Tests for 7-year-olds to be dropped

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End-of-year tests for seven-year-olds will be scrapped at thousands of schools this summer in what could be the first step to removing them nationwide.

The shake-up, the first radical shift away from the testing regime criticised by teachers and parents as too stressful for young pupils, is the biggest overhaul of national curriculum testing in England since its introduction 13 years ago.

Under arrangements being tried out on 150,000 pupils in about 4,000 schools this summer, children will still be tested in the three Rs and science - but at a time during the year of the teacher's choosing.

Crucially, pupils' marks will go towards an assessment by their teacher of their overall work during the year - rather than stand alone as a mark of whether they have managed or failed to reach the standard required.

Senior officials at the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA)- the Government's exam watchdog - believe it will remove the sense of "nervousness" and "sudden-death failure" that have characterised the testing regime. Officials would like to extend the shake-up to tests for pupils aged 11 to 14, but, so far, ministers have shown no support for the idea.

Under the new arrangements in 34 local education authorities, teachers will choose which test to set their pupils from a range in each subject.

The testing regime has come in for strong criticism from teachers and parents for stifling creativity in schools as they teach to the test and abandon other parts of the curriculum. Headteachers' leaders have also complained that the tests are too stressful and that pupils have ended up in tears.

Jackie Bawden, head of testing at the QCA, said: "This is the future and a move away from high-stakes testing.

"This gives teachers greater flexibility and hands responsibility to them - as they decide which tests they are going to use and when their children are going to take them."

Under the old, high-security regime - like that applying to GCSEs and A-levels - the tests had to stay under wraps at the school until the children sat them, but this will now change. Exam watchdogs will no longer swoop at random on schools to ensure the tests are being carried out in exam-style conditions. Teachers will also be able to give a pupil a higher mark if they believe their results do not reflect their work.

This year, in the 34 authorities to test the new scheme, teachers will have a choice as to whether they use tests in English, maths and science set for 2004, or those set for 2003. The scheme will be evaluated by independent researchers from Leeds University in the summer. If positive, the changes will be introduced nationwide in 2005.

The QCA has embarked on a huge training exercise to prepare teachers. "Some teachers are losing confidence in making assessments because they have relied so much on the tests in the past," said Ms Bawden.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said he believed the move was the first step towards abolishing tests for seven-year-olds. That would bring England into line with the rest of the UK - where there is no testing of seven-year-olds.