Michael Morpurgo: 'The greatest danger you can put children in is making them feel they are not worthwhile'

Helen Ward

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Baseline assessments for four-year-olds are “completely absurd” and put children under excessive pressure, according to award-winning children’s author Michael Morpurgo.

As hundreds of thousands of pupils across England took key stage 2 Sats exams this week, the former Children’s Laureate hit out at the “maelstrom” of testing in primary schools.

Mr Morpurgo (pictured), who was instrumental in the successful campaign to remove the writing test for 11-year-olds in 2012, told TES that the increased focus on testing in schools put the wider purpose of education at risk.

“When you test children, whether you like it or not you create successes and failures,” he said. “I feel the greatest danger you can put children in is making them feel they are not worthwhile.”

Although the key stage 2 writing test was abolished after a long campaign and boycotts by the NUT and NAHT unions, new primary assessments have sprung up in its place. There is now a spelling, punctuation and grammar paper in Year 6, plus a phonics test at the end of Year 1. 

And, from September 2016, baseline tests are being introduced for pupils in the first few weeks of their Reception year, although schools may adopt the tests earlier if they wish. The literacy and numeracy assessments have been designed to show how much progress students make between the ages of 4 and 11, but have met with widespread opposition from within the profession.

And a fresh wave of industrial action could be on the way as a result: in April, delegates at the NUT’s annual conference voted unanimously to “work towards a boycott of baseline assessment, as part of a strategy to undermine testing in primary schools”.

Earlier this month, the NAHT’s annual conference also passed a motion that criticised the “excessive” testing of primary-aged children, stating that it was “not good for them”.

Cambridgeshire headteacher Jayne Williams told the conference in Liverpool: “We feel strongly that this excessive testing will lead to an increase in poor self-esteem, low self-confidence, increased mental health issues and further social, emotional and behavioural issues.”

Now Mr Morpurgo has joined the row over the baseline assessments. “It is completely absurd,” he said. “You cannot judge four-year-olds in that way. It should be done simply by teacher assessment, by a teacher looking at and talking to a child. 

“The minute you formalise it and draw a line with someone above and someone below, you are focusing on ‘correcting the difficulty’ but perhaps there is no difficulty. And the dis-appointment in a child below the line conveys itself to that child very quickly.

“The idea that by testing children at 4 you are somehow raising the bar in terms of education, and giving schools greater challenges, is really wide of the mark,” he added. “This is education for the justification of ministers of education, rather than for the child.”

Mr Morpurgo, a former primary teacher, also claimed that the wider culture of testing created a “fiercely competitive” atmosphere in schools. “Children are competing, schools are competing, teachers are competing for jobs,” he said. “The pressure builds up. Some people can cope with that, but a lot of people can’t and are quite destroyed by it.

“We are in a situation where all that matters are the results; that atmosphere soaks into children and becomes feverish. There is no question that at some point we have to be assessed, that is fine. But now it has ratcheted up and has become so critical…that everything joins this maelstrom of competition.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the Reception baseline assessments were not intended “to ‘test’ the ability of individuals but so it is possible to measure the progress classes make as a whole”.

“It is vital young people leave primary school secure in the vital skills of reading, writing and maths that will help them go on to succeed at secondary school,” the spokesperson added. “Tests are a key part of this process, demonstrating that pupils have mastered those skills and reassuring parents that their children are receiving the best possible education.”

For more, get the 15 May edition of TES on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. 

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