Too many exams are 'ruining children's enjoyment of learning'


Too much testing is robbing school pupils of their childhood and the opportunity to enjoy learning, according to the former director of the national curriculum.

Mick Waters will deliver the keynote address at the first major education conference of the year tomorrow – which traditionally sets the scene for the year ahead in schools. In an interview with The Independent, he warned that too many teachers were "looking over their shoulders towards the next set of measurements" demanded by the Government.

"One of my main worries would be that many youngsters aren"t experiencing the richness, depth and joy of learning because of schools feeling they need to achieve some imposed and questionable targets," he said. "Lots of schools are filled with optimism about the way their staff work with young people but this is tinged with some anxiety and nervousness. We"ve got to have the nerve [as teachers] to enjoy their childhood with children."

Mr Waters, who will deliver the presidential address at the North of England education conference in Leeds tomorrow, also criticised the investigation into the exams system launched by Education Secretary Michael Gove before Christmas. He said the probe – which followed allegations that examiners were "cheating" by tipping off teachers about next summer"s exams – risked "hounding the few without tackling the disease".

A report by exams regulator Ofqual later this month will decide whether any exams need to be withdrawn or rewritten this summer because some teachers have been given an unfair advantage. In a book published last year, Mr Waters argued that the system where exam boards competed for schools" custom was a "disaster" and "almost corrupt".

 He told The Independent he was worried that a handful of examiners would be "hounded" as a result of being videoed saying – among other things – that they were "cheating" in sharing information with teachers about next year"s exams.

"The danger is that they (the investigators) want the meat rather than get to the bones of the problem," he said. "The stakes from the examination system are so high nowadays that everybody pushes things to the limit of tolerance and that knocks the whole system out of shape.

"We should investigate seriously what the exam system is for, does every child need this volume of exams and what is the best way to manage it and how can we retain its integrity given its burgeoning size. It doesn"t get investigated properly because grown-ups went through the system and look back with a wry smile and think that"s what childhood is all about."

He argued that too often decision makers in education had little contact with what was going on in the classroom. "The more you become promoted the more distant you get from the very thing you should be doing," he said. "I think, for instance, if every Ofsted inspector as part of their contract had to teach for a continuous half-term every year, we"d see a better inspection system. They would have a bit more humility and a bit less certainty and they would have the real respect of the teaching profession."

Mr Waters, whose theme in his speech will be "passion, potential, performance and unprecedented change", also hopes to put the voice of youth at the centre of the conference. His presidential dinner will include one child in care from every secondary school in Leeds, rather than just senior figures from the world of education.

There will also be a panel session featuring opposing sides in the free schools debate with Toby Young, founder of a secondary free school in west London and pro-comprehensive campaigners Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn. The conference has traditionally been the curtain raiser to the education year, with the Secretary of State outlining the programme he plans to implement over the next 12 months.

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