The Government has defended “challenging” tests for Year 6 students in England after a paper in this week’s Sats exams reduced some pupils to tears.

Hundreds of parents and teachers have complained online that Wednesday’s reading exam for 10 and 11-year-olds was too difficult and a head teachers’ union said staff also struggled “to understand the questions”.

But on Friday the Department for Education (DfE) said “the tests are designed to be challenging”.

Sats, or Standard Assessment Tests, are used to measure children’s English and maths skills in Year 2 and Year 6, and consist of six 45-minute papers.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Key Stage 2 assessments are key in identifying pupils’ strengths and where they may have fallen behind as they head to secondary school. 

“Test development takes many years, with questions rigorously trialled with year 6 pupils and reviewed by education and inclusion experts to ensure appropriateness.

“The tests are designed to be challenging in order to measure attainment across the ability range, including stretching the most able children.

“Schools should always encourage pupils to do their best but preparing for primary assessments should not be at the expense of children’s wellbeing.”

The National Association of Head Teachers, which represents heads at the majority of primary schools, has expressed concerns over the reading paper and plans to raise these with the exams team at schools regulator Ofqual.

A classroom (Liam McBurney/PA)
A classroom (Liam McBurney/PA)

Sarah Hannafin, the union’s head of policy, said: “We are very concerned about reports from our members about the Sats reading paper.

“Members have told us that the choice of texts was not accessible for the wide range of experiences and backgrounds children have and the difficulty was beyond previous tests, leaving children upset, and with even staff struggling to understand the questions.

“We will definitely raise these concerns with the Standards and Testing Agency and also the Ofqual National Assessments team.”

Kerry Forrester, a head teacher at a Cheshire primary school, has written to her local MP expressing concern about the “negative impact” of the exams on the “mental health and wellbeing” of her pupils.

In a letter she shared on Twitter, Ms Forrester said this year has seen “the most negative impact on our children that we have ever experienced”.

“Tears flowed from our most capable readers and stress levels rose amongst all others,” she said, adding that “this was the most challenging reading test I have seen in my 29 years as a teacher”.

Beth Southern, an educational consultant and qualified primary school teacher from Bury, Greater Manchester, said her son was “disappointed” after this week’s English paper turned out to be much more difficult than he had expected.

“My son feels disappointed that he found the reading test yesterday so challenging.

“He said the texts were long and wordy and that he had to use a lot of time trying to understand them, which didn’t leave enough time for the questions,” she said.

“He knows he was fortunate to finish when others have been left in tears.

“I have been told yesterday’s test was dense, packed with difficult vocabulary, idiomatic language and a huge amount of inference was needed to complete it.

“It’s awful that we assess a child’s entire primary school reading ability on a single hour-long test that was way too complex for 10 to 11-year-olds to comprehend.”