Bethan Marshall: Pupils need a carrot, not a stick, Mr Clarke

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The Independent Online

When Charles Clarke says that the National Curriculum tests for seven, 11- and 14-year-olds "tackle low-expectation culture", he is referring to dealing with the attitudes of teachers who work in tough inner-city schools. When he turns his attention to the pupils in those schools, he adds, "We have no intention of taking [the tests] away from them." It is evident in these two statements that for Clarke, tests are the rod that this Government will continue to use, as the Tories did before them, to lever up standards as they perceive them.

Clarke's statement was made in response to a survey conducted by the NUT to ascertain whether there was still popular support among its members for a boycott of the national tests this academic year. As with previous surveys, the response was a clear "yes". Unlike the Education Secretary, these teachers believe that the testing regime, which came in 10 years ago (the first two years of the so-called SATs also being characterised by a national boycott), do little to enhance pupils' learning.

Indeed, many teachers go so far as to say that the tests positively hinder pupils. That is one of the chief reasons for wanting to boycott them. And now there is increasing evidence to support their claim. To begin with, reports suggests that the creation of league tables out of test scores has widened the gap between high- and low-achieving schools. What these tables have become, though there are a few notable and oft-quoted exceptions, are indicators of deprivation. Low-achieving schools become places that aspirational parents avoid and politicians rubbish, and the downward spiral becomes almost impossible to prevent.

But, more significantly, tests affect not only the esteem of institutions, but of children. A significant pamphlet published last year by the Assessment Reform Group claims that the relentless testing regime imposed on English schools damages the motivation of pupils. The group's work draws on the findings of over 20 research studies that looked at the relationship between testing and motivation. Much of what it found should give Clarke pause for thought in his confident assertion that tests challenge a culture of low expectation. For many pupils, they do the opposite. Labelled early as failures, many children give up. Subsequent tests only confirm their negative perception of themselves and demotivate them further.

Work undertaken by John Macbeath at Cambridge University also points to the narrowing effect that the tests have on the breadth of experience that pupils now have in schools. His study suggests that the dominance of the tests, particularly at the top end of the primary school, virtually puts a well-rounded curriculum on hold. Again, this is peculiarly damaging to pupils whose social circumstances mean that they look to school alone to provide them with a rich educational experience.

If school just becomes a place where such pupils cram for tests, what, they may legitimately ask, is the point? The situation could easily seem hopeless. And according to much old and new thinking, from Mary Warnock to a 10-year study in Finland, hope is one of the keys to educational success. Hope is a wonderful word. More delicate in sound and fragile in meaning than optimism, hope is what keeps us going in adversity. It suggests that things do not have to be as they are, that they can change. So hope persuades us that our ability is not fixed. Hope whispers to us that we can learn from our mistakes, that knowledge, understanding and skill develops slowly, but that epiphanies can occur. It asks us to dream with our feet on the ground.

Rob us of hope, as George Elliot once observed, and we are left with despair. For too many children, especially those whom Charles Clarke rightly desires to help, education slams shut more doors than it opens. And a major culprit in this process is not hard-pressed teachers in difficult schools despairing alongside their pupils, but the very tests that he seeks to defend. What we need is not so much a rod as a carrot to improve the quality of education for all our pupils. Here's hoping.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London