SCHOOLS ARE spending too long preparing children for national curriculum tests, Ken Boston, the qualifications regulator, said this week.
In his first direct comments on the scale of test coaching, the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that teachers' priorities were wrong if they were spending months or even weeks on it. All schools should put the tests in their "proper perspective" by refusing to pursue weeks of preparation and instead teach a balanced curriculum, Dr Boston said.
A survey conducted by the authority revealed in The TES in April found that Year 6 teachers spent nearly half the week on test preparation from January to May. Some schools reported starting key stage 2 test preparation in Year 5.
Dr Boston said: "I think there's a problem there. Too much attention is being given to preparing for tests and practising doing them. Priority clearly must be given to English, maths and science as foundation subjects for further learning. But there is a difference between good teaching and cramming.
"If schools are replacing classroom lessons with preparation for a test that might be months or weeks away, I think the priorities are wrong.
"Of course we have to have national reporting and national accountability, and of course we want that at school level and at system level. But it must not override everything else."
Many schools, however, say they have little option but to drill pupils for months, given the demands of government league tables and targets.
This week, Lord Adonis, the schools minister, piled on more pressure, saying he wanted every child who was capable of it to achieve level 4 at key stage 2.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Ken Boston sees the effect of tests on the curriculum. Year 6 should be the best year in a child's primary life. But for many, it's being replaced by drudgery because of the pressure of Sats results."
Civitas, the right-of-centre thinktank, added that teachers were being compelled to generate artificial test results, at "horrifying cost to pupils", with non-tested subjects marginalised.
Dr Boston's views put him in opposition to ministers. Earlier this year he suggested testing a sample of pupils every year as the main measure of national education performance. This was rejected by the Government.
Ministers have played down the scale of pre-test cramming, recently stressing that pupils spend very little time on the national curriculum tests themselves.
Lord Adonis said that KS2 tests took only five-and-a-quarter hours to complete. "As for preparation time, the best preparation for any test is to understand the concepts being tested," he said, "mainly reading, writing and arithmetic. That is the very purpose of teaching the basics. So it is hard to argue that preparation is wasted time."
Dr Boston said he also favoured a system in which pupils continued studying English and maths until they were 18.
He said: "We are one of the few countries where, in the final years of school, the native language and maths remain an option.
"If universities are saying that students are coming along with insufficient English and maths, it might be because it's not compulsory."
Dr Boston said the new diplomas would address this by making English, maths and ICT compulsory, although students only have to pass them to GCSE-level to gain the new qualification. But mandatory post-16 English and maths would be impossible in the current A-level structure and he had no intention of pushing the Government to change that, he said.
He defended students in the annual A-level standards debate, arguing that employers' concerns about poor performance of new recruits were "grossly exaggerated".
Dr Boston is to stand down in September 2009, seven years after taking over in the A-level regrading crisis. This means he will still be at the helm during the QCA's move to Coventry in early 2009.