There’s an old story about a mean farmer who reckoned he could train his horse to eat less every day and save him money. After three weeks of decreasing feed day by day, the poor beast died. “That’s a shame,” commented its owner. “I’d almost got it used to living on nothing.”
I was reminded of that old metaphor for futility when I read of schools minister Nick Gibb’s suggestion that we could reduce the risk of young people suffering mental ill-health by getting them to sit not fewer exams, but more.
[Read the case in favour, here.]
It goes like this: children get stressed about exams, but if exams become habitual, anxiety levels will be lowered. Job done: major cause of mental illness removed.
On one level it may appear logical. In my schooldays, I had exams every summer, plus regular tests throughout the year. I suppose we got used to them. It’s hard to judge whether that reduced anxiety levels, because we weren’t particularly stressed about exams in any case: back then, the stakes were so much lower than they are today.
Tests to measure
In my distant youth, schools weren’t judged by their results as they have been for a quarter of a century. Now those regular exams are called Sats – or baseline tests – and essentially measure schools, not children. Even with the public exams from which the candidate gains some certificated validity (GCSE, A level), pressure is added by the fact that the school is also measured by the results, by value-added calculations, Progress 8, EBacc scores – the whole gamut. The pressure is on schools – and when pressure is exerted on schools, sadly and regrettably it is passed on to students.
It shouldn’t be, cry the critics. Schools should be robust and not pass the pressure on. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve explained how only a superhuman school headteacher manages to avoid passing the pressure down the line.
With nearly 50 per cent of school leavers aged 18 going on to university, we now have half the school population worrying about their A-level grades because they are so crucial to the next stage of their education. They know, too, that universities look at their GCSE grades: so there’s anxiety at age 16. As a result, we see both institutional pressure on pupils to perform highly and individual anxiety as they enter an ever-more-competitive market for places at university.
I may appear to talk of my childhood experience as old buffers frequently do of their schooldays: “It never did me any harm." I tended to do pretty well in exams: I don’t think I worked very hard and I was fortunate that it all came to me relatively easily. But what about the kids who never did well in those exams? They experienced an annual, termly or even half-termly humiliation, always at the bottom of the heap, often publically ridiculed by seeing their exam and test results posted on noticeboards for all to see.
No. I won’t sign up to Mr Gibb’s idea. As teachers have been saying since the advent of the national curriculum – to the despair of hawkish ministers – you don’t fatten a pig by constantly weighing it. Given the pressure on young people from so many directions, practice will not make exams perfect: nor will it render them innocuous.
The adverse effects of frequent testing on young people’s mental health are evident to every teacher. We have created a world in which every formal examination has become an ordeal or a source of anxiety. Multiplying them will not somehow dilute that pressure. On the contrary, it is far more likely to ramp it up still further.
Not many marks out of 10 for that idea, I’m afraid. Could do better.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim head of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford
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