A CARTOON about a crew of space-travelling animals is being hyped as a way of relieving young children from the stress and pressure of cramming for key stage tests.
BBC producers believe that the new series Starship, which will begin broadcasting next month, could be used by teachers of seven-year-old pupils as a fun alternative to practice papers for key stage 1 national curriculum tests.
The programme stars an intrepid rabbit and dog, called Hutch and Star, who journey through space solving puzzles and singing.
The adventurous duo are assisted by a flying bug, called Sky, and travel in a rocket-ship, aptly named The KS1.
During their travels they face a range of surreal English and maths problems which, according to the BBC, include "finding whether Captain Calamity has finally managed to free all the Princesses, or if Dave has measured all the penguins". Starship's creators say that the cartoon has a serious underlying purpose: to cover all key aspects of the key stage 1 English and maths curriculum, from using sentences to data-handling.
Karen Johnston, commissioning editor for BBC Education, said that the programme was made in response to teachers' concerns that test preparation involved too much uninspiring exam practice.
"Traditionally, support materials for key stage 1 tests have consisted of trial test papers - not a very enticing prospect for five to seven-year-olds," she said.
"Starship covers all the skills required, but in an informal, motivating and enjoyable context, which means that children can learn without the pressure traditionally associated with tests and exams."
But critics of testing said the best solution to test stress was simply to abolish the KS1 tests. Jeremy Rowe, chairman elect of the National Association for Primary Education, said the organisation was opposed to the tests. It was also concerned that using cartoons would further increase the already excessive time that children spend watching television.
"We would be worried if parents used the cartoon to increase the pressure on their children after they returned home from school," he said. "But if it will make preparing for the tests less stressful and more palatable for pupils, we will support it."
The programme's launch comes after Ofsted revealed that more than 200,000 seven-year-olds were not learning to read properly.
"Starship" is on BBC2 from January. It is accompanied by books, a Radio 3 series, CD-Roms and a website, www.bbc.co.ukschoolsstarship