Test tips equal 300 pages of pressure

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Government's KS3 English "booster pack" can hinder learning, warns exam regulator. Warwick Mansell reports

The Government is sending schools hundreds of pages of detailed tips on how to ensure pupils pass national tests, despite warnings from its own curriculum advisers.

Teachers say that the booster packs, issued to guide pupils through months of preparation for key stage 2 and 3 tests, are strangling youngsters'

enjoyment of subjects and that there is no firm evidence that they benefit in the long term.

The National Association for the Teaching of English said schools feel political pressure to follow the guidance in order to improve results, despite the lack of educational merit.

A 328-page document sent to all secondaries by the KS3 strategy team in advance of this year's KS3 English tests states exactly how teachers should tailor their preparation to maximise pupils' performance.

Some 258 pages cover 16 lesson plans for pupils on the level 45 borderline, including detailed model answers and advice on techniques such as how to skim read questions.

Part of the work includes detailed analysis of how to do a practice question based upon an extract from Ian McEwan's novel Enduring Love.

Youngsters have to consider the "assessment focuses" used by examiners when marking, and are encouraged to understand the structure of the writing test mark scheme.

They should even play a game in which they look at six descriptions of a candidate's work, such as "pupils give a confident answer, clearly focused on the task", and try to work out how many marks each description would get.

The package features 12 pages of worked answers for one question each on Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V, which are similar to the questions pupils were given for the real test in May.

Last week, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that over-intensive coaching could be damaging pupils' ability to think for themselves, potentially hindering their performance in KS3 English tests.

It raised concerns that secondaries were encouraging pupils to reproduce the characteristics of the curriculum's four "writing triplets", which say that writing should inform, explain and describe; persuade, argue and advise; analyse, review and comment; or imagine, explore and entertain.

Yet the booster pack says that schools should "model and then invite pupils to work out which triplets are addressed in different writing tasks".

The KS3 strategy offers equally detailed guidance in maths and science at KS3. At KS2, guidance from the Government's primary national strategy plots a four-month build-up to the English tests, with schools advised to "ensure there are plenty of test questions integrated into lessons". Primaries are advised to target particular pupils for "booster" lessons, to discuss mark schemes with pupils, to hold a mock test in February and to send pupils home for Easter with revision work, including past reading questions.

Simon Gibbons, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "If the teaching is as prescriptive as these packs suggests it should be, it turns kids off English. I've seen it happen in lessons. They are not engaged, and they are not interested. When they reach GCSE, it's very difficult to reignite that spark."

Robert Coe, of Durham university's curriculum evaluation and management centre, said: "Schools are told they need to boost their scores, and here is how to do it. It is absurd."

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said that the guidance was so lengthy because teachers had wanted it this way. She said:

"Achieving level four in English at age 11 represents the difference between basic literacy and numeracy and opening the door to success in secondary school and beyond."

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

Primary Forum 28

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