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SATs-free curriculum allows independent learning for life


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. 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? In my view, 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, some of its pupils and generally got a feel for the place.

Many prospective parents arrive at Pocklington Prep School with a list of questions to help them weigh up the ‘head’ side of things. One of the first questions parents often ask is: “Do you do SATs exams?” And they visibly relax when I answer: “No”.

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). The Government uses them to measure children’s progress at primary school and to identify those schools which are struggling and doing well.

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

Pocklington Prep School pupils do not take the SATs tests, because we think they are an unnecessary distraction to primary education.

We’re not afraid to be publicly accountable and we follow the same early learning aims as state schools. But SATs assess performance in a narrow band of subjects – Maths, English and Science – and schools tend to concentrate on these during their primary years to ensure their children are seen to have progressed and reached the required standard. This 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. At Pocklington School, pupils are decidedly not viewed as numbers or statistics for a league table, rather powerballs of potential whom we see as our duty to help propel.

We spend the entire year, every year, delivering a broad, rounded education which encourages independent thought with an inspiring, engaging and forward-thinking curriculum delivered through meaningful experiences and reflective practice.

Lessons are planned around giving pupils the opportunity to evaluate and apply knowledge, rather than simply acquiring and retaining facts – a skill which will serve them well for life.

Our focus is on the individual child, encouraging him or her to work co-operatively and to develop into an active, curious independent learner. Small class sizes enable us to give every pupil the attention they deserve, so they develop the confidence, resilience and a desire to learn, which will enable them to face the challenges of an ever-changing world.

Our teachers recognise and nurture individual strengths, because helping children achieve success in one area, even if it’s not academic, boosts their self-esteem, which 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.

How pupils perform in SATs makes no difference whatsoever to the future path they take. Unlike GCSEs or A Levels, a SATs result is not, to my knowledge, used as a definitive entrance marker in any school and certainly not at Pocklington.

We do place huge importance on ensuring children have a solid grasp of the key subjects of Maths, English and Science. We expect our children to make excellent progress which is continually measured and evidenced in the classroom. Alongside this sit the annual standardised tests which give accurate and nationally comparable data.

Teachers use all assessments to help monitor each child’s progress and quickly identify any dip and implement strategies to help rectify it. We also ensure children know what they need to do to move on to the next stage, an empowerment which greatly helps their confidence.

We are constantly reviewing the curriculum to ensure it is fresh and stimulating for teachers and pupils alike. We are not afraid to make changes; nor are we constrained by national, statutory requirements, and we incorporate the best practical and theoretical elements of new educational research. We pride ourselves on constantly moving forward – both as a management team and as a whole school – to ensure there’s a real buzz about the place.

The youngest children learn best through a themed, topic approach to learning. As they progress through Prep School, we discreetly and smoothly move towards a subject-specific curriculum, although some subjects, such as modern foreign languages, music and sport, are taught by specialist teachers from the beginning.

We believe the best learning takes place against a strong home-school partnership and place much emphasis on involving parents as much as possible. Parents are informed of their child’s advancement through half-termly reports, which grade each pupil in terms of attainment and achievement, and regular parents’ evenings, as well as frequent, informal communication. The school has recently appointed new pastoral leads and redefined teachers’ areas of responsibility to ensure we keep even closer track of pupils’ progress.

Every school day includes time to develop skills, like creativity, sporting prowess, good communication and reasoning skills, as well as intellectual curiosity. Children flourish as they move through Pocklington Prep School free to find their own strengths and unfettered by the stress, distraction and disruption of external public exams.

The extra time and effort we devote to delivering a rounded, individually-focused education reaps dividends as pupils continue on to Pocklington School. They embark on their senior studies as highly skilled and confident learners, armed not only with a solid foundation of knowledge, but also with the experience of applying it across a wider curriculum.

Published: September 21 2016

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