The excessive testing regime in schools is making children mentally ill, a teachers' leader warned yesterday as she condemned the Government's hands-on approach to primary education.
Pupils were branded "failures" even before they moved up to secondary school, said Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "Children suffer stress and anxiety as the test looms and the rise in children's mental health problems cannot be divorced from their status as the most tested in the world," she added. "The tests label young people as failures, and this leads to one of the lowest rates for staying on post-16 of any industrialised country.
"We also know the tests are not reliable – over 25 per cent of children will be given the wrong level. The whole edifice on which the test regime has been built has crumbled. They are not accurate. They are not valid."
But plans to replace Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) with a new system for 11- and 14-year-olds could make matters worse, Dr Bousted told the ATL's annual conference in Torquay. She called on ministers to answer concerns about the proposed new exams, which pupils will take when they are ready, instead of at fixed ages. What was needed, she argued, was a move away from rote learning and constant testing to more challenging lessons which developed children's thinking skills. She said: "Our national curriculum should be far more focused on the development of life skills and ways of working than whether or not we teach the Battle of Hastings.
"We have got to move beyond 'Should we or should we not teach Shakespeare'. Our world isn't going to collapse if they don't know 'To be or not to be'.
Mary Bousted, the General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, on the overtesting of primary school children
Dr Bousted's comments came at the climax of a week in which ATL delegates voiced growing concern about the fragile mental state of the country's seven million children, caused by the twin pressures of family breakdown and the school curriculum.
Following a series of reports suggesting disturbing levels of anxiety and unhappiness among pupils, ATL members used their annual forum to demand urgent action and a change of emphasis from the Government. They voiced alarm at the rising youth suicide rate – each year, up to 800 people aged 15 to 24 take their own lives – and called for a royal commission to investigate why so many pupils were unhappy.
Alison Sherratt, a teacher at Riddlesden St Mary's Church of England School in Keighley, West Yorkshire, said students often blamed their anxieties on stress caused by the curriculum. "I think this testing culture breaks down to this. They think 'I won't be able to achieve this so I won't bother'," she added.
John Harkin, from Oakgrove College, Londonderry, spoke of the loneliness of pupils who hid away in their bedrooms rather than communicate their worries to their families. "With the television in the bedroom comes isolation and loss of contact with the community," he said.
The ATL – traditionally the most moderate of the three main teaching unions – wants the Government to relax its "three Ts" (tests, targets and league tables) regime. Under the existing system, children are first assessed at four or five to determine what they can do when they start at school. They then have to take SATs at ages seven, 11 and 14, GCSEs at 16, AS-levels at 17 and A-levels at 18.
Teachers should be given greater control over what is in the school syllabus, the ATL believes, so that pupils are stimulated by lessons rather than turned off by simply being taught how to pass the next set of tests.
Phil Jacques, a science teacher from Shaftesbury in Dorset, left the Schools minister, Jim Knight, in no doubt about the union's mood as he thanked Mr Knight for addressing its conference. Such speeches are often bland but Mr Jacques spoke of the "ridiculous over-testing of English schoolchildren" and the "dismal, tedious and over-subscriptive" national curriculum.
Mr Knight responded by saying the Government was giving teachers more freedom and trust with the introduction of a new secondary curriculum from September.