A Victorian regime

7th November 2003 at 00:00
High-pressure tests, so beloved of New Labour, have been tried before. Jacob Middleton on why 19th-century reformers decided they were bad for children's health

It is hard to imagine how the press would respond if they were inundated with reports of children dying from the stress of schoolwork. How would politicians react to reports of children worked so hard that whole classes were left with bleeding fingertips? Or if dozens of children each year were going to bed with homework-induced headaches - only to be found dead in the morning?

Although such events seem inconceivable today, they were apparently common in Victorian Britain. In 1884, claims that children were dying from the pressure of schoolwork made national news.

The contemporary term, "overpressure", covered a wide range of complaints, from suicide and the exacerbation of pre-existing diseases, to sudden death brought about by stress.

After the first deaths were reported, government response was swift. When politicians, doctors and teachers blamed educational policy for the deaths, the government spokesman, AJ Mundella, launched an inquiry. That investigation showed no connection between children's deaths and the burdens of their schoolwork, but he decided nonetheless to simplify the curriculum and discourage homework.

At the time of the controversy surrounding overpressure, education had been compulsory for just four years. Parents, teachers and doctors were all concerned at the effects compulsory mass schooling might have on children's health. Their concerns were closely related to the manner in which education was run. At that time all pupils were tested on their learning each year, and the results of these tests were used to determine the funding of schools.

It is here where we see similarities to the modern school system. The overpressure epidemic led to the dismantling of the Victorian testing regime. Testing of children was heavily reduced by reforms of the 1880s and 1890s and it is only in recent years that it has returned to anything approaching its Victorian scale. It should not be surprising that this has brought a growth in the stress suffered by schoolchildren.

In a recent survey by the National Union of Teachers 60 per cent of teachers claimed that the national tests were inducing stress in children.

The survey did not touch on the possible stresses caused by GCSEs or A-levels, nor the possible pressures caused by exam reforms.

The adverse effects of such testing are often ignored. When faced recently with a threat by the NUT to strike over testing, Charles Clarke characterised the plan as a betrayal of children. Might it not be a greater betrayal of children to ignore their welfare in the pursuit of excellence?

If anything is to be learnt from the Victorian experience, it is that these problems should not be ignored. Whilst the reviews of the 1880s rejected the idea that stress could cause the spontaneous death of children, they did discover a rise in the number of child suicides. Is it necessary, at the beginning of the 21st century, to wait for a similar rise before we look at the the effects of high-pressure testing on children?

It is impossible to dispense with testing. Examining the work of both children and teachers is an important part of an efficient education system. But it is equally important not to allow this to affect the welfare of children.

When the first reports of overpressure began to creep into newspapers in the summer of 1884, one of the Government's first responses was to review the education system and examine ways in which it could achieve its goals without putting excessive pressure on children. Perhaps, in this new century, the present Government should think of doing the same.

Ted Wragg 36

Jacob Middleton is a postgraduate researcher into the history of education at Birkbeck College, University of London

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