Brian Cox: Don't use children as 'measurement probes' to test schools

Television science presenter also calls for teachers to be given more respect – and money

Helen Ward

Helen Ward

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Science presenter and particle physicist Professor Brian Cox has called for testing in schools to be minimised – and only used when the positive benefits can be proven.

Professor Cox was speaking to Tes after filming practical science lessons with children aged 7 and 8.

There has been concern that too much focus on maths and English – particularly in Year 6 in the run-up to Sats – can narrow the curriculum, leaving less time for other subjects. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector, has announced a major review into whether exams are narrowing the curriculum.

The television scientist said: "I’m unaware of any research that shows that consistent testing is improving standards, and I recoil against using children as measurement probes. Instinctively, I don’t like the idea that children take test after test after test in order to try to measure the performance of the school,” he said.

"However, if there is evidence that actually an increased amount of testing leads to a better educational outcome for the students, then I would accept it."

By the time students are aged 18, he said, they should understand that they are in school in order to learn about the world – not simply to pass tests.

He said: "I am open to a debate about whether that at age 7 or 8 it is good for them to be learning to pass tests or they should be learning about the joys of acquiring knowledge.

"I don’t necessarily think the Sats are a bad idea, but it’s not been demonstrated to me they are a good idea."

Testing 'takes up valuable time'

Science was included in the key stage 2 Sats tests until 2009, when they were scrapped. Since then, teacher assessments in science have been reported instead; in 2016, 81 per cent of 10- and 11-year-old pupils reached the expected standard in science in teacher assessments. A sample of 10- and 11-year-olds also sit a science test every two years.

Concerns have ben raised that schools have switched their focus to maths and English.

Professor Cox said that, in questioning the need for school assessments, he was not making a party political point: "In government, in general, for many years…there has been almost an acceptance that measurement is good of itself. I refute that," he said.

"In every instance I want to see that measurement leads to positive benefits and positive outcomes because it takes time. And I want it demonstrated that that time could not be better spent elsewhere.

"In this case, if the measurement of other subjects, or the measurement of a student’s progress, or the measurement of schools’ progress is removing time from practical science, then it had better be bloody useful because practical science is bloody useful."

Professor Cox, who is also professor of public engagement at the Royal Society, was speaking as he launched a new set of videos to introduce practical science into primary schools. 

He also said that, if he were in charge, teachers would receive more pay and more respect.

"The children you produce determine the society you will have," he said. "So the people who teach the children are amongst the most important people in society and it’s incomprehensible to me that you would have a system that devalued the people who are responsible for the foundation of the society of the future.

"If it were up to me I would increase pay and conditions and levels of responsibility and respect significantly, because it is an investment that would pay itself back many times over in the decades to come."

The Royal Society’s Brian Cox School Experiments are available on TES Resources.

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