Are tests really election winners?

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Pupils need an opportunity to look beyond the bread-and-butter basics

Pandering to parents is one of the Government's strategies for winning votes in the forthcoming general election. More choice, more middle-class secondaries, and of course higher standards in the 3Rs - as usual.

There's an assumption that holding firm on league tables and keeping up the pressure to raise Sat scores will keep voters happy. But is that necessarily true?

It can be argued that scrapping Sats, or at least making them optional, would win more parental approval than it would lose. Ten and 11-year-olds are enthusiastic learners, and many middle-class parents worry about the depleted curriculum their children are getting as schools focus on Sat preparation. Others worry about the pressure on their children and the anxiety it causes. Table-topping primaries have been known to coach and drill their brightest pupils so they reach level 6 (above average even for a 14-year-old), not for the child's benefit, but so the school can retain its crown. In some, PE disappears in the run-up to the tests - just when the children need the exercise and oxygen to the brain.

Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are all getting rid of their end-of-primary tests, with little sign of rebellion from the parents in the playgrounds.

The most shocking statistic in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's annual report for last year is that some schools are spending as much as 70 per cent of teaching time on English and maths and as little as 1 or 2 per cent on each of the other subjects such as history or music.

Although many schools recognise the importance of developing children's speaking and listening skills - which are not tested in the Sats - only a third were giving them priority, and, to the QCA's distress, nearly a third didn't even intend to do so. Since oracy underpins reading and writing, and developing it is particularly important for children who come to school with poor communication skills, this is worrying indeed.

Meanwhile, the squeeze on foundation subjects means continuity and progression are put at risk as teachers "pick and mix" activities rather than building them logically.

Last week, The TES visited primaries which taught maths and English through real activities such as knitting, darts and bridge. But linking their thinking across subjects is still hard for many schools.

The QCA says that while there is a growing interest in developing a more cross-curricular approach, more than third of schools at key stage 1 and about half at KS2 say they currently teach science and all the foundation subjects separately. Teachers can be reluctant to link subjects because they are worried about Office for Standards in Education inspectors'

reaction.

"Teachers also lack confidence in incorporating the teaching of literacy and mathematics into other subjects and are unsure how to go about this," says the QCA.

"They express concern that making these sorts of changes may adversely affect their national test results and position in the school performance tables."

The pressure can be worst for schools that are not doing particularly well in the tests, but yet not doing so badly that they have nothing to lose by trying something new.

It makes sense to monitor children's attainment at the end of primary school and to hold schools accountable for their results, but this does not have to be done in a way that appeals to leader-writers of tabloid newspapers. If Labour has not learned after eight years how conscientious primary teachers are, and that mixed messages will not bring the creativity that's now needed in more schools to raise standards in a meaningful way, then it never will.

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