Time to put an end to excessive testing of our children

Janet Downs's picture
Pupils in England are among the most-tested in the world. This is heaping pressure on our children. 94% of secondary teachers and 76% of primary teachers surveyed by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) reported stress among pupils related to public examinations and SATs.

Examination stress is not new but the high-stakes nature of SATs, GCSEs and A levels together with politicians’ rhetoric that any young person not achieving 5 GCSEs A*-C (or equivalent) including Maths and English is a failure has increased the pressure.

It is accepted pupils need to sit exams in order to demonstrate achievement. These examinations, the OECD* found, were most prevalent at upper secondary level – age 18 – and least prevalent at the end of primary school. Only four of 35 countries had national exams at such a time. Fewer than half of the countries (15) had national exams at the end of lower secondary – age 16. In countries where tests were set at age 16 they tended to be confined to two subjects: national language and mathematics. Three extra subjects were used to a lesser extent: science, modern foreign languages and social studies.

Now consider what national examinations English pupils are expected to take:


1Tests in reading, writing and maths at age 11.
2GCSEs (or equivalent) at age 16. The progress 8 measure is based on the presumption that pupils will take eight exams.
3Examinations (A/S levels, A levels or vocational exams) at ages 17 and 18.

Added to this are plans to test 4-year-olds to fix a baseline by which ‘progress’ would be measured, the phonics diagnostic check (which is being used to judge schools) and the requirement for 16-18 year-olds to keep retaking GCSE maths and English until they achieve a grade C**.

Not content with this burden, the Conservatives say Year 7 pupils who don’t reach Level 4 in SATs would sit 'simplified' tests in their first year of secondary school if the Tories form the next Government***. David Cameron made this promise aimed at parents: "more rigour, zero tolerance of failure and mediocrity".

High-sounding words – but meaningless. ‘Zero-tolerance of failure and mediocrity’ means more teaching to the test and shallow learning that leaves pupils ill-prepared for future study. ‘Rigour’ means more testing; more being ‘held to account’; and more pressure on teachers, children and, yes, their parents.

When parents begin to realise the exam pressure faced by their children is far heavier than on children in OECD countries; when parents realise most of these exams have no educational benefit but are used solely as measure for judging schools; when parents realise their children are collateral damage in politicians’ desire to have a tougher educational policy than their opponents, then they will start shouting, ‘Enough!’

And when taxpayers realise excessive testing in England costs millions every year – millions which would be better spent on education, they, too, might shout, ‘Enough!’

The OECD warned in 2011 there was already too much emphasis on raw results in England and this risked negative consequences. Since then the Government has increased the emphasis and the Conservatives are calling for even more. But we should be doing what most of the rest of the developed world do - move towards graduation at 18.


It’s time to say, ‘Enough!’

This is a companion piece to Blaming Teachers While Students Self Destruct posted by Roger Titcombe.

*Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Education at a Glance 2011, looked at accountability in OECD countries. It can be downloaded here. You can read a summary in FAQ above What are the examination and assessment systems in OECD countries?.

**Note: I’m not arguing that 16-18 year-olds shouldn’t continue to study maths and English but the emphasis should not be on repeating the same old material in order to pass a test. The time would be better spent reading texts they hadn’t met before, writing for different purposes and exploring maths from a different perspective.

***Hear Nicky Morgan on Today at about 2hr 37mins into the programme. Thanks to Guest for providing this link.
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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 06:46

There's a passionate response to Morgan telling a parent his children are mediocre failures because they lack the ability to jump over SAT benchmarks here. In a moving post, Disappointed Idealists reminds Morgan and politicians like her what primary schools should be like:

'....we could offer kids like mine what their primary school has offered them already : care, compassion; an opportunity to shine at non-academic activities like swimming, or telling stories, or singing; a safe place where dedicated adults try to find what they’re good at (even if they’re not actually that good at it) and nurture those abilities and interests.'

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 07:54

Janet - Your link is passionate, personal and exactly right. I know readers get fed up with me plugging my book, but this is all covered in Part 2, 'The Consequences of Bad Education', in 'Learning Matters.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 08:21

I urge readers to follow your link to 'Disappointed Idealist'. The following (about her children) is so true and so justifiably anger-generating.

" But more than anything else, it’s because they can’t do it. They just can’t. And I’d love to tell you that it’s because of X, and so if we do Y then it’ll be fixed, but that’s not how life works. People aren’t machines with blueprints allowing you to track down and repair malfunctions. Like most clever people who don’t have difficulty with language or maths or spatial awareness, or other academic activities, I fundamentally find it impossible to truly understand why they can’t, despite endless practice, remember how to spell basic words, or how to do basic sums. The school have tried all sorts of different methods of teaching it, and so have we at home, but one day it’s there, and the next it’s gone. Some things stick for a while, some things don’t stick at all.

