviour change when they they achieved something.

This is just a list to get you started.  I wish I knew back then what I know now because I might not feel regretful about those clients that I could have supported differently despite doing everything I could do at that time.  I hope in writing this post that it might make a difference to other professionals and other young people somewhere.

A big thank you goes out to anyone who shares this post.