Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, in his annual lecture last week, described the Government's strategies for improving standards as "pragmatic, unsentimental, hard-nosed". But among teachers and some parents there is growing disquiet about the effect of such a "hard-nosed" regime of targets and testing on young children. They warn that pupils are being put under too much pressure to succeed and are being denied the space they need to grow up.
As Helen Cook, headteacher of Silsoe Lower School, puts it: "We are now at the stage of making a very important decision. If we carry on going down this testing road as we are, then there is a real danger of ending up with some of the problems they see in the Japanese system, with very, very stressed young children."
Last week, primary school league tables were published, based on the results of thousands of individual tests for 11-year-olds in English, maths and science. Teachers know that their schools will be judged on their league performance. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, says they "help schools monitor progress and set targets for improvement". Parents use them, too, to identify which schools are the best, and which are failing. In London, for instance, competition is so fierce for places in the "top" schools that it can add pounds 30,000 to the value of a house if it falls within a particular catchment area.
Like New Labour's devotion to the Three Rs, the tests are evidence of the Government's seriousness about the need for ever-better results. It wants 85 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach expected standards in English and 75 per cent to hit targets in maths. Mr Blunkett has threatened to resign if primary schools do not succeed.
At Silsoe, Mrs Cook and her staff deliver those results. Between 96 and 100 per cent of the children achieve the expected standard at the age of seven. More than half exceed it.
But the preparation for the tests in May - known in educational jargon as Key Stage One - starts as early as November. They get the children used to writing stories in a fixed time, working without help from their teacher; making sure they will not suffer from the experience.
"Many of them are still six when they take the tests," said Mrs Cook. "But half our six-year-olds would freeze if they had not had the preparation. We make it as non-threatening as possible, but it is taking away time that could be spent doing something else." She believes junior education "definitely needed to be tightened up" in the late 1980s, and says the tests have proved successful so far - but warns that pressures on schools are increasing.
Judith Wood, a mother of five and former chairman of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "What I really want to know is whether my children are happy, whether they are being bullied, and do they cope? I want them reading and writing, but I want them to enjoy school life. Some children are not coping because they are being driven to perform to targets. There is a real risk that schools will lose their vivacity."
Since last September, every child starts the school career with a test. Baseline assessments are designed to give teachers an idea of pupils' progress at the start of formal schooling. National tests follow at seven, 11 and 14, but 90 per cent of schools have also expressed interest in taking up optional tests drawn up for eight, nine and 10-year-olds. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exam regulator, sends all schools detailed guidance on how to compare their results with those of schools serving similar areas - information designed to help them scrutinise their efforts to raise standards.
Professor Charles Desforges, head of education at the University of Exeter, said little research had been carried out in the UK about the long-term effects of testing on young children. What evidence there was from abroad, he said, suggested that national testing and publication of results may not be the best way forward: "American evidence shows pretty clearly that whenever you have a testing regime there are some kids who come out at the bottom. That does lead to a great deal of anxiety and alienation and depression. We all agree that we want kids to do better. Parents want to see high reading and writing standards. But is there a better way of doing it? There has to be assessment which gives the learner information, not grades. That's a well-established research result. You need teachers skilled in making sure they give a lot of information, and make sure the children can use that information to improve."
Lists of grades, however, have huge pulling power. They are pored over by millions of parents when primary and secondary school league tables are published every year.
That publication makes testing a high-stakes business for schools, said Professor Alison Woolf, of the London University Institute of Education. But that did not necessarily mean they were all crucial for children. "There's every reason to believe that the balance has changed in schools, and every reason to believe that the tests are the reason," she said. "You just have to decide whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. That's a political decision. If you are keen on primary science, for example, it's wonderful, because children have to be taught for the tests. But the major stress is on the teachers, especially at Key Stage Two (age 11). If you are choosing a primary school you look at Key Stage Two results. But if you are choosing a secondary school you don't look at Key Stage Three (age 14), you look at GCSEs, because that's what is important."
She said the overriding emphasis placed on tests early in children's school careers may be misplaced. Primary test results did not determine secondary school admissions and had little impact on children's school careers. "We have more national tests run by government than, I would guess, anywhere in the world. But that does not mean our students are tested more than other countries' students. Many systems have very high- stakes tests which are more stressful than here.
"People in this country, particularly middle-class parents, have become much more anxious about education. It's happened at the same time as the testing has been introduced, but it is an international phenomenon. Everyone has become obsessed with children's education. Parents' interest in the tests has been a manifestation of that. They might do better to think about how their kids develop."
BRAINS OF YOUNG BRITAIN: FROM FOUR TO EIGHTEEN, THE TESTS EVERY CHILD MUST TAKE
AT AGE 4/5: Baseline Assessment. Since September 1998, compulsory "MOT" for children starting school. Ninety different local schemes accredited by government exam regulators. Children assessed on eight scales covering reading, writing, speaking and listening, mathematics and personal and social development. Children not graded, but assessed to give teachers an idea of their progress by the time they start lessons.
AT AGE 7: Key Stage One. Three hours of tests in English and maths. Also separate, more general teacher assessments in English, maths and science. Covers reading, writing, handwriting, spelling and maths. Tests spread over the summer term to fit in with other schoolwork. Designed to be non-threatening. Not used for league tables, but children are expected to reach level two of the national curriculum or better.
AT AGE 11: Key Stage Two. Five hours of tests in English, maths and science, as well as teacher assessments. They cover reading, writing, handwriting, spelling, maths, mental arithmetic and science. The tests are the basis for the primary school league tables and the Government's national literacy and numeracy targets for 2002. Schools are measured on the percentage of those gaining level four; expected to be 85 per cent for English and 75 per cent for maths by 2002.
AT AGE 14: Key Stage Three. Seven-to-eight hours of tests covering English, including reading, writing and one Shakespeare play, maths and science. Teacher assessments also include history, geography, a foreign language, design and technology, information technology, music and PE. Schools currently pay most attention to GCSEs, but KS3 tests could form the basis of "value- added" measures to rate how well schools perform.
AT AGE 16: GCSE and General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) part one. The crunch for school-leavers. National targets for 16-year- olds are based on five or more GCSEs at grade C or above - the main measure for secondary school league tables. Increasingly these qualifications are a source of reference for university entrance. GNVQs are the vocational equivalent.
AT AGE 18: A-Level and GNVQ Advanced. University entrance "gold standard". Due to be replaced with new system offering half-weight AS-levels which are "topped up" to a full A-level. Advanced GNVQs set up as a vocational equivalent, currently worth two A-levels. Increasingly popular as route into work or higher education.