That’s not to say they can’t learn anything. They can. When youngest entered reception class, she was assessed by a child psychologist to be about 2 years behind her peers intellectually, socially and in terms of her physical co-ordination. Two years behind, at the age of four, and in the very bottom percentile for motor skills. She’s probably two years behind still, but she’s now ten. So she’s made a lot of progress. But she’s not catching up, or “closing the gap”, as Ofsted like to say. She’s maintained a distance, but that difference is now probably stretching away again somewhat. She’s what has always been termed by the professionals we’ve seen as “developmentally delayed”. The result is that she, along with her middle sister, struggle at school with all their subjects.

The school’s been great. They’ve offered extra tuition throughout, and a marvellous, endlessly patient, learning support assistant has dedicated a fair portion of her last seven years to all three of my kids, helping a succession of classroom teachers to try to bring them on. The school has made them feel safe, and happy, and interested. It’s a testimony to that school that our girls, despite being different in so many ways, haven’t been made to feel different. Their cardboard Anderson Shelters, and their decorated poems about the sea, may be rather less polished than their classmates’ but they’ve been no less enthusiastic about bringing them home and showing them to proud parents.

And they can read now. Eldest is an avid reader of typical 13-year-old chick-lit, middle is ploughing unenthusiastically but capably through Hettie Feather, and youngest is about to finally finish the Oxford Reading Tree ladder (I’ve been through Chip, Biff et al’s adventures three times now – enough already !), and she can read proper books. Hesitatingly, to be sure, but she can read, when for the first couple of years, that looked very unlikely. The younger two do struggle a bit socially, and neither has especially close friends, as both are socially less sophisticated than their rapidly maturing peers, and more comfortable playing with younger children. But nevertheless, they do mix with other children, and play well in large groups. At home, they are delightful, loving, awkward, stroppy, generous, always hungry, funny and, above all, happy.

But they won’t “pass” their Y6 SATs.

There are plenty of other kids who won’t “pass” their SATs too. Even small percentages represent thousands of children. Then there are many more who might be drilled to pass (or have a marker squint generously with one-eye at their test papers), but remain much less accomplished than others of their cohort. That is life. They are children, and they are not as able as their peers. Just as there are adults who will never be able to do what other adults do academically. Maybe those children will be at that developmental stage in a year’s time, or two years. Or maybe they’ll never get there. Maybe they’ll be late developers in their teens or early adulthood. Or maybe they won’t develop in a way which allows them to get the 5 A-Cs which Morgan laughably claimed this morning would “set them up for life” – such utter rot. But it won’t be through lack of trying."

However I do disagree with the author about 'vocational alternatives'. The key word in her analysis is 'development'. There are effective, engaging and motivating developmental approaches for children at all developmental levels. 'Vocational Alternatives' were not strong in these areas because that was not their purpose. Their purpose was to fiddle GCSE results so that Blair and Co could claim that their wretched, marketised approach to education was working.

Children will always vary in their attainment levels and in their developmental rates, but all are capable of development that is also motivating, enjoyable and inspiring. They have an absolute entitlement to it.

Cameron's proposals are nasty, mean spirited educational rubbish.

No wonder 'Disappointed Idealist' is so angry. We all need to feel the same way.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 06:50

Debra Kidd describes the Tory idea of Year 7s having to take a SAT-like test if they fail to achieve Level 4 as 'bum numbing stupidity'. She reminds readers that when SATs were introduced Level 4b was described as the 'average'. It quickly morphed into 'expected' thereby branding children scoring below the 'average' as mediocre failures.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 07:35

After announcing his plans to inject more 'rigour' and 'zero-tolerance of failure and mediocrity' into education in England, Cameron visited a class of learner readers, found the story 'complicated stuff' while embarrassed Lucy hit her head on the desk.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 10:39

This brings to mind the Ch4 programme, 'The Secret Lives of 4-Year Olds', which I watched by accident earlier this week. It was not the advertised programme. I think it was first shown on 10 Feb 2015.

This is a link to the Ch 4 Press Release in which the scientist behind the programme is interviewed.


This engaging peek into social learning in action also clearly revealed the large developmental differences in a group of ten 4-Year Olds. Disappointed Idealist should not worry about the source of her children's difficulties.

