Six is too young for school tests

Personally Speaking By Emma Haughton A six-year-old can tell when something really matters. It's impossible they won't pick up on anxiety to get results
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The Independent Online
I've spent half my life taking exams. At 10 it was in at the deep end with the nerve-racking, all-or-nothing 11-plus, adolescence was a never-ending stream of end-of-year exams, O-levels, resits and A-levels, while my early twenties were capped with the solid week of purgatory that was finals. Not to mention Oxford entrance, Pitman's typing, some surprisingly gruelling journalism exams and, perhaps the most stomach-churning of all, my driving test - fortunately I only had to take that once.

So when I realised that my six-year-old was going to sit three hours of government tests, I balked. Too much, too young, I thought. After discussing it with my son, I informed the school that I wanted to withdraw him from the whole process.

Initially the staff were sympathetic. My son is one of the youngest in his year and, they agreed, at something of a disadvantage. They could see that the test would not benefit him personally in any way. However, as the tests approach, the obstacles have mounted. The school won't know which day his class will be sitting them, and has a legal obligation to test him if he is present. It has boiled down to several stark and equally unpalatable choices: let him sit them against my better judgement, rush up and remove him from class minutes before they begin, or keep him at home for the whole of May.

I know that the school will make every effort to minimise any stress involved, and I can see the logic behind assessing children to quantify and raise school standards, but I just can't handle the idea of a child of six - who in many countries wouldn't even have started school yet - having to take formal test papers.

I've been assured that most children aren't even aware they're being tested, but I don't believe it. Children aren't stupid. A six-year-old can tell when something really matters, and with the increasing pressure on schools to get good results, it's impossible that children won't pick up on this anxiety. And I don't like exams. I've done enough of them to know that they are a very blunt tool. Most measure memory rather than ability, they rarely take account of nervousness, lack of confidence, or just plain feeling unwell on the day, and whatever the safeguards, the marking is frequently rather subjective. Beyond that, however, I believe kids learn a lot from tests. Even where the results are not disclosed to the children, they learn about the concept of failure, the idea of not coming up to scratch, of being tried and found wanting. By their very nature, tests present children with questions they will be unable to answer, but do nothing to assuage the resulting feelings of inadequacy. They introduce the idea of competition, about some people being better than others. These are very harsh messages for a six-year-old.

What's the solution? The tests are accompanied by a teacher assessment, where teachers use their knowledge and experience to judge how well each child is doing. Frankly, that is good enough for me, but if the Government is hell-bent on objective appraisal, what's wrong with incorporating it into the curriculum?

I would much prefer that any testing was done by continual assessment, noting down the levels achieved by children during the course of an ordinary school day.

In the meantime I reserve absolutely the right to make decisions about the best interests of my children, but in this case I can see their best interests were overlooked long ago. From now on it's a case of damage- limitation.