Education: Testing times
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Education: Testing times

The UK’s obsession with exams now includes rigorously testing primary school children. Journalist, presenter and mother Rebecca Wilcox explains why she believes this is harmful to their education

The other day, I found myself doing something I never expected to do. I was searching for ways to counsel my son during exam stress. My son, I should point out, is five years old (although he’d want me to state that he is five and ). He is just a little boy, yet he is already under the cosh in our education system and stressed. He has already been examined and tested, interviewed and assessed multiple times in his two short years of primary school and it will only get worse from here with the SATS, then GCSEs and A-levels.

The school he attends is apologetic, their hands are tied they say, they too wish the onus was on play, on creating, on music and art and PE. These are building blocks for imagination and creation, the things that stretch their minds and enrich their hearts and bodies.

Not so, says the government. Instead they want rigorous testing, and they want it to begin from the day a child walks in to the classroom. Why? Because they believe it is the best way to hit their target of 100 percent literacy. And how will they achieve this wonderful feat? Will they look to the much-admired Scandinavian systems, where schooling doesn’t start till seven years of age, homework is banned and testing is forbidden till 16? No. Of course not.

Instead they looked at the Victorians, those beacons of innovation – in regards to sewer systems at least. They were not famed for their schools, where children were regularly caned, made to wear dunce’s caps and write out hundreds of lines. The government also observed the Chinese system, again not known for their caring schooling, where nearly 2,500 students committed suicide in 2009, many
in the run up to the exam periods.

Are these models we really want to emulate?

Do we not want to give students the one thing teachers have asked for? When teachers were asked to suggest a single change to the education system they did not say ‘more testing please’; instead, they recommended the provision of ‘free space’.

Time away from the stress of exams where students can do what they really want and explore things that truly interest them. It’s not a hard thing to give, it’s not expensive and won’t eat up the little money left to schools in the latest budget. But it will give our children the broader education they need for life.

I am not alone in thinking this way; a coalition called More Than a Score has been formed by independent education experts. They aim to fight the early testing of our children and show that one size does not fit all.

Rebecca Wilcox

Elaine Bennett from Keeping Early Years Unique agrees with them. She said: “Baseline testing is a pointless and expensive exercise (costing the taxpayer at least £10million annually), which threatens children’s mental health at a crucial time in their development. It is irresponsible and unethical to put children in this position.”

It would appear that the current system is in place simply to test the schools’ performance with no regard to harming the child. I’m sure we all want to see every school listed as outstanding and all schools capable of achieving the results on a par with their expensive private counterparts, but this rigorous, extensive and early testing is not
the right method.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, confirms this, saying: “Baseline assessment has everything to do with finding new ways of holding schools accountable and nothing to do with supporting the learning of children.”

She goes on to say: “SATs, whether at Year 2 or Year 6, are damaging to primary education. The government relentlessly tests children from the age of six, and they are told they are failures if they do not meet required standards. This can impact on their self-esteem, which can carry on throughout their schooling and determine the direction of their adult lives.”

Teachers and heads are also increasingly concerned about the effect of SATs on pupils, with 83 percent saying that SATs in Year 6 have a detrimental effect on pupils’ mental health, and 54 percent saying SATs in Year 2 mean pupils’ mental health suffers.

A reception teacher from Oldham said: “This is a very stressful time of year for children in Years 2 and 6 – some are reduced to tears by the SATs tests. This is not helping children to love to learn.”

Being Jewish, I, of course, believe my son is brilliant and a genius, but this system, which stymies his imagination and heightens his stress, is never going to recognise that. Time and again, exams have been proven to be the worst way of assessing a child’s education ability.

We are a nation of poets and innovators, writers and communicators, entrepreneurs and adventurers, but we need the space to become these things. If we don’t broaden the education system to allow for imagination and time away from testing, exams and rote learning, then we will become robots. Our greatest resource in this country is our
people, our thinkers and our doers. We need to cultivate and cherish this, not run it through a processing plant where every product comes out the same. What a loss that would be.

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