Education: Testing times after the boycott: Disillusioned teachers want the proposed review of pupils' tests to be the first step in an overhaul of the entire curriculum, says Donald MacLeod

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The Independent Online
IT NOW seems certain that this year's tests for seven- and 14- year-olds will be turned into a shambles by teachers' boycotts. Ministers appear resigned to losing the tests this year, hoping that teachers can be compelled to administer them in 1994. But unless something positive is done, the present confusion could persist into next year.

Sir Ron Dearing, the new chairman of the curriculum and testing authorities, has been appointed by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, to slim down and adjust the elaborate curriculum and testing system in England and Wales. In reality, his job is to stop it unravelling altogether.

Sir Ron must devise a formula that can be sold not only to ministers, but also to teachers and parents.

Badly designed English tests for 14-year-olds may have ignited the teachers' boycott, but impatience with the testing regime is equally strong among primary teachers, who have been grappling with tests for seven-year- olds for the third time this year.

Sir Ron's problem, as he will have learnt from his visit to the Secondary Heads' Association conference at Southport, Lancashire, at the weekend, is that the profession has very different expectations of the review. Mr Patten, who has been dropping Sir Ron's name into television interviews and speeches like a soothing mantra, wants a breathing space. Teachers want a root- and-branch review, not only of the tests, but also of what they are required to teach.

Sir Ron did a lot of listening to headteachers in the corridors of the Floral Pavilion in Southport. For an hour he was bombarded with suggestions and criticisms during a workshop on the curriculum. He will now be aware that teachers' concerns go beyond tests for 14-year-olds: they embrace GCSE courses as well. Even A-level - the 'gold standard' defended so doggedly by Conservative ministers - appears set to come under renewed assault.

The association is planning a curriculum that runs from 14 to 19 years of age and recognises the fact that two-thirds of pupils stay on at sixth form or attend further education colleges beyond GCSEs at 16. To be workable, this plan will require radical changes to A-levels.

A-levels are designed as a purely academic examination course. Many heads believe they are inappropriate for most students older than 16. Robin Wilson, chairman of the Headmasters' Conference, the public schools heads' association, said this week that only about 20 per cent of pupils should normally pursue academic A-level courses. Others should take vocational courses, or a mix of vocational and academic courses.

The secondary heads, like other teachers, want testing to be less bureaucratic, but they oppose simplistic 'pencil and paper' tests. They believe pupils should be assessed on a wider range of achievements; they liked 100 per cent course work for English GCSE, even if it meant more marking, because they believed it raised standards and motivated children.

Teachers will inevitably teach to the test, they say; narrow tests will narrow the curriculum. The way out, they argue, is for the Government to trust classroom teachers to carry out their own assessments of children at seven, 11 and 14 years of age.

Although they are not required to teach the national curriculum, most independent schools have attempted to run their courses in parallel with it. But they are viewing the tests warily. The Headmasters' Conference and the Girls' Schools Association, which represent the country's most prestigious independent schools, have suggested a 'charter of competency' for schools that would gradually do away with the testing regime.

Schools would run their own tests, which would be scrutinised by the Government's new independent inspectors programme. When inspectors had established their confidence in a school, it could be withdrawn from the imposed testing regime and granted a 'charter of competence'. That proposal almost certainly would be rejected by ministers, however.

Arguments over what should be taught as part of the national curriculum are even more fundamental. Louise Kidd, president of the Secondary Heads' Association, says that her members oppose the subject-by-subject 'rolling review' of the curriculum proposed by ministers. Instead, they want a review of the whole structure.

Headteachers complained to Sir Ron that the national curriculum was crowding out valuable learning in drama, music, art, classics, second languages and vocational work. In many schools, they claimed, the pressures of the compulsory curriculum on timetables prevented pupils from studying, for example, both art and music up to GCSE.

Their answer is both to slim down the compulsory core curriculum and to introduce short courses, or 'modules', to achieve more flexibility, particularly from age 14 onwards. 'There is nothing sacrosanct about the two-year course,' says John Dunford, who is drafting the association's policy on 14- to 19-year-olds.

The short-course approach is already being adopted in Scotland, where vocational national certificate modules are increasingly used to complement academic Highers and Standard Grades (equivalent to GCSE).

Mr Dunford, headteacher of Durham Johnston School, Durham, said that modules would not be tied to a particular age, but, like music grade examinations, could be taken when a candidate was ready.

He said that a 17-year-old would be able to study a unit of work which he or she found too difficult at 15 or 16, while an 18- year-old for whom even the present A-level course does not provide sufficient intellectual stimulation could study a module that could count towards a future degree. An adult could study a work-related unit that would contribute towards an academic qualification.