Children do not take too many tests, but too many of the wrong kinds of test

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The Independent Online

It is possible to take a middle way through the long-running argument between those who believe that children need to be stretched academically and those who believe that today's pupils are already tested too much.

It is possible to take a middle way through the long-running argument between those who believe that children need to be stretched academically and those who believe that today's pupils are already tested too much.

The new "world class" tests for nine- and 13-year-olds unveiled today by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, will provoke familiar complaints. John Dunford, the leader of the Secondary Heads Association, has already said that, "like the A* grades at GCSE, these tests will put unnecessary stress on pupils".

On the other side of the argument are those like Chris Woodhead, the controversial journalist and soon-to-be-ex-Chief Inspector for Schools, who think that children are there to be tested, and if they are not they will sink into the zombiedom of playing Game Boy and scrawling graffiti on public transport.

Mr Dunford's supporters say that adult life is competitive enough and that children are entitled to their childhood, let them play. Mr Woodhead's followers say that this does children no favours and that it is the duty of educators to prepare them for the rigours of adulthood.

Both sides miss the point. The truth is that children take too many of the wrong sort of exams. For most children, taking a string of GCSEs at the age of 16 is almost completely irrelevant either to the needs of adult life or to the next stage of formal education. Schools are perfectly able to assess for themselves which pupils will be suited to A-levels, without recourse to public exams, while those moving on to vocational courses need the new Certificate of Achievement, recording basic competence in reading, writing and maths.

Equally, however, there is a problem that the "let them play" faction is reluctant to acknowledge, which is that GCSEs and A-levels fail to differentiate adequately between the most able. If the "War of Laura Spence's Place [at Oxford]" showed anything this summer, it exposed the arbitrariness of the allocation of the most sought-after university places between students who all have (or are predicted to obtain) three A* grades at A-level.

The new modular A-levels, with their short elements that can be taken in the first year of sixth form, are a good idea. As are the "world class" tests, provided not too much importance is attached to the results.

It is impossible to fault Mr Blunkett's broad strategy, which is to get the basics right for the child of average and below-average ability, while providing further definition at the top end of the scale. But a more radical approach is needed to reinforce basic skills, especially in the early years of secondary education, while ruthlessly pruning the workload, in the later years, of its heavy academic bias. A problem with the "world class" tests is that they will focus attention on the most able, who tend to be better served by the British education system than those for whom GCSEs are already too academic in style and content. Better and broader courses in computer, business and life skills in the 14-16 age group are more important in the end than another intelligence test for the "gifted".

There is nothing wrong with demanding a lot of children. The real betrayal of childhood is to waste the time of children with unambitious work designed to keep them occupied, or to get them through pointless exams, or - worst of all - to satisfy the demands of parents for lots of homework.

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