Skip to main content

'Shattered frames and weakened brains'

Concern about the tyranny of testing is nothing new, reports Adi Bloom.

The media was in a frenzy over excessive school testing. Parents feared exams were having a serious impact on their children's health. And teachers complained that they were forced to teach to the test.

Meanwhile, Queen Victoria reigned, the Zulu wars raged and bustles were considered the height of fashion.

Jacob Middleton, a civil servant researching the history of education, claims that many of our contemporary fears about the excessive examining of pupils also existed in the 1870s and 1880s.

School exams were not introduced until the 1850s. But by the 1870s, they had become the norm.

Pupils intending to go to university sat a qualifying exam, which eventually took on a validity of its own: it proved intellectual capacity, if not the financial means, for undergraduate study.

In 1861, testing was introduced as a means of judging a school's performance. High-scoring pupils guaranteed higher levels of funding for their schools and higher salaries for their teachers.

"Exams had a status beyond schooling," Mr Middleton says. "They became the only reason to be educated: all education was made subservient to the exam."

A culture of teaching to the test was born. But with it came fears about the impact on pupils. One commentator wrote in 1878 that pupils were so physically weakened by cramming for tests "that they never thoroughly recover, but either perish prematurely or linger on miserably, with shattered frames and weakened brains".

COULD BE linked to exam pressure in schools. Others blamed "overpressure"

for increases in diabetes and rheumatism. The following year, when a 10-year-old boy died suddenly, a letter to The Times pointed out that he had been vigorously instructed by his "energetic master". The letter concluded: "But for overpressure, he would have been living now."

By the end of 1884, parents were blaming overpressure for most childhood illnesses.

And media reports suggested that overpressure was detrimental not just to individual pupils, but to the nation as a whole: even those children who displayed few symptoms of stress might find their vigour compromised later in life, thus undermining national strength.

Commentators were particularly keen to suggest that girls and working-class pupils might succumb to the mental strain of constant examination. By the 1870s, girls had begun to perform significantly better than boys in exams.

In fact, Mr Middleton believes that many of the commentators had ulterior motives for their concerns. Among the most vocal critics of overpressure were academics, doctors and archbishops.

"These were people from privileged backgrounds," says Mr Middleton. "For them, the purpose of education was to give people what they needed to live, not to give them opportunities.

"If you create an objective, meritocratic device, you can't object to its findings. Exams allowed people to compete with their social superiors. So health issues were wheeled out.

"A lot of discussion about exams has underlying social tensions."



"Last year, no fewer than nine promising young men, who felt over-anxious as to their fate at examinations they had to undergo, all destroyed themselves, simply because they felt unable to face the dreaded ordeal."

Educational commentator, 1878

"The examination of children was bad in theory and bad in practice, bad for the health of the teacher, bad for the health of the child and bad for the education of the nation."

George Kekewich, former permanent secretary to the Board of Education, speaking to the National Union of Teachers, 1903

"A crammed mind may be as flaccid and unhealthy as a crammed body - both equally in their several ways suffering from indigestion."

JA Digby, educational commentator, 1882

"Much of the hard work of the world is done by men who never in scholastic judgement rose above mediocrity, showing that success in life often depends upon something that cannot be gauged by an examiner."

Thomas Pridgin Teale, 1883


"Thousands of pupils are suffering from unprecedented levels of exam stress I Unprecedented numbers of psychologists are now having to help pupils deal with the emotional strain, which can lead to sleepless nights, eating disorders and other illnesses."

The Observer, May 2007

"There is now a constant process of revision and examination, and lots of students do not cope. These are the most tested children in the world."

Vivian Hill, educational psychologist at the Institute of Education, London, May 2007

"This system should carry a health warning. Despite the sugar-coated personalised learning rhetoric, the proposed tests are toxic."

Gordon Stobart, of the Institute of Education, March 2007

"Inevitably, with the overcrowded curriculum, teachers will teach to the test. Also, pupils are left skirting over the surface, with too little time to understand the subject properly."

Editorial, The TES, August 2006

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you