Politicians' listening skills tested

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Today's TES poll, which shows three out of four parents are against formal testing of seven-year-olds, poses a dilemma for Labour and the Conservatives. Both plan to fight the next election on the basis of providing better, more modern public services and both will base their pitch on the language of consumer choice.

In purely democratic terms the consumer verdict on school tests is a no-brainer. The nation's parents have chosen: they are in favour of testing children as they get older, but believe infants are too young to be subjected to the kind of high-stakes statutory assessment that now exists in primary education. The TES broadly agrees with this. Testing serves two important functions: to help teachers diagnose pupils' strengths and weaknesses; and to ensure schools are properly accountable to parents and taxpayers. On these grounds alone, rational thinkers would see sense in formal testing at the end of primary school (though the discredited 11-plus is a different matter) and a school-leaving exam at 16 or 18. Testing at seven and 14 may make sense to government number-crunchers, and politicians keen to demonstrate rising standards across-the-board, but serves little purpose in judging schools' eventual success.

What is more, there is now a mass of evidence that high-stakes tests distort the curriculum and, unless sensitively administered, can be stressful to younger children. Teachers have long held this view. Scotland has never tested its seven-year-olds. Wales stopped doing so two years ago and looks set to scrap statutory tests at 14, relying on teachers'

assessments at the end of Year 8 instead. Progress in these countries has not been impeded as a result; if anything, quite the reverse.

So why the dilemma? For both the Tories, who started the practice, and Labour, which has made testing central to its tough-guy "pressure plus support" approach to education, dropping tests at seven would be difficult.

But governing, as the current Prime Minister is fond of saying, is all about hard choices. When parents and teachers agree the need for change, and are backed up by hard evidence, it is time for politicians to listen.

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