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When exam pressure pushes teachers to cheat

It's not because they want better results for their schools, but because they know that repeated failure turns children off learning

Children as young as seven are suffering because they can't stand the thought of exams. Their teachers are also under pressure. Ed Balls is now experimenting with "testing when ready", a move designed to lessen the pressure, but he has also made a firm commitment to continue testing very young children. So why do a growing lobby of child experts believe this is the wrong decision?

In my forthcoming show, Child of Our Time - a BBC series following 25 millennium children to adulthood - a charming and clever seven-year-old girl told us, with troubled eyes: "My teacher thinks I'm good at my work, but I don't think I am. I'm scared that I'm not going to do well because then I won't ever get into a good school."

A tearful teacher told me that she, too, was out of control. "The cost of getting low marks is just horrible. I'm letting down the whole school if my kids don't do well."

British children are the most tested in the world, facing around 100 exams by the time they are 18. Pressure to succeed has helped generate a stress epidemic where one in 10 risks developing a mental health problem. British teachers are also some of the most scrutinised in the world. Like their pupils, they have to justify the results their pupils get. The strain has had young teachers leaving in droves.

When we started talking to teachers about Sats tests in 2007, most felt that the children did not suffer. But, in fact, children are more vulnerable than they let on. How much exams can damage self-esteem became clear when we talked candidly with the seven-year-olds we were filming.

"It makes me very unhappy and frustrated." "They're too hard." "I can't catch up." "I hate them." And, cynically, "Clever is boring."

Only a few felt differently. Just one was really confident: "Because I'm me, I think they're kind of easy. Other people don't find them as easy as me because, well, they're not as clever."

But the pressure to do well was clear to all. Difficult exams were coming and they had to reach their designated level.

Even 10 years ago, the effects of an exam culture were evident at home. My children, waving complex spelling lists in front of my face, were happy to be tested, but when asked what a word meant, they rolled their eyes and said: "Mu-um, we don't need to know that - we just need to know how to spell it." For them, learning seemed to be simply a strategy to get 10 out of 10 and a gold star.

Something more perfidious is going on with some teachers, something that seems to have been airbrushed out of the debate on how to manage testing. For them, the pressure is acute during exam times because 85 per cent of pupils are expected to reach the required standard in English and maths. If they don't, there will be trouble. And if the Ofsted report is poor, the school sinks in the league tables and relegation looms.

But highly stressed teachers do have a way out. They can cheat. In principle, that does not seem right. But we all know that if the stakes are high enough, cheating happens, and a decent working environment, with a school saved from the ignominy of special measures, is a very high stake.

The question is not whether teachers cheat when their pupils, for whatever reason, are not doing well, but how many do so, in what way and how much does it matter?

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics describes a remarkable investigation by Levitt that ended with the dismissal of a dozen teachers in Chicago for rewriting some pupil's answers after the exams.

When I read this, I reflected that if 5 per cent of the Chicago teachers had cheated surreptitiously, how many more had helped pupils in a more open way? So I asked five young teenagers staying over in my house.

They came from all over the UK - mid-Wales, Norfolk, Suffolk, east and south London. Three had teachers who wandered round class advising them on answers. Another had one who looked at answers and suggested pupils should think again. And the fifth child joked that it was odd that they had faced very similar questions the previous day. It turned out that only one had a teacher who had not cheated at all.

So then I asked a trainee teacher. She said that it was easy to help the children who most need it, and told me about another ruse she had seen: a child who doesn't understand a question puts up his hand and the teacher explains it to him in a way that gives him the answer.

Cheating does the teacher no credit, it does the children no good if they drop a grade or two as soon as they get a more honest teacher, and it runs the risk of making both teachers and children increasingly cynical.

But while solid statistics about cheating are notoriously difficult to find for obvious reasons, there is a sense that cheating - or helping - young children to do well in tests is fairly widespread.

I am left wondering about motives, and there are good ones for helping a young child not to fail. Most teachers are caring, dedicated and professional; they do not want their children to fail, not just because they need good results but because they know that repeated failure is difficult for a child to manage and turns them off learning.

It especially affects young boys, who are at a slight developmental disadvantage and who, according to one experiment we did this year, tend to dislike the notion of being clever.

As my trainee teacher told me: "I can't see what good it is for children of seven to be tested like this. It's really upsetting to be there as kids struggle in silence and mortification, knowing they aren't as good as the others, and if they put their hand up everyone sees and knows."

Perhaps the cheating is not so bad when it helps the children. As W.C. Fields said: "A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for."

There is a school of thought that a diet of exams prepares children for the adult world. Having worked with many children over many years, I wonder if it is too much, too young. There is another way.

At the moment, the British way is increasingly about getting children to learn skill sets in the short term. But, as W.B. Yeats tells us, "education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire".

Skills such as reading and writing are important, but it is much more important to instil in a child the disposition that allows them to use their skills to educate themselves.

- 'Child of Our Time: Early Learning' by Tessa Livingstone was published by the BBC last month. The 'Child of Our Time' series will be broadcast on BBC1 on Wednesdays May 7, 14 and 21 at 8pm

Dr Tessa Livingstone, Author and BBC executive producer.

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