'Because I'm me, I find tests kind of easy'

4th April 2008 at 01:00
Seven-year-old stars of a TV documentary tell of the pressure of taking exams for the first time

There's no escape from the pressures of national tests for seven-year-olds in England - even if they are the stars of a major television series.

The makers of the BBC documentary series Child of Our Time have been surprised by the anxiety shown by some of the 25 pupils they have been following, all of whom were born around the turn of the millennium.

The latest set of programmes, to be broadcast on BBC 1 during May, will show four of the children in England making their way through Year 2, when national tests begin, and a pair of twins in Scotland, which has a test-when-ready system.

Tests for seven-year-olds are supposed to have become less stressful since 2005, when they were changed after teacher unions threatened a national boycott.

As a result, teachers' assessments of children's performance, rather than test results, are reported, and teachers are able to choose when to test and what papers to use.

However, Tessa Livingstone, executive producer of Child of Our Time, said: "Teachers didn't feel the children were stressed, but what our discussions with children found was that, while not everybody found them stressful, a proportion of children were very conscious of being tested."

The programme shows the concerns about the national tests felt by Rebecca Saunders from Essex, who excels at school. "Sats are the worst thing in my life," she says on the day of the tests.

Dr Livingstone said: "Increasingly, girls are perfectionist. It can be quite difficult to stop a perfectionist child from worrying because they feel they do need to do well."

The series also highlights Rubin Bayfield, from Sussex, who has an audition for Westminster Abbey Choir School to contend with.

But not all the pupils appear worried. Dr Livingstone said that Eve, whose mother is ill with cancer, did well at school and found it a haven. "She told us, 'Because I'm me, I think they (the tests) are kind of easy. Other people don't find them as easy as me'," she said.

Dr Livingstone added that generally, boys were slightly less grown up at age seven, so reacted to the exams by dismissing them.

One boy, Tyrese Hakeem, summed this up by saying: "Clever is boring."

The Primary Review, based at Cambridge University, found that parents are also concerned about testing, although some recognised they were partly to blame, particularly if they paid for coaching.

Chris Davis, spokesman for the campaign group National Primary Headteachers' Association, said: "Seven-year-olds do panic about things; they can get upset. We'd like to see all primary tests scrapped. But while they have KS2 tests, then KS1 tests are a necessarily evil to provide value-added measurements, which are fairer."

The extent and effects of testing primary school children, particularly at age 11, have led to inquiries by the Commons' education and skills select committee and the National Association of Head Teachers.

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the children's commissioner, and Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, called last year for an investigation into the effects of the current testing regime.

Why some teachers cheat, Tessa Livingstone, page 27


Child of Our Time considers the age-old nature versus nurture debate. The programmes, presented by Professor Lord Robert Winston, started in 2000 and are following 25 children and their families over 20 years.

The children include Parys, son of Alison Lapper, the disabled artist; Megan, the youngest of three being brought up on a Welsh farm; and Het, who lives in an extended family with her little brother Krish.

The "Age of Stress" programme looks at how Rebecca, Eve, Taliesin, Rubin, Alex and Ivo are learning to cope with the different pressures in their lives: Rebecca's anxiety over Sats; Eve coping with her mother's illness; the arrival of pet rabbits to boost Taliesin's confidence; a chance for Rubin to get a choir school place; and Ivo's worries about his twin brother Alex's operation. The children's stories are illuminated with psychological tests, which reveal their strengths.

Professor Winston suggests that keeping a sense of humour is a key way of relieving stress.

One of the most telling scenes shows how difficult it is to hide adult stress from children. The seven-year-olds were asked to interpret the expressions on their mothers' faces as the mums watched disgusting, happy or poignant scenes. "She's doing her fake smile," said Eve. "It's not as nice as her real one."

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