Double dose of testing that crushes creativity

4th June 2004 at 01:00
The good news is that this year's Sats are likely to be the last (sadly, only in Wales) and that Ofsted inspections will be shorter from September 2005. The powers-that-be are obviously listening to schools, with the happy prospect of lessening the stress on children and teachers. Perhaps, then, no one in the future will repeat the experience I had last month.

It was depressing. Not unusual, as I'm a primary school head. It wasn't the frighteningly angry parent threatening to bring my back teeth and anus into close proximity; it wasn't the energy-sapping governor, who scuppered the efforts of our working party on inclusion by absenting himself again; it wasn't the broken window, wrecked bench and beer cans on the playground that greeted me in the morning. All these are such an integral part of the school day that I accept them without thought.

What got to me was the combination of an Ofsted inspection and Sats.

Thankfully, they didn't occur in my school simultaneously. I took a box of chocolates to a colleague on the first day of her school's inspection, then came back to supervise Sats in my school. Experiencing both in such a short time had a disturbing effect.

In both schools, children and teachers were being assessed and tested and, thanks to the tremendous importance each process has, their real achievements distorted beyond recognition. What is the use of such an untrue, partial snapshot, particularly when there is near universal agreement that each process has such a demoralising effect?

The teachers being inspected had put in hours of preparation. Our children sitting Sats had also been well prepared. There cannot be many schools which do not, in some way, narrow the education they offer in order to make sure their pupils do as well in the tests as possible; this testing regime has pushed schools towards a Gradgrind curriculum not easily resisted by even the most idealistic.

And the after-effects on Year 6 children, already demob happy with thoughts fixed on their new secondary schools, and with premature "Kevin" behaviour fuelled by raging hormones, are explosive. I wonder if there is a statistics wonk somewhere who has spotted a correlation between exclusions in primary schools, Sats, Ofsted visits and the approach of the end of the summer term?

The new shorter, sharper inspections will lessen the pain. But how much better if briefer Ofsteds were to take place only in schools where there was clear evidence that all was not right, and we were to return to the days when we could trust teachers to teach.

And with change in the air, perhaps the DfES could learn from our Welsh cousins, and abolish Sats. If we can't accept teacher assessment as sufficient, then perhaps we can adopt the changes begun in our infant schools and use the Sats in junior schools in a less oppressive way. For national testing purposes schools could be randomly sampled, preferably anonymously and online. For those who want information specific to each school to be available to parents, then a profile prepared by LEA inspectors who know their own schools would be enough.

Such a scheme would produce information fit for the purpose at much less cost and with less pressure on children and teachers. Enjoyment, creativity and this testing regime are not compatible. Then, with such improvements in place, I might be able to tackle my own difficulties more cheerfully.

Bob Aston is head of a junior school in Medway in Kent

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