Leading Article: The stress of league tables

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The Independent Online

Concern over the stress faced by today's schoolchildren – particularly those of primary school age – is growing rapidly (see cover story). In some ways, you might expect this in the week that the Easter teachers' union conference season starts, but it is not just the teacher activists who are expressing their fears.

Keith Bartley, the chief executive of the General Teaching Council, has called for a more relaxed national curriculum to reduce the stress induced by the testing and targets regime. Birmingham City Council, one of the largest education authorities in England, is to rewrite its children's policy to ensure that youngsters' emotional wellbeing is given as much priority in school as literacy and numeracy. These moves follow the steps taken by Dr Anthony Seldon, master of the fee-paying Wellington College, who has pioneered lessons in happiness as part of his school's curriculum.

The inquiry into the primary school curriculum being conducted for the Government by Sir Jim Rose, the former head of inspections at Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, is an excellent opportunity to assess the strength of these fears and to make recommendations accordingly. The one worry, though, is that Sir Jim's remit applies only to the curriculum, not to testing and assessment.

It is very difficult to see how he can come up with a coherent package for primary schools without considering both. He may recommend more creativity in the classroom but, if teachers still feel that they are being judged on their test results because of the need to do well in league tables, it is difficult to see that the profession en masse can stop teaching to the tests.

Tests are essential for 11-year-olds to show how they have progressed. It is the undue emphasis put on them by the primary school league tables that is the problem. Labour never meant to introduce primary school leagues. It did so because a journalist decided to produce his own Key Stage 2 league tables, and ministers felt obliged to produce a more accurate version for parents. They should have resisted the temptation then – and they should listen to the voices now that say the effect of the tables has been to force teachers to spend too much time teaching to the tests.