Some good news about the English education system at last? It would be, if it heralded an understanding of why those tests had to go. Not because of teachers reluctance to be assessed. Not because “some teacher’s didn’t fancy having the attainment of their pupil’s measured”, to quote Jack Straw, answering a question on Jonathan Dimbleby’s “Any Questions” on Oct 17th and 18th. Even he thought his teacher sisters’ would say to their pupils “Hey, kids! The government has at last done what teachers have been asking for.
So, how is it that teachers and most members of the public have recognised the dangers of over-testing and government ministers have not? That “Any questions?” programme and its follow up “Any Answers?” gave us an insight. The questioner had asked “How do I explain to my Year 9 class that the SATs we were preparing for were very important on Monday but abolished as an irrelevance on Tuesday.”
Jack Straw believed that SATs had had to be introduced by Keith Baker because the system was failing its pupils. By knowing the attainment of their schools, the government began what Straw described as a “relentless drive to increase standards”. It had worked, he claimed. The number of youngsters in Blackburn, his constituency, achieving 5 A-C grades at GCSE at 16 years of age had risen from one third to two thirds in 10 years.
Brian Cox, Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester, had an interesting response to that. “If a government measures the success of its policies by the number of people who pass an examination there will follow an inevitable downward pressure on standards. It does not follow that quality will rise because people simply aim to achieve the desired targets.” “To judge the success of academic institutions you need a better way, a way without exams, exams, and more exams.”
It was heartening to hear him say “Education is not about teaching children to pass an exam but helping them to be functioning adults, learning about the achievements of our wonderful civilisation and preparing them to be inquisitive.” Universities, he said, have to “dismantle the mindset which asks ‘what do I have to do to get a first class honours degree?’” If you ask that, you are asking the wrong question and might as well not be in a university.
“Any Answers? was flooded by responses. They ranged from “Thank God” from a retired teacher and from a 13 year old pupil, to accounts of children spending at least half a term just practising SATs papers. A grandparents asked, “What is the problem? Are teachers not to be trusted or are schools too big to keep track of their pupils or are all teachers too poor to plot progress? None of those are a good reason for the resulting stress and narrow curriculum. Lily, a student who has escaped the Key Stage 3 SATs asked “what about those who do really well in Art and Drama? Those subjects don’t seem to count and are pushed aside.” She confirmed what Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, had said, “the curriculum has lost creativity while the Chinese have recognised that industry and commerce cannot thrive without it.”
The questioner’s own reply had been “We have started to study Romeo and Juliet and I said to my pupils ‘we are going to carry on but we will enjoy it much more’”. His views were reflected by Daphne Clark from Richmond who responded to Any Answers?. When SATs were introduced she had to change from teaching three texts, one a modern one, to concentrate on one Shakespeare play. We “did it to death” she said. The only way to cope with the questions was to dictate appropriate answers. “There was no time to teach how to think or to stimulate or give a love of literature.” “Teachers were trusted in those days and we had time to get to know our pupils individual needs”. That is an interesting comment in times when “personalised learning” is a Government focus. Mary Lloyd spoke movingly of teaching with 80% of her pupils suffering from one kind of deprivation or another. By carefully planned and targeted teaching her school had steadily built confidence through the five years to GCSE and raised the achievement to the national average. SATs ended all that. Confidence flew out of the window with the disappointment of SATs results. The two years to GCSE were not enough to overcome the setback, whilst for the able pupils there was no more discussion of ideas or exploration of language. Teaching had to be reduced to concentration on the plot.
“If the goal of education is to pass examinations you miss the point about education.” Brian Cox had said and his fellow panellists and the respondents illustrated his point admirably.
Oct 17th newspapers gave us official figures which reveal that only 3 in 10 school-leavers score a C or more in languages, perhaps not so surprising when you remember that languages were made optional for 14 year olds in 2004. So numbers studying a language fell by more than a third, even though Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Russian and Polish numbers increased along with Spanish. The Government solution is to propose new half courses, one without any speaking and another in speaking and listening alone. Dumbing down? Even in the basic Mathematics and English where the focus has been tightest, fewer than half the pupils this year achieved an A-C grade, indeed though Ministers insist that trends show “sustained improvement”, figures for the core subjects are rising more slowly than other subjects. The new secondary curriculum does have increased flexibility. Teachers and those who care about children have, like Jude Kelly and the young Lily, been asking for that flexibility to allow creativity to return, time for the Arts, time to study in depth and to think. But that is not what the flexibility is for. It is “for schools to focus on the three Rs.”