Natural variation on a huge scale is 'built in' to all species that reproduce sexually. Male and female sex cells (eggs and sperm) are formed from normal cells by the process of meiosis. Each egg gets half of the mother's genes and each sperm gets half of the fathers, but which half is a lottery. Each sperm will have a differently shuffled pack of the father's genes and there is a further lottery in terms of which sperm gets to fertilise that month's egg. The results always surprise parents and especially grandparents. We have six grandchildren. Despite that their genomes come from each parent and a quarter from each grandparent, our beloved grandchildren could not be more different from each other. This is true for the brothers and sisters as well as the cousins.

This is an example of 'The Anthropic Principle'. Evolution is driven by variation, so variation-producing reproductive mechanisms have been favoured so strongly that alternatives have largely become extinct. The exceptions include social insects where the vast majority of each population consists of female clones. There is even a mammal example. This is the 'naked mole rat'. I know this because my 10 year-old granddaughter has just done a school holiday project on these creatures.

Why am I going on about all this biology? It is to make the point that huge variation will always be with us so long as we make babies the way we do. Therefore 'the Gap' between individuals will never be closed. The argument I make in 'Learning Matters' and everywhere else I get the chance, is that variation cannot be reduced and still less erased by the imposition of 'zero tolerance of failure' onto teachers and pupils and 'floor targets' onto schools.

Such variation should be a source of celebration, not shame or anxiety, and certainly not the basis of a national education policy.

That is not to say that development is not important. Of course it is. And it matters just as much or even more to those that develop more slowly. The scientist quoted in the Ch 4 Press Release says this.

"It’s an observational documentary looking at ten four-year-olds as they meet in a nursery that’s rigged with cameras throughout. My role, together with Sam [Developmental Psychologist Dr Sam Wass] is to observe the children and to provide some scientific insight into the way they interact with each other and what is happening. I suppose, for me in particular, I’m interested in learning, so I was fascinated to see how the children were learning as a result of their experiences, and the changes that occur in that respect. So my job was to provide a commentary on those changes."

I too am interested in learning. This is yet another example of the effectiveness of 'social plane learning' (Vygotsky) and using real life concrete problems as the platform for the problem solving processes that lead to development (Piaget, and the Rev Richard Dawes in the 19th Century - see Section 5.8 in Learning Matters).

This is a deeply political matter and especially now. The following is from Section 1.3, 'A Digression on human variation and equality' in 'Learning Matters'.

"When a beautiful actress proposed to George Bernard Shaw with the argument, 'imagine our children with your brains and my beauty', he is said to have replied, 'But what if they got your brains and my beauty?'

Humans are equal in a more important way. They have equal rights, such rights being broadly accepted throughout the post-enlightenment world, which we have to hope still includes the UK - but for how much longer?

This is a simple confusion that those on the political right often fail to understand. This famously includes Margaret Thatcher. On this question she set out her stall in a speech of 16 September 1975 to Pilgrims of the United States ('Heritage and Horizon') in the USA just a few months after she had been elected leader of the Conservative Party.

'The pursuit of equality itself is a mirage,' she said. 'Opportunity means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal and the freedom to be different. One of the reasons why we value individuals is not because they're all the same but because they're all different ... Let our children grow tall and some taller than others, if they have the ability in them to do so.'

Quite so Margaret. But all of our children have the same entitlement to be valued, nurtured and developed - not shamed and disparaged.

Cameron and his mates have revealed their true colours. They are a serious threat to our children.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 11:15

I am in total agreement that our system is blighted and stymied but way, way too much high stakes testing/examining/benchmarking or whatever else one wants to label it. I am a advocate of the High School style diploma model that focuses the formal qualification on the 16-19 age bracket and offers parallel and equally weighted pathways embracing academic and/or vocational routes that offer opportunities to move on to either university, tertiary, apprenticeship routes. In this regard Canada has several such models in the different provinces and Finland is not too dissimilar.

I also find a huge amount of the rhetoric and posturing by politicians to be immensely disagreeable, insulting and negative.

It is then with great sadness and disappointment that the media and other commentators in the wider forums appear to be slipping into the mode of framing their interpretations and ensuing comments based on their own inherent political biases. For example, while David Cameron is undoubtedly focused on the privatisation of state education his rhetoric on the average and mediocrity is not aimed at pupils but rather it is quite clearly targeted on schools that in his political view settle for being average and mediocre. I may be proven wrong on this but I have no recollection of Cameron or Gove or Morgan stating that it is the children who are average or mediocre and least of all that children who do not achieve a floor target are failures. To say that a child did not attain at the perceived (and arbitrary) predicted level/grade is simply not the same as calling that child a (personal) failure. In the same way that a person who does not pass their driving test (theory or road element) does not mean they are failures as people.

