What would George Orwell have said?

13th April 2001 at 01:00
It's the stuff that makes you sit up that counts, Jenny Owl tells the Prime Minister

Dear Tony Blair

You would be proud of me. This week, I made a Year 8 girl cry. I did it by setting her an internal assessment that will not affect any external exam. How on earth will she cope with key stage 3 SATs and GCSE?

Meanwhile, a Year 12 student complained about the amount of work we set him. Nothing unusual in that. He also said he used to enjoy school. Not necessarily cause for alarm, except that he is a model student. Homework always on time and to the highest standard. Always appreciative, always keen. Until now. Taking four AS-levels has ended any prospect of a social life without his work suffering. For, although I welcome the principle of Year 12 students keeping up a wider range of subjects than before, the practice is frightening. They must study a third more subjects than their predecessors, while their increased timetables and endless assessments leave few free periods. No wonder he no longer enjoys school.

Any English teacher knows that many key stage 2 pupils drop a level in the months following their SATs. Clearly the argument that such assessments are mandatory because they allow teachers to plan where to take pupils next rings hollow. But assessments do allow governments to claim that they have improved standards. Had George Orwell lived to update Animal Farm for the early 21st century, he would have written: "What is measurable, good. What is not measurable, bad."

Last summer, a local primary school rang the home of a sick child on the day SATs were taken. The child's parent was told to get her child into school to take her tests - but for whose benefit? The Government's. And the school's. Which, as a result, achieved 100 per cent in one of the core subjects. The head told the local press how the school's academic success was a source of the greatest pride. (The publicity meant even more disappointed parents failed to get their children into the oversubscribed school.) But it's all about the drive to raise standards. Standards of what? Literacy, yes. Numeracy, yes. Standards of living or quality of life? Mmm. It is ironic that you believe quality of life is important enough for your government to plan significant increases to paternity leave entitlement; yet not important enough to stem the tide of assessments from cradle to sixth form, which make any ral quality of life impossible for remotely conscientious pupils and their teachers.

Here is an equation that does not feature in the national curriculum: life = love + art, where life refers to our quality of life; love is love for or from anyone; and art is whatever makes us sit up, whether it's sculpture, soccer or soaps. So a pupil who feels cared for - that is, loved - at school, and is encouraged to develop an appreciation of things far beyond the scope of SATs, will have a better quality of life than if she is assessed until kingdom come, repeatedly told she has failed, and given no chance to stray beyond the narrowest school curriculum because performance management judges her teachers by measurable - that is, exam - results.

Wait until Leo's first parents' evening. You will have to look pretty hard to find, in any of his books, work that contains a spark of imagination or that leads Leo to love more or to be more creative. The celebrated saxophonist Courtney Pine told TES (My best teacher, Friday, November 17, 2000), that he would not have had the same opportunities had he stayed at an inner-London school, and would probably have become a DJ instead of saxophonist. How long will it be before another artist repeats the thrust of his observation, but changes "an inner London school" to "a state school", because "core subjects good, everything else bad"?

You can teach children to pass all the tests in the world, but will this help them lead happy, fulfilled lives? Isn't the drive to "raise standards" just for the glory of your government?

Mind you, the students I have cited are lucky. Unlike Mary Smith who embarked on a PGCE course then had the numeracy test sprung on her midway through the year (You amp; your job, Friday, December 1, 2000). The test assesses the skills required to analyse benchmark data, set targets and interpret Ofsted statistics.

Mary, an ex-hairdresser who left school 20 years ago without qualifications, fought against the odds to become a primary teacher, and is well placed to help families with unhappy experiences of education. But her first two failed attempts to pass the new test have been so distressing that she has resolved to leave teaching if she fails again. "I can't put myself through it again," she wrote. No doubt, you'll be glad to get rid of her.

Jenny Owl is a pseudonym. The author is a head of department


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