Parents shun school testing

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THE Government's oft-repeated claims that parents support its plans for testing schoolchildren have been put in doubt by research at Exeter University.

Testing is due to begin as schools resume this week after the half-term break, but will be boycotted by the three largest teacher unions. Last week, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, told the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers that abandoning tests for seven- and 14-year-olds would leave parents in the dark. But unpublished figures from Exeter's Department of Education show parental dissatisfaction with testing is growing.

The project team, directed by Dr Martin Hughes and Professor Charles Desforges, interviewed 120 parents of seven-year-olds. The responses indicate that support for assessment by teachers in class, rather than for formal tests, has increased. Parents are worried about the amount of time teachers spend administering tests. A typical comment was: 'Teachers should be teaching not testing. It's not fair to children.'

The researchers interviewed one group of parents in 1991 and another last year. Of those interviewed last year, 37 per cent thought formal tests at seven a good idea and 12 per cent agreed with reservations; 38 per cent were against. In 1991, 51 per cent of parents had thought formal testing a good idea.

The study shows parents do not share government worries about the state of schools. Only 6 per cent were unhappy with their children's schools; 70 per cent were happy. Parents were most pleased with the atmosphere, standards and teachers, and least satisfied with buildings, grounds and school organisation.

Most parents take an optimistic view of their child's school, and Dr Hughes suggests they want other parents to see how well the school is doing. Some parents opposed to formal testing favoured publishing the results of continuous assessment.

However, the research shows the Government is right to say that parents want more information. Two-thirds of those interviewed said they did not know enough or had very little idea of what went on in their children's schools. But Dr Hughes said they wanted different information from the kind the Government was supplying. Parents of primary school children wanted details of children's strengths and weaknesses and how they could help.

He said: 'In theory, the national curriculum and tests should provide answers to the questions 'what are my children doing?' and 'how are they getting on?'. In practice, they don't'

Evidence from a Bristol University study also suggests that parents have little interest in exam league tables. Research just completed indicates that three- quarters of parents ignore them. Most of the sample of 100 parents interviewed in February and March when picking a secondary school said they paid very little attention to the tables of GCSE and A-level results published last November.

Dr Alec Webster, the research's author, said: 'The assumption that parents choose schools for their 10- and 11-year- olds on the basis of the achievements of school leavers and sixth formers is wrong.' Parents distrusted official information, he added; the grapevine was much more important.