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The national curriculum tests are 20 years old, and a new campaign against the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) is getting up steam. The Parliamentary Education and Skills Select Committee chairman, Barry Sheerman, has joined the abolitionists; and primary schoolchildren on a recent Panorama programme (Tested to Destruction) depicted the tests as scary monsters. The programme focused on the emotive argument that testing is iniquitous because it causes children stress. We can expect this argument to be re-iterated later this year when Professor Robin Alexander’s charitably funded Primary Review comes out — against testing, we can be sure.

Of one thing I am absolutely certain: it is that testing, in itself, does not cause stress. Children love tests. I know this because I have the pleasure of running the Butterfly Saturday Reading School, which is managed by the charity Real Action and attended by 150 children aged five to 12 from disadvantaged families of every conceivable cultural background in north Paddington, London. The children aren’t nerdish or priggish or swotty. They’re vigorous, ­vibrant and sharply intelligent. A good few come with ­disturbing histories of “challenging”, sometimes violent, ­behaviour, and other special needs. Their reading ages are often many months or several years behind their actual ages. Ten- or 11-year-olds — perilously close to transfer to secondary school and potentially facing years of disaffection, deviance and dependency — often come with reading ages of six or seven.

It is endearing and funny to see how these children ­clamour to be tested, eager to see their reading ages rise, as they do, by an average 13 months in just 30 hours’ teaching. Testing is fun. Indeed I have a theory that testing actually raises serotonin levels. Children just love to achieve – and to know it.

The abolitionists also claim that tests don’t drive up standards, since the rise in standards has stalled. And indeed one in five primary school children still fail. In one City Academy I know over 40 per cent of incoming 11- year olds have reading ages of between nine and six. There are other schools with even worse pupil entry levels. But this is not the fault of tests. It is the fault of teachers who leave teaching of the three Rs to the last moment. They then offload the stress this causes in the final primary year on to the children.

If there are children suffering from test-related stress – and in my nine years talking to the children I teach I have never encountered this - it is their teachers, not the tests, that must bear the blame.

July 18th, 2011
6:07 PM
Recent news that in Wales the decision not to publish examination results has caused a drop of 2-3 levels at GCSE is a reminder how important testing and publiction is and applies to Primary and Secondary Schools

June 28th, 2011
1:06 PM
What the heck? You are so out of touch, sure children like to get good marks, but why should they be testing in a manner that is archaic. Sitting down in silence not being able to move or look around is completely unnatural for children. It is not the teachers fault, actually many of the problems in schools it is the parents and students fault (I am a 16 year old at school btw), EG, A student should have had an extra help session at lunch, but didn't go, when their parents asked if they went, they'll say no, and say "the teacher wasn't there", I know because I've done this myself. The parent will then complain without letting the student know they are doing this, and the teacher ends up in trouble, even though they were there waiting their whole lunch. You seem to think teachers are useless. This is not the case it is the restrictions placed on them that are useless. For example they are not allowed to raise their voice. Teachers go through a lot of hassle to get CRB checked. And you seem to think that it is ok to allow parents into schools to help keep schools open while teachers strike for the first time, this will not help. Should parents have come in to keep schools open on the Royal Wedding Bank holiday. In a school of 1000s how will it be possible to tell the difference between a parent and a stranger off the street? The problem with tests is that teachers are forced to teach especially for tests. This is because of time constraints, so much is crammed into the curriculums that important things such as reading and times tables are squeezed out. Knowledge is not important anymore, skills are. Tests and exams should not be what you know, but how to apply it. In exams like GCSEs students should be able to connect to the internet. As these exams are supposedly a measure of the subject, that is used in adult life. In adult life you will almost never be unable to look something up on the internet, especially by the time the current generation of schoolkids are ready to get jobs. I've just finished my GCSE's if you ask me to retake them now, I won't be able to, I have already forgotten everything I have leant in the last 2 years, because what I learnt was mostly facts and not skills. Primary school needs to focus on the basics, reading, writing, and maths, along with small amounts of humanities. Secondary schools need to teach skills, such how to se formula in maths of physics, not make the students learn those formula off by heart. Another problem is the lack of communication between subjects and exam board. the curriculum for each subject seems to be written as though the students can do all of it in a year, forgetting the students will be taking other subjects as well, a prime example is GCSE coursework, there is simply too much at once, however it does seem to be being spread out now.In life you don't find yourself being lawyer and a doctor, and scientist, etc all at once, whereas the curriculum seems to forget this. The problem is not the teachers, it is the bureaucracy and people making decisions with no real information, as it has been diluted as it travels up through the layers of management and bureaucracy.

July 6th, 2008
6:07 PM
I quite agree. Diane McGuinness has written an excellent book on the subject called "Why Children Can't Read: and what we can do about it". In it she describes how the free education for all systems both in America and Britain were set up to fail right from the word go: too many pupils to too few teachers thus the new teachers will be less learned than the teachers before them and so on down the line (despite class sizes decreasing). She asks us to imagine a company like this: "1) Customers required by law to purchase your product. 2) No competition. 3) Unending source of capital. 4) No product guarantee. 5) Not accountable to its customers. 6) Cannot be sued for product failure. 7) When critics demand accountability, resorts to subjective assessments, misrepresenting the truth. 8) As many administrators as workers, earning much higher salaries. 9) Worker training has little or no relevance to on-the-job skills. 10) A 50 percent turnover of workers every three years is common." This is the modern education system. If it were anything but a school there would have been outcry many years ago. We now cannot escape the facts of inadequate schooling, it has ruined generations and has given birth to a new way of life. A life where benefits and crime is the state schooled's only (or preferred) option.

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