Primary school pupils have to deal with unprecedented levels of pressure as they face tests more frequently, at a younger age, and in more subjects than children from any other country, according to one of the biggest international education inquiries in decades.
The damning indictment of England's primary education system revealed that the country's children are now the most tested in the world.
From their very earliest days at school they must navigate a set-up whose trademark is "high stakes" testing, says the report which is published today.
Parents are encouraged to choose schools for their children based on league tables of test scores. But this puts children under extreme pressure which could damage their motivation and self esteem as well as encouraging schools to "teach to the test" at the expense of pupils' wider learning, the study found. The findings are part of a two-year inquiry – led by Cambridge University – into English primary schools. Other parts of the UK and countries such as France, Norway and Japan used testing but it was, "less intrusive, less comprehensive, and considerably less frequent", Cambridge's Primary Review concluded.
England was unique in using testing to control what is taught in schools, to monitor teaching standards and to encourageparents to choose schools based on the results of the tests, according to Kathy Hall, from the National University of Ireland in Cork, and Kamil Ozerk, from the University of Oslo, who conducted the research.
"Assessment in England, compared to our other reviewed countries, is pervasive, highly consequential, and taken by officialdom and the public more generally to portray objectively the actual quality of primary education in schools," their report concluded.
Teachers' leaders said the testing regime was "past its sell-by date" and called for a fundamental review of assessment.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said England's testing system was having a "devastating" impact on schools. "Uniquely, England is a country where testing is used to police schools and control what is taught," he said.
"When it comes to testing in England, the tail wags the dog. It is patently absurd that even the structure and content of education is shaped by the demands of the tests.
"I call on the Government to initiate a full and independent review of the impact of the current testing system on schools and on children's learning and to be prepared to dismantle a system which is long past its sell-by date."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that the tests were having a damaging effect on pupils. "The whole testing regime is governed by the need to produce league tables," he said. "It has more to do with holding schools to account than helping pupils to progress."
The fear that many children were suffering intolerable stress because of the tests was voiced by Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "There are schools that start rehearsing for key stage two SATs [Standard Assessment Tests] from the moment the children arrive in September. That's just utterly ridiculous," he said.
"There are other schools that rehearse SATs during Christmas week. These are young children we are talking about. They should be having the time of their lives at school not just worrying about tests.
"It is the breadth and richness of the curriculum that suffers. The consequences for schools not reaching their targets are dire – heads can lose their jobs and schools can be closed down. With this at stake it's not surprising that schools let the tests take over."
David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokes-man, said: "The uniquely high stakes placed on national tests mean that many primary schools have become too exam focused.
But the Government rejected the criticism. "The idea that children are over tested is not a view that the government accepts," a spokesman said.
"The reality is that children spend a very small percentage of their time in school being tested. Seeing that children leave school up to the right standard in the basics is the highest priority of government."
The report comes after a week in which both Labour and the Conservatives announced plans to make Britain more child-friendly following a report by Unicef last year which ranked the UK the worst place to be a child out of 21 rich nations.
Parents were warned that they risked creating a generation of "battery-farmed children" by always keeping them indoors to ensure their safety. The Families minister, Kevin Brennan, called for an end to the "cotton wool" culture and warned that children would not learn to cope with risks if they were never allowed to play outdoors.
The Conservatives also launched their Childhood Review which included plans to reclaim parks from teenage gangs.
The Government has already announced that it is considering moving to "age not stage" testing where pupils will sit shorter but more frequent exams. But it insists that school league tables are here to stay.
The plan could see key stage tests disappear as early as 2009 if a trial in 500 schools is successful. But critics of the scheme argue that the changes will make matters worse. Instead of taking three sets of tests at seven, 11 and 14, children would sit up to seven exams as they progress through the education system. Pupils would have two chances a year to attempt to move up a level which critics fear would lead to even greater pressure on them.
Helen Saunders, mother: 'I really didn't like all the testing'
Helen Saunders was so appalled by the amount of testing at her local primary school that she made an extreme decision. In October, she took her three school-age children, Elizabeth, five, Rebecca, seven, and Matthew, nine, out of their school and began to teach them herself at home.
"Enough was enough," says Mrs Saunders, who lives in Hildenborough, Kent. "I really didn't like all the testing and homework, and after a month back at school I thought, 'It doesn't have to be like this'. They're children, and yet they didn't have enough time to play. Our children were all excelling at school, but... I wanted them to get out before all that stress and pressure affected them.
"I know I've made the right decision. One of my friends called me yesterday and said her son had been in tears because he had a test that day. Now that my children are learning at home it's so relaxed; they spend so much time laughing, and we don't have to chivvy them to do their homework.
"Periodically I ask them if they want to go back to school, and they always say no."
How Europe compares
French primary school education remains tightly focused on facts and basic skills. Spot tests are common, especially dictations to check a child's knowledge of French grammar and spelling.
However, formal testing is relatively sparse. All children are given a national test of basic skills and knowledge at about eight years old. The test occurs – crucially – at the beginning of the third year of primary school, not at the end. There is, therefore, little pressure on the children. The main aim is to check the standard of the school.
Otherwise, most primary schools have internal tests, or contrôles, in maths, French, geography and history, and English at the end of each of the five short terms that make up a school year. A child who is struggling can be asked to redoubler, or go down a year. A brilliant child can sauter, or go up.
There is no national examination to move from primary to secondary education, simply a recommendation by a conseil of teachers and parents.
Pupils at Italian schools are tested on average about one test per subject per term, which goes towards the continual assessment of their performance, but does not count all that much. But for serious, GCSE-type, make-or-break exams, from the age of 13 to 18 Italian students enjoy a long exam holiday, all the way up to the maturita exam which they take at the end of liceo, the senior schools in the Italian system. On the other hand, the continual assessments can be rigorous, and if students at the top high schools score less than six out of 10 in two or more subjects they run a serious risk of having to take the year again.
Germany's state-run primary school pupils start their education at the age of five or six. For the first two school years, they are not given marks for their academic performance. Parents are merely handed a school report on their child's abilities and behaviour at the end of each school year.
From the age of seven, pupils are subjected to continuous assessment. Every piece of work, including tests and homework, is marked on a 40/60 per cent oral/ written basis. The marks go towards an annual school report.
When pupils leave primary school at 10 or 11, they are provided with a recommendation, based on continuous assessment, to decide what type of secondary school they attend.
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