Like it or not, schools are right to test seven-year-olds

David Aaronovitch
Friday 14 April 2000 00:00
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The au pairs had taken over the bagel shop, so I found refuge from the rain in the upmarket pizza cafe, where a personality was having lunch with his children. It was a Thursday, and the boy and girl were probably about six and 10 years old. Which, in this part of the world, told me that they were both being privately educated, since the local state schools haven't yet broken up for Easter. A hundred yards away from where the personality was munching his Cappricciosa, down an alley, is the primary school where my two eldest daughters are taught.

The au pairs had taken over the bagel shop, so I found refuge from the rain in the upmarket pizza cafe, where a personality was having lunch with his children. It was a Thursday, and the boy and girl were probably about six and 10 years old. Which, in this part of the world, told me that they were both being privately educated, since the local state schools haven't yet broken up for Easter. A hundred yards away from where the personality was munching his Cappricciosa, down an alley, is the primary school where my two eldest daughters are taught.

I put these two things together because this is the time of year when the dismal annual exodus from some state schools becomes apparent. In both my daughters' classes several of their friends have recently passed exams to enter the junior sections of private schools, and their parents have decided that they will be leaving in September. Some of them, doubtless, will fetch up as schoolmates of the personality's well-behaved progeny.

I'm not prepared to condemn their decisions, having mentally reserved my own right to "go private" later on. Nevertheless, the effects of the amputation of these children from classes they have attended for several years are felt mainly by those left behind. Their friends wonder why they are no longer good enough to share their education with; some of the other parents become antsy themselves, worrying that their own children may be missing out; the seceding parents are almost invariably those who have been most active in raising money or organising events.

This year the departures seem particularly perverse. The school itself stands near the top of the league in Camden, a London borough warmly commended by Ofsted for having made "outstanding progress" in primary education, according to a report published only last week. Yet the departing ones still have the same general objections to remaining in the state sector: Seth is "bored", Bettany is "not being stretched", or Miss Batty (this year's form teacher) has been off most of the term and been replaced by an unsatisfactory procession of supply teachers - who have failed to comprehend Seth or Bettany's special requirements.

And it is true that little has so far been seen of "fast-tracking", the favoured mechanism which would enable Seth and Bettany's parents to feel that their offspring's precocious talents were being nurtured. Teachers are too busy attending to the Government's main objective in primary education, which is to lift basic standards for the majority of pupils. We have a legacy in this country of illiteracy, innumeracy and educational under-achievement, that is both a scandal and a handicap. If we are to do anything in the long-term about social exclusion, then education will be at the heart of it. But the focus is bound to be on the average child, or on the under-performing one.

If, however, the professional middle classes don't get you one way, they get you the other. To monitor and improve educational standards, it is obviously essential that progress and attainment be measured. That means that children have to be tested. They don't have to be brow-beaten by Gradgrindian monsters, crammed by grim, desiccated tutors or forced to spend all the hours of summery weekends calculating how long it would take four men to fill a swimming-pool. Tested, however, they must be. The results will tell schools about their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the particular needs of the child.

However, just as Seth and Bettany's parents exit stage right, the Born Free parents enter from the left, shrill with objection. This week bulletins and newspapers covered the campaign of Ms Penny Holmes to keep her son Ben away from his Somerset school when his fellow seven-year-olds are sitting their Key Stage 1 SATs tests. Ms Holmes said of the tests: "I don't think this should be happening, particularly at the young age of seven." Her experience as a former primary school teacher and as the holder of a degree in developmental psychology, suggested to her that children were being unnecessarily stressed by all this testing. Ms Holmes also disapproved of the emphasis on Maths and English. "There are a whole range of things that I think are important to education, particularly in the early years," she opined.

Other parents then contacted Radio 4 to back up this claim and to add a few of their own. Their children had to do too much homework, some said, and this was placing strains on their relationships at home. Children should be allowed to breathe and play, to run free, climb trees, without all this pressure. They spoke as though they thought William Brown was a real person.

Let me tell you about these parents. Firstly. I am prepared to bet that most of their children are boys. Parents find getting energetic boys to do their homework a particular chore, and would much rather defer to their desire to play football or watch television (which is what kids, when left to themselves, generally prefer to running free). Second, most of them already inhabit houses full of books, conversation and stimulation, homes in which the Bens have been taught their letters and numbers before ever getting to primary school. Third, they wouldn't know what social exclusion was if it came knocking on their doors flogging imitation chamois. Social exclusion, Ms Holmes, is often about not being able to read or count, no matter how imaginative your papier mache model of Ken Livingstone.

Still, in the damp valley left by this small torrent of complaint about SATs, the Education Secretary allowed that were it - hypothetically - to prove to be the case that many children were suffering stress from the tests, that he would "review" them. This "admission" itself became a minor news story.

It probably shouldn't have been, because David Blunkett doesn't believe all the baloney about how dreadful the tests are, and neither do I. Children at my daughters' school are not assailed by night terrors at the thought of the tests, nor are they traumatised by the experience of sitting quietly for half an hour with a piece of paper in front of them. And - if their parents are sensible - they won't be afflicted by a sense of personal failure as a consequence of the results. In my experience, most teachers know perfectly well what SATs are for, which is telling them what they - as professionals - need to know.

If I sound just a little testy it is because, once again, there is such a monumental gap between the ends that my fellow professionals claim they want to see, and the means that they are prepared to tolerate in order to achieve them. Improving the educational attainments of the majority in this country requires a relentless attention to such basic questions as literacy and homework. But time and again the public debate about education is hijacked by the narrow concerns of the most educated section of the population, and turned back to questions such as selection, parental choice and "no tests for my lambkin".

They - we - ought to learn when to butt out. Not everything - as we so often remind our children - is about us.

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