Richard Garner: Q: Why are we putting pupils under so much pressure from exams?

'We are in danger of burning out some of our young people before they even get to university'
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The Independent Online

In all the furore about the blunders committed by the exam board Edexcel, one contributory element is in danger of being missed – that we are currently producing the most tested and examined generation of children ever to leave UK schools.

For a start, those who stay on to do A levels will have faced examinations in each of their last three years of schooling – GCSEs, A levels and the new AS level examination.

This was part of the case made in mitigation by Edexcel's resigning chief executive, Dr Christina Townsend, when she quit her job last summer. This was after the board had been criticised for failing to re-mark pupils' work on appeal in time, thus, in the words of headteachers, jeopardising their university places.

I don't want this to sound like a plea to understand the problems of the overworked examiner. I know from the experience of family members involved in the world of education that there were actually suspicions about the efficiency of the Edexcel board long before the present row began.

However, I do think there is some merit in the warnings being delivered by people such as John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, that we are in danger of burning out some of our young people before they get to university. I have heard protests from parents who point out that the last thing their offspring want to do after three successive years under the examination spotlight is knuckle down to studying for some new qualification.

No other country in Europe has such a strict regime of testing. The AS level is a sort of half-way house between A levels and the International Baccalaureate, offering a wide range of studies to students for the first year of the sixth form but not the second. While it could be argued that it gives universities a glimpse of the abilities of potential students before they have to make a decision as to whether to offer them a place, in my view the exam is typical of the kind of fudge that has marred educational development in this country for decades.

And it is not just in the last three years of schooling that the testing and examination regime is burdensome. We have national curriculum tests in the core subjects for schoolchildren at seven, 11 and 14, which – because of the pressure on schools to meet government targets – have spawned "voluntary" tests in the in-between years to check whether pupils are making the necessary progress to meet these targets.

In addition, there are tests for those who fail to meet the required standard for 11-year-olds in maths and English at the end of their first year of secondary schooling to see if they have made the grade. (These, too, are described as "voluntary", but Ofsted, the Government's education standards watchdog, is required to take them into account when assessing a school. It smacks of "I need volunteers – you, you and you.")

I don't doubt that the introduction of national curriculum tests did highlight a chronic underperformance in literacy and numeracy among primary schoolchildren, and paved the way for the ambitious compulsory literacy hour and daily maths lessons as a means of combating that. I don't doubt, too, that imaginative teachers can find a way round "teaching to the test" to make lessons stimulating and interesting. I do think, though, that the pressure on all schools – both primary and secondary – to outperform their neighbours in national performance tables is compelling too many teachers to make damned sure they do teach to the test.

There has been an interesting development in Wales recently which should have attracted more publicity than it has done. As a result of devolution, the Welsh education system is now as different from the English system as it ever has been. The Welsh Assembly has voted, with the support of all parties, to abandon the national curriculum tests for seven-year-olds.

The argument was that they were introduced to help to provide teachers with data about the performance of their pupils, had fulfilled that purpose, and now that data could be quite as easily collected without a test. In any case, educationalists in the principality added, testing children at so young an age was putting too much pressure on them at a time when we should be stimulating their interest in education as something which should be exciting and enjoyable.

I must admit that I cannot envisage England following suit, and am not even sure that it should. Nevertheless, we ought to be encouraging more debate as to whether anything more needs to be done to promote the kind of philosophy that lies behind the Welsh decision.

Something that can be done and will be done within the next month, though, is to sort out the post-16 system in England. My solution would be this. As more and more youngsters are staying on in full-time education and training after the age of 16, the GCSE is becoming largely irrelevant. It should be scrapped and replaced by a certificate of education which can show what the minority that do still leave school at 16 have achieved. There should be no league tables to mark the performance of this age group. That would stop at a stroke any youngster having to go through the trauma of having to take examinations in three successive years.

I have it on the personal authority of Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, that this will not happen. She believes we still need GCSEs, although she does concede they might become less important for high-flyers who go on to A levels and university degrees.

I believe she should think again. We have all heard the talk about the need for a world-class education service producing youngsters who are equipped to survive in the global economy of the 21st century. To be perfectly honest, the report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development just before Christmas showed that we are getting there, and at present are ahead of the game. The report showed that we are in the top 10, out of 32 countries, in terms and maths and literacy standards for 14-year-olds.

But what use will that be if the new pressures we are putting on the next generation of schoolchildren ends up with them suffering burn-out or qualification fatigue before they even start university?