School testing regime attacked

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The Independent Online

The headteacher of the first "trust" school to be established by the Government has delivered a scathing attack on the current test and exams regime.

Dr Paul Kelley, headteacher of Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, claimed exam boards are pushing up the pass rates at GCSE and A-levels to keep schools' custom. He is is now turning instead to neuroscientific research to help improve his pupils' learning rather than relying on test and results as proof the school has got the best out of its pupils.

In a new book, Making Minds, Dr Kelley says of increasing A-level and GCSE pass rates: "English education was not improving steadily over all these years. Examination boards' income depended on schools choosing their qualifications. Schools' income depended on parents thinking their results were improving: so schools would switch examinations if things did not go well.

."There was a clear incentive for examinations to be made easier – but gradually – and so, miraculously, the grades crept up."

Of the current regime under which children face national curriculum tests at 7, 11 and 14, he adds:

"Testing every child has, overall, a negative on the learning outcomes and attitudes of children. Repeated practice tests reinforced the low self-image of the lower-achieving students. The feedback from teachers often hurts children's feelings rather than helping them understand their weaknesses. Children often responded by reducing their effort towards further learning and focussing on performance in tests."

Dr Kelley's school, a specialist language college, first hit the headlines when one of its star pupils – Laura Spence – was turned down by Oxford University despite being expected to get , and subsequently obtaining, five A grades at A-level. The ensuing furore prompted a broadside from then Chancellor Gordon Brown against university elitism.

The head has identified research which says that teenagers would be more likely to take in what they are learning if they started school two hours later. He is considering changing the school timetable for sixth-formers as a result.

"We have always assumed that learning early in the morning is best, probably because it is best for young children and adults," he writes. "Unfortunately, it is not true for teenagers. When teenagers are woken up at our morning time, their brain tells them they should be asleep. So they use stimulants such as coffee and cigarettes to get themselves awake. But at night, when we go to sleep, their neurological clock tells them it's not time to sleep so they drink alcohol or take drugs to get them to sleep.

"Schools and universities only make it worse, he adds. The importance of neurological patterns of time as a factor in our learning and our lives has largely been ignored. We need to fit learning to these patterns of times. "

In addition, he cites further research which shows that the best ages for children to pick up another language are between six and 13 – and contrasts that with the conventional wisdom in the UK that language learning should not be compulsory until 11 or 12.

His heavy criticisms of the exam system come from the head of the first school in the country to express an interest in becoming a flagship trust school.

And at the beginning of this term, it was among 11 trusts to be unveiled by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

It will go into partnership with Microsoft and the Open University to enable its brightest 16-year-olds to start university degree courses two years early.

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