Tests blamed for blighting children’s lives

4th Mar 2015
Young girls working in the classroom

The following is a summary of an education review which raises vital issues about primary education. You might like to consider your own system and send in comments.

“Tests blamed for blighting children’s lives”
“Our children tested to destruction”
These were two headlines from British newspapers, back in February, 2009 (nothing has changed ever since) in response to the first comprehensive review of Primary education in 40 years. Funded by charitable donations and headed by Cambridge University, the review was three years in the making. More than 70 academics produced 29 reports with thousands of children, parents, teachers and head teachers taking part in surveys across the country. It presents a damning view of the primary curriculum, which it suggests has failed generations of children, as well as a blueprint for a radical new kind of schooling that would give teachers control of 30% of their time to teach what they want.
The review finds that English primary school pupils are subjected to more tests than in any other country. Primary school pupils have to deal with unprecedented levels of pressure as they face tests more frequently, at a younger age, and in more subjects than children from any other country.
There is an over-emphasis on the skills of reading, writing and maths at the expense of other subjects, the report claims. This limits children’s enjoyment of school and risks, severely compromising their natural curiosity, imagination and love of learning, it says. Literacy and numeracy take up nearly half the school week.
National testing at 11 has meant schools focus on short-term learning at the cost of children’s long-term development. Parents are encouraged to choose schools for their children based on league tables of test scores. But this puts children under extreme pressure which could damage their motivation and self esteem as well as encouraging schools to “teach to the test” at the expense of pupils’ wider learning, the study found. The most “conspicuous casualties” are arts and the humanities. Learning that requires time for talking, problem solving and exploring ideas is sacrificed for what it describes as a “memorisation and recall” style of learning.
The report says schools should be freed of Sats (Standard Assessment Tests) and league tables to allow them to make more decisions about what and how they teach. A curriculum that values knowledge and understanding as well as basic skills should be brought in, it says.
As well as scrapping Sats, the report sets out plans for a new curriculum which includes 12 aims for each pupil. They are: wellbeing, engagement, empowerment, autonomy, encouraging respect and reciprocity, promoting interdependence, citizenship, celebrating culture, exploring, fostering skills, exciting imagination and enacting dialogue. Their learning should cover eight domains, including arts and creativity, language, oracy and literacy, and science and technology which would replace the current narrower subject areas.
Every lesson should work towards the aims and sit within the eight domains, but it should be left to schools to decide the content of classes. The national curriculum would only cover 70% of lesson time and in the other 30%, schools would develop their own “community curriculums” to give them more autonomy and freedom.
The model attempts to fundamentally shift responsibility for designing how children learn back from the government and its agencies to teachers in schools. It says that in a “utilitarian and philistine” age there is pressure to make an economic case for creativity in education, but conclude that it is fundamental to children’s happiness and wellbeing, as well as raising their job prospects in the future.
The review follows a 2008 Unicef report which ranked the UK the worst place to be a child out of 21 rich nations.
How Europe compares
French primary school education remains tightly focused on facts and basic skills. Spot tests are common, especially dictations to check a child’s knowledge of French grammar and spelling.
However, formal testing is relatively sparse. All children are given a national test of basic skills and knowledge at about eight years old. The test occurs – crucially – at the beginning of the third year of primary school, not at the end. There is, therefore, little pressure on the children. The main aim is to check the standard of the school.
Otherwise, most primary schools have internal tests, or contrôles, in maths, French, geography and history, and English at the end of each of the five short terms that make up a school year. A child who is struggling can be asked to redoubler, or go down a year. A brilliant child can sauter, or go up.
There is no national examination to move from primary to secondary education, simply a recommendation by a conseil of teachers and parents.
Pupils at Italian schools are tested on average about one test per subject per term, which goes towards the continual assessment of their performance, but does not count all that much. But for serious, GCSE-type, make-or-break exams, from the age of 13 to 18 Italian students enjoy a long exam holiday, all the way up to the maturita exam which they take at the end of liceo, the senior schools in the Italian system. On the other hand, the continual assessments can be rigorous, and if students at the top high schools score less than six out of 10 in two or more subjects they run a serious risk of having to take the year again.
Germany’s state-run primary school pupils start their education at the age of five or six. For the first two school years, they are not given marks for their academic performance. Parents are merely handed a school report on their child’s abilities and behaviour at the end of each school year.
From the age of seven, pupils are subjected to continuous assessment. Every piece of work, including tests and homework, is marked on a 40/60 per cent oral/ written basis. The marks go towards an annual school report.
When pupils leave primary school at 10 or 11, they are provided with a recommendation, based on continuous assessment, to decide what type of secondary school they attend.

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