School test mania `killing creativity' pupils'

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AN OBSESSION with tests, grades, targets and homework is killing joy and creativity in childhood, the winner of a children's prize for literature said yesterday. His comments came only 48 hours after the Government announced more literacy and numeracy booster classes after school, at weekends and in the holidays. Ministers hope the extra classes will ensure that ambitious targets in English and maths are met.

In a speech accepting the Library Association's Carnegie Medal, David Almond accused ministers of wanting to test children while they were still in nappies and of a ludicrous concentration on "a noses to the grindstone treadmill kind of work". Mr Almond, whose book Skellig is his first children's novel, said: "The exhausting chase after what we're told are higher standards has become a national obsession - an established religion."

Last month Margaret Hodge, the schools minister, announced new goals which the Government wants children to achieve by the end of their first school year: they will be tested on their progress when they start school. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has issued homework guidance for all primary school children and is encouraging education action zones to experiment with longer school days.

But Mr Almond, a part-time teacher, proposed that all primary schools should instead have 10 per cent of "eureka time" when children would be left alone to use their imaginations, "a time when target-setting can consist of maps of possibilities, when record-keeping can consist of speculation, a time when we can admit that perhaps we haven't really got a clue what's going on in children's heads".

He asked: "What would the assessors and recorders have made of Archimedes splashing happily about in his bath before yelling `Eureka'? What would they have made of James Watson snoring in his bed as he dreamed the molecular structure of DNA?"

As a writer, he said, he worked hard on some days: on others he could be found madly playing computer games. His record-keeping was negligible, his notebooks messy. He was not sceptical about teachers but about the ludicrous demands placed on them. Yet he remained optimistic because many teachers continue to foster "the mysterious zone of imagination, intuition, insight".

He said that the aim of current policies was: "Get kids into school fast! Get them assessed while they are in nappies! Get them going into literacy clubs, numeracy clubs, lunchtime learning clubs, holiday learning clubs! Holidays? Let's cut them. School day? Let's lengthen it. Homework? One hour? No, let's make it two, eh? Let's see them, children and teachers, work, work, work."

Skellig, which also won the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year awards, had to be reprinted after four days. It is the story of Michael, who is coping with a dangerously ill baby sister and moving house when he discovers Skellig in his garage - a creature who is half angel, half dosser, who has wings but eats bluebottles.

Mr Almond wins pounds 1000-worth of books, which he plans to split between the school where he has been teaching and the library in Felling on Tyne where he grew up.

The Carnegie medal was first awarded in 1937 when the winner was Arthur Ransome.