Government ministers hold office for an average of only one and a half years. Their brief hold on power means they are in a rush to make their mark – and the pressure must be even more keenly felt if, as education secretary Nicky Morgan has indicated, they are putting themselves up for promotion. (She has suggested that she sees herself as a future leader of the Conservative Party.)
This creates an interesting context for Ms Morgan's announcement that the current testing arrangements for seven-year-old pupils in England should be re-examined. The education secretary is setting up a working party of headteachers: the key issue for their consideration is whether externally marked tests should be re-established for seven-year-olds at the end of key stage 1.
Ms Morgan is very keen on tests. She has directed that all pupils who fail to reach the expected standard aged 11, at the end of key stage 2, should resit the end of key stage tests in the first year of secondary school. How these tests, designed to cover the key stage 2 curriculum, can fit with the curriculum to be followed at key stage 3 is a matter which does not appear to have been considered, nor the likely outcome of the creation of "sink" classes of pupils whose confidence is already dented, following a narrow curriculum focused on test items.
Timed, externally marked tests dominate our education system and this is set to increase as the rolling revision of GCSEs and A-levels multiply the number of externally set, timed exams taken in schools. The pressure that this places on pupils, whose life chances are determined by a one-shot, one-size-fits-all exam, is immense, and is contributing to the rise in adolescent mental ill health. The pressure it places on teachers and school leaders who are increasingly unhappy about the quality of exam marking is equally damaging to health and wellbeing.
Government ministers justify their obsession with testing by arguing that today's pupils need to be ready for the world of work. But employers want much more than compliant exam passers. John Cridland, director-general of the business lobby group the CBI, has called for an "end to endless exam reform", the abolition of GCSEs (what is their purpose when all young people remain in education until they are 18?) and an end to constant qualification reform. He argued: "We have no debate at all about the 14-18 curriculum…we need curriculum reform, not just exam reform. We should stop using exams as a tool to influence education rather than accredit it."
John Cridland is spot on in his analysis of a fundamental flaw in our education system – which is the malign reality of the influence of timed exams on the whole process of education. If tests were part of a wide range of ways of assessing pupil progress – accompanied by, for example, well designed and moderated teacher assessment, extended pupil projects and the assessment of practical skills which employers say they need (such as good communication skills) – then the influence of the test upon the curriculum, and teaching and learning, would be moderated. The test would be one of a range of ways of determining what pupils know and can do; part of a rounded assessment of progress.
When the test is the only thing that really matters, it distorts everything around it – narrowing the curriculum to the teaching of test items and leading pupils to a highly instrumental approach to learning. "Will this be in the test, miss?" and, if not, "then why are we learning it?"
And while Ms Morgan pursues ever greater amounts of external testing, other countries are changing direction. In a highly influential, and very recent video, President Barack Obama acknowledged that teachers in the US "feel so much pressure to teach to the test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning both for them and for their students". So the president has instructed the US Department of Education to "work aggressively" to reduce testing.
He put forward three principles: First, that tests should be "high quality, aimed at good instruction". Second, that "tests should not occupy too much classroom time or drown out teaching and learning", and third, that "tests should be just one source of information used alongside classroom work, and surveys and other facts, to give us all a rounded look at what our students and schools are doing".
Ms Morgan would be well advised to think long and hard about her direction of travel to a test-based education system. It is not what employers want, not what children and young people need, and it will not end well.