Friday 8 February 2008

Tested to destruction?

The latest predictable 'findings' from the self-styled primary review gets its desired headlines today. The Independent uses its findings to repeat the canard that our children are 'tested to destruction'. This is simply nonsense. There are no formal national tests sat under proper conditions, and independently marked, before the age of 11. (Those at age seven are internally marked teacher assessments; other tests are sensibly set by teachers, sometimes using optional QCA test papers). After that, the only requirement on schools is that pupils sit tests in English, Maths and Science at age 14 (though many schools do them a year earlier). GCSEs suffered from excess coursework, but teachers objected when QCA sought to get rid of it; so it will survive in a supervised form in most subjects. Beyond that, whether or when pupils sit tests depend on the choices they make. If they do A-levels, their marks are awarded for modules: again this was something for which teachers argued; but they could do the tougher but less tested International Baccalaureate and will soon have Diplomas. In Helsinki, in Finland, the Shangri-La for educationists, children are tested annually. Testing helps do two things: it enables teachers to have an independent check on progress, and that measurement is crucial to the pupil's educational development. And it allows us to know how well - or badly - a school is doing. Those who think that we would know this without testing should remember the reaction in many Home Counties primary schools which had a nice image when the tests revealed the terrible truth to trusting parents. Thankfully the government is not listening to these siren voices; its progress tests, once they get them right, could offer a better measure than the existing tests, but they will be independently set and marked. Equally, the idea that structured lessons before the age of seven or eight is 'damaging' is a fallacious argument that ignores the fact that too many children lack the structure provided in middle class homes; as other research shows, early learning makes a huge difference. When I asked a primary teacher in Helsinki whether all her pupils couldn't read until the age of seven, she laughed and pointed out that the majority of her children were fluent readers by that stage, having been taught by supportive parents at home. Some still needed to learn, but most didn't. The real problem we face in this country is the twenty per cent of pupils who lack fluency at the age of eleven: they need to learn to read through synthetic phonics by the age of six or seven. They do not need well-meaning liberals pushing their progress even further behind.

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