Depressing return of drills at 11

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Should teachers spend their time on teaching or testing? Normally the answer to this eternal conundrum would be "a judicious mix of both", but the advent of league tables and resulting pressure to score highly in national tests means preparation for them dominates Year 6.

It would be far better to expand, rather than narrow children's horizons at this critical age. After all, 11-year-olds are brimming with energy, many are now capable of abstract thought, and most are as yet uninhibited by the hang-ups of adolescence. It is not the right time to nail them to the testing treadmill.

Years ago, practising for the 11-plus blighted the final year of junior school. It is astonishing, after the odium it attracted, to see its return. "Drills and frills" it was called, as children hammered the basics all morning and sploshed paint in the afternoon, not exactly the most creative timetabling. Today any Year 6 teacher who is not drilling away after Christmas (not much frilling nowadays in the last primary year) is seen as feckless.

What a bleak version of 21st-century education we now have. When John Prescott and I organised a children's parliament for Year 6 pupils a few years ago, the quality of work they did was brilliant. They wrote and spoke passionately about the future of the planet. I wonder how many schools would give up the time on such apparent frills today, when schools are judged on high-stakes tests, rather than developing the whole child?

There is nothing wrong with tests at the appropriate time and for the purpose of informing children and teachers what they do and do not understand; it is the sheer weight of assessment, at the expense of learning, that is wrong.

With 113 tickboxes on 13 separate assessment scales being proposed for three to five year olds, and so-called "optional" tests being given to virtually every year group thereafter, 11-year-olds of the future will be pockmarked veterans.

One way or another the juggernaut must be stopped, but it will take a brave politician to stand in front of it.

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