'Enough is enough – stop this toxic testing'

Never again should children be subjected to the chaos and stress that marked last year’s testing debacle, says one primary head

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Theodore Roosevelt said that: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the worst thing you can do is nothing.”  I, with many of my colleagues, am determined to ensure that the children in our schools will not be subjected to the chaos, wrong-headedness and stress that marked last year’s testing debacle again.

I know how tempting it is to curl up behind new school improvement plans and an influx of shiny new children and lick our wounds; putting the nightmare that was Sats season 2016 to the very back of our minds and getting on with running our schools. However, the influx of marking reviews and data-checking exercises and the arrival of incomprehensible progress data should serve as a reminder to us all of just how appalling the tests were last year – and how they brought into sharp focus the whole toxic testing regime and shrunken curriculum.

We cannot forget that as a result of last year’s assessments:

  • Many teachers were highly stressed and struggled to cope with the pressure created by the speed and inappropriate nature of the tests;
  • Many schools are having to defend drops in data to parents, governors and possibly Ofsted;
  • Large numbers of children are starting their secondary careers with the label "Not Met Required Standards”, despite their Herculean efforts to grapple with fronted adverbials and the like.

Remembering these and many other horrors from the litany of outrages that formed the assessment arrangements for last year, should harden our resolve to halt the current testing regime, whilst a root and branch review of testing arrangements is carried out.

Schools are not alone in recognising the car crash of primary assessment that was 2015-16. In recent weeks, a letter from the NUT teaching union asked leadership members to consider voting to participate in a boycott of next year's Sats, and an inquiry has been initiated by the education select committee to investigate the testing arrangements from last year and the effect of the current testing regime on primary education.

Responses have been invited from all, including staff, governors and parents. We are busily preparing a full response from within our local cluster group, and its communities and school staff are running alternative classrooms in the town centre on Saturdays to share their concerns and a vision of how we would like to teach without the shackles of Sats.

Parents are collating letters explaining their concerns to deliver to their MP, unions are working together to urge the Department for Education to review asssessment arrangements, and headteachers across the country are being asked to participate in a campaign called 1,000 Heads Against Toxic Testing.

Parents, educational experts and the unions are lining up alongside us in opposing the tests as they stand: our Year 6 and Year 2 colleagues, and the millions of children in these year groups, need us to prevent last year’s mistakes from being repeated.

If we are to succeed in this goal then consensus on how to proceed with a review of assessment arrangements must be reached before teachers, managers and children feel pressured into test preparation and invest in working towards them. I would love this to be the first year in which my Year 6 children enjoy an action-packed, successful and invigorating final year at school, without the pressure of Sats.

'Tests make me feel nauseous'

Defendants of the testing regime say that the children enjoy the tests and do not feel under pressure. But no matter how much we all try to protect the children from the pressure of exam preparation, the alien, formalised nature of the test and the high-stakes accountability system that surrounds it mean that many children find them stressful and judge themselves as successes or failures dependent upon their performance in them. 

As one of my Year 6 children wrote last year: “Testing does not help us grow new neurological connections. In fact, it does quite the opposite. New experiences are a better way. Tests make me feel nauseous and lead me to worrying. When I hear the phrase, 'We are going to do a test today,' it makes me feel out of my comfort zone and isolated.”

I must confess to a pride that our school’s focus on growth mindset and building learning power has clearly been understood by our children, but it breaks my heart that the school that I am so proud of, and that educates our children so holistically, was nevertheless complicit in making at least one of our pupils feel "nauseous and isolated". That he, and his classmates, felt dismayed by the impossibility of a completely age-inappropriate test to the extent that I saw them put their heads on the table in despair as they did not have enough time to finish the reading test.

It cannot be right that despite their gargantuan efforts to learn a grammar syllabus better suited to a degree-level linguistics course; to complete a ridiculously challenging reading test; to shoehorn every writing technique they had ever heard of into a single piece of writing; and to complete huge unwieldy calculations in an impossibly tight time frame, they were still forced to leave our school with a label of “Not Met Required Standards”.

The truth is that it is not the children who failed to meet required standards, but those who have overseen and implemented this assessment system and the reductive curriculum from which it is drawn.

I am hopeful that, as a single voice, we will speak out to say that the current assessment system is not fit for purpose, is squeezing the enjoyment out of learning and teaching and is damaging the breadth of the curriculum that children experience.

Some people say that the profession will not speak out against Sats as we do not know how to describe our schools without them. If this is true then we have fallen victim to a staggeringly collective case of Stockholm Syndrome that means we have come to love the thing that is holding our creativity captive. I don’t believe this to be the case.

My colleagues and I know our schools and the precious children within them through means more varied and effective than a one-off externally produced test: we do not need to rely on a faulty data set to define our worth.  I am hopeful that educationalists, governors and parents across the country will make their opinions clear, respond to the education select committee inquiry and join the campaign of the many groups opposing the current testing regime. 

It is a daunting prospect to face Ofsted with the data from last year’s tests, and there is a tempatation to say, "This year we can make them better." But the reason why things are as bad as they are is that, as a profession, we have made the unworkable work.

If we want things to get better, if we want our professionalism to be recognised and our professional judgements to be respected, we must say: “Enough is enough – stop toxic testing."

I am confident that my colleagues and I care enough for the profession that we love and the children we educate to stand firm. As George Orwell said: “When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.”

Now is our time to stop being victims and heroically stand up for true educational values and do the right thing for our children and schools.

Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School​

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