Testing times

As half term approached the grandchildren were looking forward to a well-earned rest from school and I got to thinking about my own school days. I don’t think I’m an oldie who romanticises the past, but I have to say that I do not remember being under much pressure at school in the 50s and 60s. The president of the National Association of Head Teachers recently said that teachers and pupils have ‘never had it so bad’ and it does seem that over recent years pressures on children at school have increased phenomenally. In fact, there’s been a huge amount of research into children’s wellbeing which shows that as a result of school pressure more and more children are experiencing stress-related conditions.

I’ve read that children in England are the most tested in the industrialised world: by the time they leave school they could have done 70 exams. This starts with SATs in years 2 and 6 of primary school with some schools also doing informal tests in year 3, 4 and 5. It’s been calculated that over the years at primary schools children can spend on average 150 hours preparing for SATs. Reports, however, claim that they have not improved children’s performance or standards generally.

And yet another test is being added in year 6: SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar). Apparently the test assumes there are right and wrong answers but educationalists don’t agree, saying that language is continuously developing. Critics of the test, such as the children’s author and poet, Michael Rosen, say that the test is meaningless because the questions are outside the context of children’s reading and writing. They believe a better way of assessment is simply to look at a child’s work during year 6. But the government has been banging on about ending continuous assessment and reverting back to an exams-only system and to learning by rote like in the 50s and 60s. And, now I think of it, I do remember the stress of exam-only assessment and soul-destroying mechanistic repetition.

And let’s face it, a child has the pressure of a SATs in primary school, and then the stress of moving from primary school to a huge secondary school. One year of adjusting is allowed and then children are having pressure put on them by the school to choose the ‘right’ subjects to study next year in preparation for GCSE exams. The onus seems to be on selecting subjects you are better at rather than choosing to do subjects you enjoy – what a sorry state of affairs!

Of course, these days the pressure on children comes from the pressure on schools to do well in league tables which focus on schools’ academic achievements. In his book Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing Warwick Mansell writes that ‘pursuing results almost as an end in themselves’ has been forced on schools in a climate of ‘hyper accountability’.

Apparently the number of huge primary schools with over 1,000 children is growing. These tend to be the most deprived areas where there is cheap housing. With a lot of families having the upheaval of moving out of London due to the housing benefit cap, the pressure on school places in these areas will increase. This means that more pupils will be exposed to the pressures of being taught in ever more crowded schools. And I’ve read that the UK has the longest primary school hours in Europe, but that children going into secondary school are below the academic standards achieved by their European peers. However, apparently countries that have the best education standards are not the ones with the longest school hours. For example, in Finland, at the top in academic achievement, children have fewer hours of teaching a day than any other industrialised country.  Finding a link between long school hours and improved results is difficult since things such as parents’ motivation cannot ignored.

And the Government is proposing increasing school hours and shortening holidays from September next year. Well, this might make life a bit easier for working parents and maybe a few more hours/days away from grandparent stuff for those of us involved, but what about children? Maybe it sounds revolutionary, but shouldn’t work be arranged around children as far as possible rather than the other way round? And surely this is much more possible nowadays with modern technology, flexible working, work hubs, homeworking, job shares etc., etc?

So life is very different now and I’m definitely not harking back to the not-so-good-old- days but for using technological advances and research to move forward in a more constructive and child-centred way. Why can’t we free schools – and therefore children – from the pressure of league tables and tests to concentrate on the quality of the whole school experience? I believe most parents don’t want schools competing with each other for their children or a vast choice of schools – they simply want a good school locally. Surely it is more important for children to gain the ability to form ideas and to be critical, to be confident expressing them rather than being processed for work – not that there’s any guarantee of a job in the future – in what has become a pressurised, exam-ridden, factory-like environment.


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