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“Excessive Testing Is Turning Learning Into A Hall Of Mirrors”

An excess of exams have twisted things that should be unimportant into distorted and overblown shapes, says Sue Cowley...

  • “Excessive Testing Is Turning Learning Into A Hall Of Mirrors”

When I went to school, back in the last century, children did not sit any national tests until the final years of their education. I left school when I was 16, and so the day I took my last ‘O’ Level exam marked the end to my statutory education.

Nowadays children are subject to national testing from the moment they set foot in school. Next September, a baseline assessment is being introduced for children coming into Reception classes. These children will then face a phonics screening in Year 1, an externally-moderated teacher assessment at the end of Key Stage 1, and a national test at the end of Key Stage 2. As though this were not enough, two-year-olds are now given a progress check in early years settings. And the worst of it all is that these tests are not really being done to support children – teachers have always used assessment to do that. These tests have one purpose, and one purpose only – to measure the ‘progress’ that is added to children by schools.

Long term effects

The language used around these measures is couched in gentle terms – these are ‘assessments’ and ‘checks’, not ‘tests’ which children might pass or fail. But while politicians pick their words carefully, and teachers can try to mitigate the pressure their students feel, it is hard for us to fully understand the effect these tests will have on our children in the longer term.

When we worry about the rapid increase in mental health disorders in young people, perhaps we should be asking whether it could be linked to the increase in the number of tests they sit? Looking at the sample Key Stage 1 Reading paper sent a cold shiver down my spine. A gentle poem by Robert Louis Stevenson called Where Go the Boats? is reduced to an exercise in language analysis. What are our children to make of this? Where is the joy and delight in playing around with words? And who exactly are they answering these questions for?

In an ideal world, tests would not influence school or teacher behaviour – we would not ‘teach to the test’, we would just teach, and a test might happen along to see how the children are doing. But all it takes is a quick look at how schools react to being tested themselves, to show us the lie in this way of thinking. Schools spend time and money preparing for Ofsted. Some buy in mock inspections to try to ensure they do well in the real thing.

A series of adventures

There is incredible pressure on schools to do well in national tests; I understand this all too well. But this pressure is twisting our entire system – it is turning education into a narrow, depleted version of itself. We have entered a hall of mirrors in which doing well in tests is the yardstick by which we measure ‘an education’. Things that should look thin and unimportant (‘Can you find an adverb?’) have been distorted into a bulky, overblown shape.

Last year our oldest child was due to take Year 6 SATs. But instead of his last few months in primary school being overshadowed by the spectre of national tests, we decided to take our children out of school, and educate them ourselves. We travelled around Europe and went to China. We visited museums, and art galleries, historic buildings, and archaeological sites. We climbed volcanoes, and wandered the streets of Pompeii, we travelled on bullet trains, and trekked along the Great Wall of China.

Our children kept a daily diary of their adventures – one that I hope they will look back on fondly in the years to come. We were incredibly fortunate to be in a position to do this – to offer our children the chance to experience these things first hand. But more than that, we were incredibly lucky to be able to take the pressure off them for a little while. And to help them understand that learning is about a series of adventures that you take in life, not about what results you get in a national test.

About the author

Sue Cowley’s book about her family’s adventures, Road School, will be published later this year.

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