Teachers put to test: As pressure for an exam boycott grows, Donald MacLeod assesses the mood

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The Independent Online
'SIX MILLION pieces of paper - that's in our school alone]' Whether or not this estimate of the impact of national curriculum testing on a West Devon comprehensive is accurate, it encapsulates the frustrations of thousands of teachers who feel caught up in a meaningless paperchase.

Secondary English teachers have been most vociferous in calling for a boycott of tests for 14-year-olds, but they are not alone in their feeling.

Primary teachers have implemented the tests for six and seven-year-olds for three years but are still deeply uneasy about their value. 'I dislike having six-year-old girls in tears in my classroom,' said one primary teacher at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference in Brighton yesterday. 'I can't honestly think of one direct benefit,' said a primary head teacher.

The six-million figure arrived at by three Devon English teachers was based, more than half seriously, on assessing nearly 2,000 children in 10 subjects at 10 levels, each in five attainment targets with five strands to each.

'It has vastly increased our workload,' said one of them, an experienced member of staff. 'It is all very unwieldy. We are teaching to and for the tests.'

'All this number-crunching - just to come up with a single number at the end,' complained a colleague. 'We have taught the children for three years and we can discuss in detail what they have done.' His school had been forced to spend around pounds 1,000 on Shakespeare texts. They had been teaching Romeo and Juliet already but at different times with different groups, and so had not needed a complete set of texts.

If the paperwork was complicated, the tests themselves were too crude, they felt. 'We were flogging ourselves stupid trying to teach the whole text and then the test asks pupils to put pictures in the right order. We might as well have told them the story and not done the text at all.'

Jean Carrick, head of Bidbury First School at Bedhampton, Hampshire, strongly denied that the Sats, as the Standard Assessment Tasks for seven-year-olds are known, had been accepted by primary teachers because they had not boycotted them. 'The fact that we are doing them for the third time does not mean they are any better, merely that we are accustomed to being downtrodden.

'It takes an enormous amount of time - time that teachers have to take out of their personal life - to administer the paperwork and prepare classwork for the other children, and learning time which children themselves lose.'

She said a bright seven-year-old might be tested on reading at Levels 2, 3 and 4. Level 4 demands 25 to 35 minutes of individual contact on the teacher's part. 'It merely confirms what the teacher knows and I think the parent will already know the child can read.'

Her school already tests and grades children according to reading age. Chris Holmes, head of Birch Primary at Colchester, Essex, also complained about the loss of teaching. 'It is having a bad effect on teachers and that indirectly affects children. There is enormous pressure on the teacher.'

Mr Holmes said he wished the union had taken action three years ago. 'There isn't a high proportion of militant members in Colchester but they still feel angry and frustrated.'