Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Stressed Out?

The Primary Review has been the most comprehensive pieces of research about the impact of testing on primary school children and the opinions of teachers, parents and governors.

They held 87 sessions in 9 different locations and interviewed 757 witnesses - they included 197 pupils, 72 teachers, 64 non-teaching staff, 74 parents, 60 headteachers and 83 community representatives.

Some of the themes were; the wider world; what makes for a good school; good teachers and testing. As it was an academic study it was replete with caveats, qualifications and even evasion. But on one central issue that of testing it was fairly unequivocal – it’s not popular.

Children commented on testing –

SATs were ‘scary’, made them nervous and anxious, and put them under pressure. But equally:
• ‘tests tell teachers, and us, how we are doing’
• ‘parents want them’
• ‘children should be tested to show that they have done well and have been listening’
• ‘tests help children know what they have learned’
• ‘we need SATs to find our potential, and gaps in our understanding.’

Yet they understand that the stakes may be high:
• ‘it’s important to do well for secondary school’
• ‘tests get us into private schools’ (sounding 2, in an affluent area where many parents preferred private secondary schooling for their children)
• ‘high grades give you confidence.’

And, from ex-primary pupils in the selective secondary school:
• ‘Tests concentrate on the high flyers. The rest are written off before they get to the SATs. The teachers are not available to help the rest of us.’

Teachers were-

Unanimous that SATs:

• put children and teachers under intolerable pressure;
• are highly stressful;
• constrain the curriculum, especially in respect of the arts and humanities;
• subvert the goal of learning for its own sake;
• undermine children’s self esteem;
• run counter to schools’ stated commitments to a full and rounded education;
• turn the final year of primary schooling into to the wrong kind of educational culmination – a year of cramming and testing;
• disadvantage those children whose parents cannot afford to pay for private SAT coaching.

Parents were –

at least as hostile towards SATs as other groups. They deplored the ‘pressure’ of SATs, especially in Key Stage 2. Some claimed that too much emphasis on tested achievement in a narrow range of competences leads to a ‘mental shutdown’ and can put children off education altogether. Others, referring specifically to younger children or those with special needs, believed that they may be neither ready nor emotionally prepared for such demands. Some even noted a relationship between SATs, league tables, house prices and hence the social character of whole communities. In such circumstances, as one parent commented, ‘SATs only benefit estate agents.’ What parents really needed to know was (i) whether their children were progressing satisfactorily, (ii) what problems they were encountering, (iii) whether they were happy.

Yet there was a certain ambivalence here, because parents also recognised that SATs were a passport to success. Nowhere was this more marked than in Sounding 2, in an affluent south London suburb, where the session palpably changed gear when parents ceased deploring the pressure to which their children were subject and acknowledged that they were partly responsible, not least in paying for regular private coaching to maximise their children’s chances of achieving Level 5 in the KS2 SATs, which in turn would lead to success in the entry examination for independent secondary schools.

Primary Review director Professor Robin Alexander said that young children faced a range of pressures.

"What people wanted to talk about was the stress of government tests, then life outside school, road safety, physical dangers, the sense young children are having to grow up too soon."

The most predictable quote came from the mis-named Department for Children, Schools and Families,

“The government does not share the view that children are over-tested. Tests help parents and teachers monitor the progress of children and ensure they get the help they need."

I don’t hold out any hope that the Primary Review will change the mind of the government, the House of Commons Select Committee on Education asked for evidence on testing and 51 organisations wanted change, the only one that didn’t was the DCSF.

It’s teachers have the power to stop testing – if they did but realise it.


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