What's so bad about the national tests?

14th December 2007 at 00:00
Here are eight words you don't often see together: Key stage tests aren't such a bad idea. Perhaps the goodwill of Christmas has yet to reach me, but I do think a lot of nonsense is spoken about national tests. Ten days ago a group of prominent theatre directors spoke of an emerging "cultural apartheid" of those with access to the arts and those without. According to The Observer, Sir Richard Eyre blamed "a heavy focus on testing in schools for leaving teachers too little time to provide adequate drama and music in the classroom".

Then last week came Ofsted's report that poetry teaching in schools is often poor and our poetry choices aren't just past their sell-by date but positively putrid. Why? Because "too many teachers focused on preparing pupils for the tests", inspectors said. Michael Rosen, children's laureate, weighed in: "The effect of Sats and the whole literacy strategy has been disastrous for poetry." Enter stage right Ian McNeilly of the National Association for the Teaching of English: "The assessment system is choking the fun out of the creative aspects of the teaching of English." Honestly, if he was 40 years younger, the antics of "Canoe Man" John Darwin would be viewed as a Reginald Perrin-like escape attempt from a repressive test regime.

Let's accept that in Britain we over-test youngsters. The old adage "You don't fatten a pig by weighing it" remains as relevant as ever. But blaming tests for everything can distract us from deeper issues.

Back in the early 1990s, John Major's Government began to dismantle GCSE coursework. As a rookie English teacher, I'd cut my teeth on the 100 per cent coursework syllabus. I campaigned in the local press against the changes, along the lines that the system had the interests and enthusiasms of pupils and teacher at its heart and kindled many youngsters' passion for literature.

But I also remember my first results day in that shimmering era. Helen - feisty star of the group - got her predicted A grade and I saw her brandishing her exam slips: a clutch of top grades across all subjects.

"Well done, Helen," I said. "Yeah," she said nonchalantly, "I'm really pleased with my science and maths results."

"And English?" "I suppose so," she said, "but it's only coursework, isn't it?"

Only coursework? This was what we had been erecting the barricades for!

It was a salutary reminder that tests need public credibility. Helen wanted to know that her success was a real, recognisable achievement. We delude ourselves if we think Government, parents and pupils themselves don't sometimes want that kind of external validation of progress.

Great teachers have always kept tests in perspective while continuing to enthuse and inspire their classes. They have the confidence to go off at mad tangents.

So now, as the tectonic plates of national assessment begin to shift to a "testing-when-ready" culture, it's up to us to seize the opportunity to reignite youngsters' interests in all the areas we value, including the arts. Because we won't always be able to blame everything on tests.

- Rona Tutt, page 28

Geoff Barton, Head of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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