Primary school tests and children’s mental health

One study after another has shown the damage being caused by SATs to children’s mental health.

  • In a survey by the ATL (now part of the National Education Union) in 2016, 89% thought that testing and exams were the biggest cause of pressure that children now faced.
  • Another union’s survey has shown that teachers are seeing mental health problems among children as young as four.
  • A survey in the Guardian  shows an increase in mental hgealth issues around the time of the tests, and increasing fear of failure.
  • A survey of Year 6 children conducted for Children’s Mental Health Week 2017 showed that 41% were worried ‘all the time’ or ‘a lot’ about not doing well at school, 37% about taking tests, and 29% about getting school work wrong.
  • A survey of primary school headteachers showed that 80% had seen an increase in mental health issues among children at the time of national tests. They reported that children were suffering sleeplessness and panic attacks.
  • A survey by the National Education Union received abundant and moving reports of psychological harm:

“Pupils at our school have cried, had nightmares and have changed in behaviour due to the pressure on them – and we do our best to shield them from it and not make a huge issue out of the tests.”

“We see children in highly anxious states, sometimes vomiting because of pressure. More children displaying signs of poor mental health and we do not put pressure on our children.”

Government in denial

Even the most hardened government ministers have now had to admit that SATs are a major cause of stress. The problem is they put it down to individual teachers rather than the system itself.

Another stock response is to blame the child for not being sufficiently ‘resilient’. Tough it out, is the message.

When the schools minister Nick Gibb was called before the Education Select Committee, he even proposed that the way to lower stress was to give children more exams. He argued that doing mock papers from Year 7 would reduce the pressure of GCSEs. Perhaps he sees Baseline tests for four-year-olds as a way to immunise children from SATs pressure?

Gibb has said that where children are feeling stressed, it is teachers who are to blame rather than the tests. He said that if any children are having nightmares, it is “a reflection of the school not a reflection of the Sats”. He told the Daily Telegraph: “Schools should not be putting pupils under any kind of pressure when they take these Sats.”

Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted, showed how out of touch she is by blaming headteachers for causing the stress.

It is the system, not the attitudes of individual teachers, which is causing the damage. This was neatly illustrated last month by an incident in a Yorkshire school.

A boy arrived at school for his maths test in great pain. He had fallen off his bike but his parents sent him to school because they thought not getting a good SATs score could damage his chances of a good secondary education. The head immediately contacted the family and drove him to A&E where doctors found he had broken his elbow.

A long phone call was necessary to the Standards and Testing Agency who refused to grant him exemption. The most they would concede was a day’s delay in taking the test. He arrived to do it the next day even though he hadn’t slept because of the pain.

The moral responsibility of teachers and heads

The Child Law Advice website reminds us that ‘Every school teacher owes a pupil a duty of care’ and that ‘the school has to do what is reasonably practicable to ensure they care for their pupils, as any reasonable parent would do’.

It lists among possible danger signs

  • anxiety
  • low mood
  • panic attacks
  • phobias
  • eating disorders
  • some self-harming behaviour.

The present generation of children face multiple pressures, so it is difficult to isolate any one factor. However, it is clear that the ‘exam factory’ culture is a major cause. Test stress and worrying about failure can tip children over the edge who are already vulnerable due to various adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). It also makes it harder for teachers to care for the children in their charge and consider their needs and development holistically.

When doctors qualify, they have to agree to a code of ethics based on the Hippocratic Oath. This begins with the words “First do no harm.” Why then are teachers expected to work a test regime which is systematically damaging children’s mental health?

The first post in this series is at It concerns the very high failure rate of the current SATs. 

Speakers’ notes to aid the anti-SATs campaign can be found at

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