The Big Question: Is there too much testing of children in British schools?

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The Independent Online

Why are headteachers so angry?

They believe that today's youngsters are overburdened by the number of tests that they take. The pupil who starts school this September at the age of five and stays on to take his or her A-levels will have faced national assessments or tests in seven of their 13 years of schooling. The headteachers argued at last weekend's National Association of Head Teacher's Conference that the time spent on preparing for the tests has overcrowded the curriculum and left not enough time for creativity and enjoyment of learning. As a result, the pupils become bored and switch off learning.

Has the situation changed much in the last 20 years?

Yes. Prior to 1987, pupils faced only two external national tests - GCSEs and A-levels. The 1987 Education Act brought in national curriculum tests in the core subjects of English and maths at seven, adding science at 11 and 14. During the first Blair administration, the Government pioneered the introduction of baseline assessment - testing children at the start of their school life at the age of five to find out what they can do in terms of recognising numbers and letters and their social skills. As a result of further curriculum reforms in 2000, the AS-level was introduced - an exam worth half an A-level and normally sat at the end of the first year of the sixth form.

If tests improve standards, surely heads are wrong to want to scrap them?

Their argument is not just over the tests. They are worried about exam league tables, too. The first, for GCSE and A-levels, were introduced in 1993. Primary school league tables - with the results of tests for 11-year-olds - followed in 1999. Now there are also separate league tables with the results of the tests for 14-year-olds. Schools that have a poor showing in their league tables are likely to receive a bad report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, with the likelihood that the headteacher will be sacked. The heads argue that this has forced them to concentrate even more on the test results with a greater threat to the more creative elements of the curriculum.

Is England the only part of the UK to test so much?

Yes. Scotland has always had a completely different education system and has a two-tier examination system culminating in highers along the lines that existed in the rest of the country before the introduction of the national curriculum. Wales and Northern Ireland did have the same system as England - but with devolution have gone their separate ways. Wales has abolished all league tables and no longer has tests at seven and 14. It has also decided to abolish tests at 11 - although its primary school pupils are assessed at 10. This, they argue, allows the school to rectify any problems before pupils move on to secondary school. Many educationists believe theirs to be a sound policy - one of the criticisms of the tests in England by secondary school teachers is they do not receive the results until after pupils have started in the senior school. Northern Ireland, in the years before the new assembly was suspended, abandoned league tables.

Are the heads alone in expressing fears about the amount of testing?

No. Dr Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - the Government's exams watchdog, has also said be believes that UK youngsters are overburdened compared to the rest of the world. All the teacher unions agree with the NAHT, and parents' representatives have also spoken of the strain that it can put on their children. Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who conducted an inquiry into exams for the Government, argues that today's youngsters are less capable of using their knowledge to develop an argument in an essay as a result of being constantly "taught for the test". The Government, however, insists that tests and league tables are "non-negotiable".

What's the answer then?

Dr Boston is already planning a cut in the A-level workload - from six tested modules for every subject to four - which will see testing time reduced by a third. Many schools are allowing their brightest pupils to by-pass AS-levels in subjects they are taking to A-level.

The Government itself has changed the nature of the tests for seven-year-olds by abandoning the concept of the national test taken by all seven-year-olds on the same day. Instead, teachers can put a class in for their test when they think they are ready for it, and can choose from a range of test materials. The papers are also marked by the teachers themselves.

Most people in the education world, though, believe the Government should have gone further and adopted the recommendations of Sir Mike Tomlinson's report into 14 to 19 education. In it he argued the GCSE and A-level system should be replaced by an overarching diploma embracing both academic and vocational qualifications that would have subsumed AS-levels. He also argued that GCSE's could be internally assessed - as there was no longer so great a need for an end of compulsory schooling examination at 16 because fewer youngsters were leaving school at that age.

So what will happen now?

The NAHT is talking of building a campaign with other teachers' organisations and parents which will be aimed at next year's tests. Mick Brookes, its general secretary, is talking of trying to persuade parents to keep their children home on national curriculum test days - so the results are declared void. He is also talking of the possibility of headteachers being balloted on refusing to supply test information to the Government which would make it impossible to compile league tables. If this happens, it would provoke a major confrontation. It has to be said, though, that the National Union of Teachers held a ballot on boycotting national curriculum tests two years ago and failed to get a sufficient majority to take action.

Are test results improving?

Yes...

* The percentage of pupils reaching the expected standard for an 11-year-old in maths and English in national curriculum tests has increased from just under 60 per cent to more than 75 per cent in the past decade

* Results in tests for 14-year-olds are beginning to improve, too

* A-level and GCSE results are improving year on year. Over 50 per cent of pupils get five top-grade A* to C grade passes at GCSE

No...

* A-level results have improved year on year for the past 21 years, so you cannot put improvements down to the introduction of the tests

*The UK still lags 27th out of 30 industrialised countries for the percentage of youngsters staying on in full-time education after 16

* The Government is unlikely to meet its targets of getting 85 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach the required standard in maths and English this year

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