Testing for 7-year-olds: the debate that began to the sound of the foxtrot

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Battle lines for today's educationists were drawn back in 1931

There were acrimonious debates over the wisdom of testing seven-year- olds. There was repeated emphasis on the importance of male role models in the classroom and discussions about teaching through topics rather than subjects.

And after school, teachers relaxed by watching newfangled "talkies", dancing the foxtrot and reading about the construction of the Empire State Building.

In fact, many of the preoccupations of current primary education remain unchanged since the early 1930s, according to Derek Gillard, education commentator and former primary headteacher.

In an article published in the academic journal Forum, Mr Gillard examines 139 years of primary schools, since the Elementary Education Act 1870 which introduced the first state schools for all children up to the age of 14.

But it was in the 1930s that a committee of educationalists, chaired by respected academic Sir William Henry Hadow, first outlined what effective primary education should involve.

At this point, lines were drawn in a battle that would continue for more than 75 years: politicians began to consider how best to test seven-year- olds.

In an uncannily familiar decision, the Hadow Committee's report, The Primary School, published in 1931, recommended assessment through a combination of intelligence tests, school records and consultation between teachers.

But, the committee counselled, testing should not be allowed to dominate primary schooling: "The curriculum of the primary school is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience, rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored."

In an ideal system, the report said, even 11-year-olds would not be tested.

The committee also advocated teaching through topics rather than discrete subject lessons.

Meanwhile, teachers should not rely on a single method to ensure literacy. Instead, phonics should be used alongside a range of other systems.

And schools should include "an adequate number of men", to provide male role models for children.

Indeed, there was a clear interest in catering to the needs of the whole child. Teachers were advised to co-operate with parents, doctors and nurses in order to ensure "the health and cleanliness of the children".

Decades before the invention of the Turkey Twizzler, the committee expressed concern about children's poor diet and noted a need for "a proper balance between exercise and rest".

It also discussed the education of "retarded" children. While the most "severely retarded" might require special schools, efforts should be made to include most children in mainstream education.

Sir William was optimistic about the future of primary education. He talked of children enjoying "the free and broad air of a general and humane education".

But, Mr Gillard concludes, this initial aim has become obscured over the decades, with politicians taking increasingly direct control of primary education.

"It is to be hoped that a more humane and inspiring vision of its possibilities will emerge in the wake of the curriculum reviews currently being undertaken," he said. "Whether it does so remains to be seen."

`Short and Fraught' by Derek Gillard is published in Forum, volume 51, number 2a.


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