Redo the exam wiring

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Test obsession is making science boring and robbing us of talent, writes Brian Hughes

Was anyone surprised at Ofsted in England (TES Cymru, May 19) discovering that pupils were being taught to pass exams in maths rather than being taught for understanding?

The whole education system has become obsessed with examination results and targets. There is too much pressure on pupils, at all levels, to perform in high-stakes tests, too much pressure on teachers to produce good results statistics, too much pressure on heads to get a good position in the league tables, and too much pressure on local education authorities to meet arbitrary targets.

Many LEAs in Wales used to run an advisory service, employees of which were called "staff development officers" or even "advisers". They have for the most part been replaced with "school improvement officers".

These officers have to combine the advisory role of their predecessors with an inspectorial role. While most of the holders of these positions are helpful and do their best to support teachers, they are bound to contribute to pressure in the system. And the relationship is different to the one teachers and advisers used to enjoy.

Some LEAs even employ statisticians to paw through results and produce quasi-scientific bar charts of exam performance.

Self-evaluation in schools often has an extremely sharp focus on exam results. Some argue that this focus has brought about the improvement in results that we have enjoyed year on year in recent times.

Fine, but for the same people to then turn round and criticise teachers, heads and schools for concentrating on getting pupils to pass exams is exasperating. I believe it is bad because it has created a climate of fear of failure.

Such fear stifles experimentation and flair. It is clearly the reason why teachers are teaching for tests rather than for understanding, enjoyment or inspiration.

The consequences of the national obsession with results are now being felt in universities, where maths and science departments are closing. As a science teacher, I feel that the situation described by Ofsted for maths is possibly even worse in science, certainly at key stage 3 and most acutely in Year 9.

I remember when Y9 was the time when pupils made their GCSE (or equivalent) choices. They were not forced to take all three sciences, so to get them to opt for your subject you gave them an exciting experience in Y9.

Now, of course, it is Sats year - they have to be "prepared" for the exams.

The competition between the science subjects has disappeared. And the recent staff restructuring (to accommodate the replacement of management allowances with new teaching and learning responsibility payments) has allowed schools to merge three departments into one.

This is the final act in the mistake which the "balanced science" movement has proved to be. If it had been a success, would we not be seeing university science departments fighting off applicants rather than closing down?

Secondary teachers usually come to the profession with a degree in physics, chemistry or biology. Fewer are joining with expertise in the former two, so we are asking teachers with a love of biology to inspire pupils to study chemistry and physics through the medium of science.

Is there any hope? There is probably more in Wales than in England because there is more chance of removing fear of failure without Sats and league tables.

There is lots of great research and professional development on the way pupils learn, which could contribute to improvements in the educational experience of pupils - but these cannot flourish in a climate of fear.

The system of pressure coming down from government through LEAs to heads and teachers must be stopped. But, for that to happen, everyone in education must value educational experience at least as much as exam results.

We should look to Finland, where there is no fear of failure because there are no external exams until university selection (A-level equivalent).

It is no coincidence that, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development research, pupils in Finland have the highest attainment of any country in the world.

Brian Hughes has been a science teacher for 28 years and works in Torfaen Join the debate Write to TES Cymru, Sophia House, 28 Cathedral Road, Cardiff CF11 9LJ.

Email: 029 2066 0207 Beth yw'ch barn chi?

Ysgrifennwch at: TES Cymru,Ty Sophia, 28 Heol yr Eglwys Gadeiriol, Caerdydd CF11 9LJ.Ebost: 029 2066 0207

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