Similarly, while formal qualifications may have pass and fail thresholds, SATs have never been a formal qualification and simply are not designed or designated as a pass/fail event. They were and still are intended to be a gauge of the extent of knowledge and understanding at the end of the primary phase, and this information is supposed to be used in the secondary phase to assist children in their progression (whether in the form of catch-up, consolidation or stretching them). However, it is the media et al who for whatever reason have decided to indulge in the labelling game that has caused so much angst and heartache.

Even though I am implacably against the excessive level and nature of high stakes assessments that beset education in this country one cannot deny that the coalition has used taxpayers money appropriately in funding the Y7 Catch-up programme targeted on children who do not attain at L4 in English and/or Maths and the Pupil Premium. This however, begs the question as to whether HTs have used this funding to support the children that attract it. The funding is not insubstantial either. I have done consultancy in two secondary schools recently where the level of funding was £580,000 and £270,000 but where the intervention strategies were not sharply focused on the children for whom it was intended.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 15:18

Andy - did you see the TV programme about the largest primary school in England? I showed children opening envelopes to find their SAT scores in the same way as teenagers open their GCSE or A level papers. Parents were on hand to see how their child fared. SATs may not have been intended to be used as like a formal exam but that unfortunately is what has happened.

As I said above, the OECD found only four countries had national exams at the end of primary school. The UK would have been one of these. It's time this unacceptable burden on children stopped. SATs have no educational value and distort what happens in Year 6, sometimes even earlier.

Re whether Gove et al ever said children who don't achieve the targets are 'mediocre failures'. This was the message which Disillusioned Idealist received. And it's the message Year 11 pupils get when they constantly hear if they don't get 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English they're destined for a life in low, no employment or, as papers like the Mail put it, members of the feral underclass.

It may not be official policy but you're right the rhetoric surrounding targets sends out a clear message - those who don't reach the targets are, as Disillusioned Idealist wrote, perceived as 'mediocre failures'.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 15:29

Janet - the point I'm making is that the damaging perception has been created by the media and those on wider forums. Just for once neither Labour nor Conservatives are guilty of this risible situation. The damaging rhetoric has its roots in our irresponsible media and general commentators.

In the case of the TV programme I would take sharp aim at the HT for treating SATs results in such a shameful over hyped way.

I really do hate to say this but parents also play a part in this perceptional delusion on SATs. Far too many simply do not understand the aim and purpose of SATs and take as truthful accuracy what they read elsewhere with the worst being classic pushy parents living their expectations through their children.

My position regarding the number and frequency of assessment and testing etc in this country is unchanged from that stated in my opening post @ 11.15 am.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 16:03

Andy - I admit I was uncomfortable when I saw the children opening their envelopes to find their score. This was a shame because the school had come over as competent and caring.

Re rhetoric - Gove contributed to this. In 2009 he said:

'And one of the tragedies of the education system at the moment is that far too many fail to secure robust, rigorous and respected qualifications....It is worth underlining the scale of our problem. Since 1998, over 3 million 11 year-old primary school children have not reached the Government’s basic level in reading, writing and maths – about 40% of primary pupils every year. Since 1998, about four million children have failed to get five GCSEs, including English and Maths, of grade 'C' or better – over fifty percent of pupils in state schools every year...'

See the link between 'fail', 'failed', 'robust, rigorous and respected qualifications' and primary SATs and GCSEs grade C.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 16:29

Janet - For me context is particularly important and it is with this in mind that I make the following observations:

1. Gove only used the term fail in relation to 5 x GCSEs including English and Maths
2. Niether at KS2 nor 4 did Gove label children/pupils as being 'failures'. Indeed he seem specifically stated that "Since 1998, over 3 million 11 year-old primary school children have not reached the Government’s basic level in reading, writing and maths – about 40% of primary pupils every year."

As much as I am no apologist for Gove (or any career politician for that matter) it is simply inaccurate and untruthful for anyone to say that he is labelling children/pupils as being personal failures. It should be self-evident to anyone that saying someone failed to attain a grade C at GCSE or did not reach the government baseline target in KS2 is just not the same as saying to a child or pupil 'you are a failure'.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:08

Andy - the implication is there, loud and clear. GCSE grades C and above are now described as 'good' GCSEs - this implies D and below are 'bad' GCSEs. Those achieving these 'bad' GCSEs have by implication 'failed' to get 'good' ones. Yet when GCSE first began (set up by Tory Sir Keith Joseph), the only GCSE failures were those who received U.

