Revisionist Thinking

If there are children suffering from test-related stress it is their teachers, not the tests, that must bear the blame

Counterpoints Education Family UK Politics

The national curriculum tests are 20 years old, and a new campaign against the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) is getting up steam. The Parliamentary Education and Skills Select Committee chairman, Barry Sheerman, has joined the abolitionists; and primary schoolchildren on a recent Panorama programme (Tested to Destruction) depicted the tests as scary monsters. The programme focused on the emotive argument that testing is iniquitous because it causes children stress. We can expect this argument to be re-iterated later this year when Professor Robin Alexander’s charitably funded Primary Review comes out — against testing, we can be sure.

Of one thing I am absolutely certain: it is that testing, in itself, does not cause stress. Children love tests. I know this because I have the pleasure of running the Butterfly Saturday Reading School, which is managed by the charity Real Action and attended by 150 children aged five to 12 from disadvantaged families of every conceivable cultural background in north Paddington, London. The children aren’t nerdish or priggish or swotty. They’re vigorous, ­vibrant and sharply intelligent. A good few come with ­disturbing histories of “challenging”, sometimes violent, ­behaviour, and other special needs. Their reading ages are often many months or several years behind their actual ages. Ten- or 11-year-olds — perilously close to transfer to secondary school and potentially facing years of disaffection, deviance and dependency — often come with reading ages of six or seven.

It is endearing and funny to see how these children ­clamour to be tested, eager to see their reading ages rise, as they do, by an average 13 months in just 30 hours’ teaching. Testing is fun. Indeed I have a theory that testing actually raises serotonin levels. Children just love to achieve – and to know it.

The abolitionists also claim that tests don’t drive up standards, since the rise in standards has stalled. And indeed one in five primary school children still fail. In one City Academy I know over 40 per cent of incoming 11- year olds have reading ages of between nine and six. There are other schools with even worse pupil entry levels. But this is not the fault of tests. It is the fault of teachers who leave teaching of the three Rs to the last moment. They then offload the stress this causes in the final primary year on to the children.

If there are children suffering from test-related stress – and in my nine years talking to the children I teach I have never encountered this – it is their teachers, not the tests, that must bear the blame.