'It's a lot more funner': the school where exams were swapped for experiments

14th May 2010 at 01:00
The community of Essendon is an unlikely place for an uprising. Perched on a hill in rolling Hertfordshire countryside, it is an unassuming place, home to London commuters, a settlement of gypsies and a picturesque golf course, writes Irena Barker

But at its only primary school this week a major, if somewhat quiet, rebellion took place.

Essendon CofE Primary, which was crushed by stray Nazi bombs during the Second World War, stubbornly ignored then Schools Secretary Ed Balls' pleas to go ahead with the key stage 2 Sats tests.

Defying Government diktats on the necessity of external testing, the school raged against the system by holding a Science Adventure Tasks week, with some ICT and PE thrown in.

Instead of worrying about whether they would reach a level 4, pupils explored the mysteries of capillary action using straws and the molecular structure of golden syrup.

Instead of the silent tension of exam time, the classroom was alive with excited chatter as pupils investigated surface tension with the help of cereal bowls, water and paper clips.

Mr Balls said recently that heads had a "professional and moral duty" to administer the tests.

Although Essendon headteacher Rod Woodhouse (pictured, right) does not agree with this, his pupils spent part of the week sitting last year's papers, so parents will have some idea of their child's progress.

He wrote to all parents about the boycott, and received no negative reaction. One even wrote to praise him for the action.

The exams were held in a relaxed atmosphere, without covering up the many colourful wall displays containing information that might help pupils. Soft toys were allowed as mascots to encourage children through their four papers in English and three in maths.

"I don't see it as my moral duty to administer the tests," said Mr Woodhouse. "It is my moral duty to make sure every child achieves their potential.

"The best measure we have of whether we have done our job is the reaction from secondary schools. They all want pupils from Essendon."

But support for the boycott was not strong in Hertfordshire: Mr Woodhouse is one of just 69 heads to have taken part in the boycott of Sats, out of a total 354 primaries.

With a tiny Year 6, the school sometimes doesn't even qualify to be part of the league tables, and if it does the marks of just one child can send it rocketing up or plummeting down.

Year 6 teacher Georgia Kerr said: "I have three travellers in my class, one of whom is illiterate, and I have a severely dyslexic pupils whose intelligence is never done justice by a written test.

"Last year I spent so much time preparing them for the test, it was frustrating and boring.

"The tests are all about the Government being able to publish something and say 'our schools are getting better'. They are not valued as an assessment tool."

The children in her class, too, seem to have their doubts about the reliability of the tests.

Recalling previous marking scandals, 11-year-old Ellie Salmon said: "I would be worried about them not giving us the proper marks. In the past they've given the papers to anyone who can read the answer sheet."

He may not have been observing Government-approved grammatical standards, but Essendon's alternative Sats week was best summed up by another Year 6 pupil, Tarik Salih.

"It's a lot more funner," he said with a smile.

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