Gove (again), writing in Standpoint and reproduced on Conservative Home said:

“Five GCSE passes (including English and maths) is the basic passport any child needs to be eligible for further study or a decent job. It’s the minimum a 16 year old needs to have a decent chance in life.”

This followed a section about five C grades and was in turn followed by another section saying that falling short of that standard was unacceptable.

I can see no other reading of this passage but that failure to get 5 GCSE C grades (or above) including English and Maths implies failure in life.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:21

Janet - we can debate this until the proverbial cows come home but my position will not change. To states that a child/pupils/student either didn't reach the government baseline or did not achieve a GCSE grade C or above or a pass grade at A level is simply not the same as stating that a child/pupil/student is a failure.

The use of the terms implies or infers that the person is a failure or is the equivalent of being a failure is just plain inaccurate and wrong. For me this is where the media, parental construal/perception/interpretation, and that of other commentators create wrong headed labelling. It is also the domain of politically biased smoke and mirrors.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:35

Andy - you're right that the perception of 'failure' is hyped by 'politically biased smoke and mirrors'. Unfortunately, Gove and others have fed this hype for their own political ambitions or for electioneering purposes. It was only this week that Morgan said primary pupils with Level 3 couldn't read or write 'properly' despite Level 3 pupils demonstrating they could “read a range of texts fluently and accurately”, write in a way which is “often organised, imaginative and clear”, and “add and subtract numbers with two digits mentally and numbers with three digits using written methods".

But according to Morgan and others, Level 3 ability is not reading, writing or calculating 'properly'. And if you say publicly that Level 3 children are not doing things 'properly', you are telling them and their parents that the children are failures.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:52

Janet - Let's be honest about it, they are each as bad as each other and it isn't just the politicians and their parties either. The media and biased sloppy journalism plays a significant part e.g. the BBC article about Cameron and Morgan this week used the word "poor" when neither used it.

TH and Clegg are just as prone to wildly inaccurate hyperbole and twisting facts to suit themselves and their respective parties.

As highlight by 'Guest' on Roger Titcombes thread about 'Blaming teachers ...', only this week TH explicitly cited the employment of unqualified teachers as the reason children did attain L4 in KS2 and 5 A*-C x GCSE. This is despite the fact that the 2013 data published in July 2014 identifies that less than 1% of teachers in the primary sector and around 2% in the secondary phase are unqualified. It is then an unmitigated untruth to assert that such small numbers are responsible for the national stats at KS2 and 4.

On yesterday's R4 Today programme TH - like so many politicians - dodged the point put to him by the interviewer that the proportion of unqualified teachers is about the same now as it was in 2005 (under Labour).

Barry Wise's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 17:10

Children only feel pressure on SATS because their teachers or parents make them feel pressured. SATS have (almost) no consequences for children. They are certainly not 'high stakes' for kids, though they are for schools + sometimes staff.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 18:30

Barry - In the cold hard light of day you are right. The pressure and hype has its roots in political point scoring, irresponsible media reporting, over excited and ill-informed parents, the chattering classes, and most regrettable of all, sections of the teaching profession.

SATs could and should have been seen as both a way of gauging a child's progress in Eng and Maths during the primary phase and thence as diagnostic tool from Y7 onwards. Belatedly this is how SATs could be partially redeemed through Y7 repeats of "slimmed down" SATs for which secondary schools already receive money through the Y7 Catch-up funding.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Sat, 18/04/2015 - 22:19

at the root of this issue is the Black Paper perception that all state school education failed, and politicians must engage in reform to make changes to improve the situation. No changes ever change the perception, so calls for more testing always follow suit. We have already had an exchange on this site on the "production of illiterate children" which reached question time.

And yes, the BBC and other media constantly recycle failure stories with no evidence. The big issue is that they too embrace the Black papers ideology, though the journalists themselves do not actually remember the black papers.

Underpinning this is the failure to consult actual factual evidence, but having had one try to get people to think about Kuhn's paradigm theories, I will rest on that one. The more useful idea to explain what is happening is the idea of cognitive dissonance.

When the facts don't matter, and in education they don't then the issue becomes why. In the heads of the practitioners (the cognitive bit) they have dissonance. They can't grasp the facts.

Now a blog site is useless for tackling a situation like this, especially when anonymous commentators do not give their surnames, but after the election the issues have to be confronted head on.

Forty years of being told state education and teachers are garbage so we have to have testing to destruction are clearly coming to a damaging end. Teachers are walking out.

Trevor Fisher

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