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Designed to make us fail?

Julie Greenhough on the atrocious conditions in which student teachers take the controversial skills tests

Let me begin by stating that I have no personal axe to grind with the infamous numeracy and literacy tests for trainee teachers. I am one of the fortunate ones who passed. Indeed, I embrace the concept that all teachers should have a sound level of numeracy and literacy.

Now that Education Secretary Estelle Morris has removed the four-attempts-and-you're-out policy, there will be a rush for retakes as trainees work towards the deadline for qualified teacher status. But, apart from pondering issues such as why Welsh teachers don't have to prove that they can spell, there are a number of practical aspects ministers should consider.

Booking the tests can only be done online. If you haven't got access to a computer then no alternative method is available.

Before you book the test you have to log on to request an email with your username. This early stage is proving problematic for one colleague as he has tried three times to register without success. He has emailed and written several times but received no reply.

Once you have booked your tests it should simply be a case of turning up and taking them. Apparently not. At three separate test centres, colleagues have been told that the centre didn't have a record of them booking any tests and have been turned away.

Places to take the tests are limited. I logged on at the end of April to book a numeracy test at the Twickenham centre only to find that there were no places available at any time or on any day between May 1 and July 1. Fortunately I was able to book a place at Battersea and did not have to travel to Brighton as one person did.

Personal belongings cannot be taken into the test room lest we should cheat, but no adequate provision is made for leaving valuables. At Twickenham I was told to leave my bag on a chair in the library, which was open to students not taking the tests. When I asked if they would keep an eye on it I was politely told "no" and informed that the college would not be responsible for any loss or theft.

I took my literacy test at Twickenam and numeracy at Battersea. The height adjust and backrest on my Twickenham chair were broken. There were no spares. The chair at Battersea was not suitable for use at a computer, and was uncomfortable. A colleague at Battersea had to sit on a chair covered in chewing gum. My mouse mat at Twickenham was positioned over the join of two tables of different height, making the use of the mouse tricky. I would have moved down the table, but was so squeezed into a corner that when I attempted to do this I disturbed the candidate next to me. To cap it all, my headset adjustment was broken so I held it on with one hand to listen to spellings whilst trying to type the answers with the other.

I thought wistfully of all the care my teaching practice school had taken with exam candidates and how horrified they would have been if one of their pupils had to take tests in such circumstances.

The fact that a grammatical error still lurks in one of the punctuation passages doesn't generate much confidence in the accuracy of the whole process whilst you're taking it. Oh, and those rumours about the system crashing aren't rumours but fact.

One of the worst things about the test is that the heightened emotions of candidates all in one room generates considerable disturbance and noise. Most of my colleagues have complained about this. You receive your result in an instant flashed on the screen in front of you. Terrific if you passed. Dreadfully, publicly humiliating if you failed.

As I experienced at Battersea, it can be rather off-putting when the person next to your fails her numeracy test for the second time and collapses sobbing and distraught over the desk whilst you try to carry on with the test.

Given the test environment is it any wonder that the actual pass rate is lower than in the trials? It is simply impossible to factor in the real stress and pressure of the tests into practice runs. If trainees must continue to take them, surely the Teacher Training Agency could ensure that the test conditions do not add to the pressure already being felt by candidates?

Julie Greenhough is a PGCE English student at King's College London

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