The Headteacher column with Ian Wright

Head of Pocklington Prep School Ian Wright.
Head of Pocklington Prep School Ian Wright.

A new school year brings fresh focus on the curriculum and on schools themselves as prospective parents start to assess which school might be best for their child.

Parents face a daunting responsibility, because the choice of school can help shape not only a youngster’s childhood, but very often the rest of his or her life.

Pocklington School.

Pocklington School.

But it’s also exciting, because touring a school and meeting its pupils can give an insight into the many opportunities in store.

So how do you choose the right primary school?

The best decisions are always governed by a mixture of head and heart.

The heart – or your instinct – will speak after you’ve toured the school, met the headteacher, pupils, and generally got a feel for the place.

The head side of it is decided by a number of questions, and – regrettably in my view – SATs results play too big a role in how schools are judged.

SATs, or the national curriculum assessments, are compulsory at English state schools and measure children’s ability at Key Stage One (age seven) and Key Stage Two (age 11).

They were in the headlines this summer after 47% of 11-year-olds failed to meet the new required standards in reading, writing and mathematics.

Pocklington Prep School follows the same early learning aims as state schools, and progress is externally assessed. But our pupils do not take the SATs tests because we think they are an unnecessary distraction to primary education.

SATs assess performance in a narrow band of subjects – maths, English and science – and schools tend to concentrate on these during Year Six to ensure their children are seen to have progressed and reached the required standard.

Quite apart from the demoralising effect on children who “fail”, this system doesn’t leave room for the wide range of subjects which make up a rich curriculum.

Primary education should open windows to the world with a broad-ranging syllabus, not stifle intellectual curiosity by focusing on the narrow band of skills SATs measure.

Lessons should give pupils the opportunity to evaluate and apply knowledge, rather than simply acquiring and retaining facts – a skill which will serve youngsters well for life.

Instead of looking at SATs results, prospective parents should consider how much time a school’s teachers take to recognise and nurture individual strengths.

This is important because helping children achieve success in one area, even if it’s not academic, boosts their self-esteem, and this rubs off on those subjects where they’re less confident.

A pupil who joined us recently has discovered a talent for acting and the change in him has been tremendous. Even his posture has been transformed to reflect his new-found confidence.

He would not have had the time and space to achieve that if he had been focusing on SATs exams.

Pupils are powerballs of potential to be propelled, not statistics for a league table. Primary education should allow children to flourish on their own terms, free to find their own strengths and unfettered by the stress, distraction and disruption which SATs too often attract.