Last month, the parents of a six-year-old boy wrote an appeal for a tutor to help their son do better at school.
Their child, the parents explained in an advert on an online private tutoring firm, was academically gifted, worked really hard at school, and showed “great imaginative play”. However, the boy was “much more reluctant to work at home”, his parents complained. “When pressed he can become awkward and use a range of diversionary tactics to avoid an unwanted task.” They added: “The causes of this are not obvious at this stage.”
I think I can help explain what’s behind these mystery “diversionary tactics”. The boy sounded like a normal six-year-old, and for “diversionary tactics”, read “play”. The child, after working hard at school, was presumably desperate to kick a football or ride his bike, rather than sit down for an hour of maths or French after completing a long school day.
I felt dispirited reading this advert, not only for the individual boy involved, but because it was a reminder that this is an example, albeit at the extreme, of the increasingly test-ridden education system my daughter is about to enter. She turns three this week. Her world is dinosaurs, the Tweenies and going to the “swimming pool house” (what she calls our local swimming pool).
This summer she moves from her nursery room to pre-school, and her days will become more learning-based, rather than dominated by play. This autumn we start choosing her first school. I am not against her learning – far from it, as I know it will open up the world to her. It is, in fact, because I want her to enjoy her education that I am alarmed at the Government’s plans to start formal testing at five – or even earlier, according to its consultation document published yesterday.
The proposals, unveiled by Nick Clegg and David Laws, the Schools minister, and presumably supported by Michael Gove, will formalise across England testing at key stage one, with the possibility for four-year-olds to also be brought under the testing regime. The consultation document says a test could be introduced at reception – covering four to five-year-olds – within two to six weeks of them arriving. To spell it out, that is a national test for a child barely a month after they have entered the education system for the first time. Before they have found their own coat peg, they will undergo a test.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who has a way of conjuring up odd soundbites, says his plans are not the equivalent of putting children through an “exam sausage factory”, and that the tests at the start of a child’s education are to create a baseline that their individual progress can be measured against.
But there is already a baseline method, through the Early Years Foundation Stage profile, which teachers create through observation during reception year. It is clearly important for this to be in place, to ensure that a pupil is making good progress. But a snap test on a given day might not get the result that reflected that child’s ability. One day, he or she could be focused and attentive, and sail through a test. The next day, the child could be distracted and simply want to engage in diversionary tactics, sorry, play. That’s what four-year-olds are like, you see. Mr Clegg should know this, his youngest child is four.
The plans are a further example of the contradictory approach by Mr Gove’s Department for Education. The Education Secretary is wedded to autonomy for schools – he wants as much freedom for head teachers as possible – yet every week there are more centrally-imposed policies for parents and teachers to deal with. Likewise in childcare, where ministers tried radical reform from the centre, against the wishes of nurseries and parents, before being forced into a humiliating U-turn.
I can understand the reasoning behind these plans. I understand that Mr Clegg and Mr Laws are passionate about ensuring the most disadvantaged pupils receive the best education. So their announcement yesterday of extra funding for the pupil premium, an excellent policy developed by the Liberal Democrats in opposition, from £900 for each poor child to £1,300 by the next election, is laudable.
The plan, also floated yesterday, for ranking 11-year-olds on a national scale, with the results available only to pupils and teachers, sounds a reasonable way to ensure struggling children do not slip through the net as they pass from primary to secondary education.
It is not that the tests for four and five-year-olds themselves will be arduous – it is suggested that a pupil will have to identify a carrot on a screen and count how many items there are on a page. It is the existence of a rigid test at four and five that I find unsettling. I am afraid it does sound like an “exam sausage factory”.
Primary school children are already overburdened with homework, daily in some cases. To add more tests at such a young age will not create the kind of environment that stimulates interest in learning. It will only impose more rigidity that makes children resent school. Let them enjoy their education, but understand that youngsters need their diversionary tactics too.