Don’t Panic About Tests

‘In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all anymore. I prepare children for tests. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it, but we’ve done it : and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions’  Zoë Brown

Zoe and her fiancé Tim Paramour have both made a big thing of quitting teaching – with articles focussing on their reasons published in ‘The Independent’. Paramour wrote that:

2012 was the turning point. Ofsted’s obsession with results and the threat of no-notice inspections for schools whose test scores dipped engendered a culture of fear. Terrified by the threat of losing their jobs in an academy takeover, headteachers made more absurd demands of their teachers’ spare time.

This is telling, Headteachers are making absurd demands because of the perceived threat. Now I’m not denying that the threat exists but I do wonder if making absurd demands is the right way to deal with it? I have long argued that the accountability regime has lead to a distortion of what constitutes a good education, but by blaming this regime for every bad choice made in a school just adds to the problem rather than highlights it.

In my book, Trivium 21c, the former education minister, Elizabeth Truss, argued that: ‘At the moment exams have two purposes: one is assessing students and one is assessing the school. I think those two purposes need to be separated.’ She was right and if when we test children it is not mainly about assessing them but mainly about assessing the school the situation is exacerbated.

Paramour went on to say:

Got a passion for music? Primary teaching is not for you. Want to inspire children with drama? Go hug a tree. Think children should learn about their local area? Officially that’s fine (it’s on the meaningless, untested part of the curriculum) 

He seems to imply what is not tested is ‘meaningless’ Now this might be dark humour at play but does formal testing excuse a narrowing of the curriculum? Paramour suggests that Ed Balls was an ‘impressive’ Secretary of State and that the Rose review of the primary curriculum was a good thing as it suggested that:

…traditional subject divides be replaced with broader areas of learning and stressed the importance of play, particularly for younger pupils. It promoted the development of good speaking and listening skills and the value of nurturing character traits in young people such as resilience and independence, as well as the clear focus on maths and English that already existed.

It seems to me, from this statement only and not the whole review, that the Rose review could have resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum – drama, in particular, fares badly if subject divides are removed, it becomes lost as it metamorphoses into being a pedagogical tool to study issues and tick ‘speaking and listening’ boxes through role-play. One of the best ways to protect the Arts in education is to have ‘traditional subject divides’.

Brown states in her piece, drawn from this blog, that she has focused on the answering of test questions. I wonder how much this has been done and whether in reaction to the over-bearing accountability measures teachers are focusing too much on the absurd demands driven by their SLT which, in turn, might be an over reaction to the absurd accountability measures? That the reaction is understandable is one thing but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be questioned, how a school reacts to measures can exacerbate the situation.

Take stress, a teacher needn’t pass undue exam stress onto her pupils, and a Headteacher needn’t pass undue stress onto her teachers. People work less well under a lot of stress; by passing it down the chain, each link ceases to function so well. Therefore if a school wants to perform well, they should do a lot to take the pressure off. This is not done by telling children they needn’t be stressed by tests etc. by offering last minute letters signalling ‘DON’T BE STRESSED’, which is the equivalent of Corporal Jones shouting ‘DON’T PANIC‘ it is done by letting the tests come and go with as little rancour as possible. How the tests have been introduced by the DfE and the content of the said tests is open to question but increasing panic throughout the system doesn’t help. How to not panic so much? Well, maybe more testing, low stakes, as part of regular teaching and learning could help.

This excellent piece by Tim Oates points out that our children are not over tested. He writes:

The sense of ‘most assessed’ derives not from the amount of formal testing, but its ‘high stakes’ nature…

adding that pupils:

often fail to distinguish between a formal, required national test, and a timed, ‘quiet’ test devised by the school. To them, it’s all testing

Oates points out that:

Finland, that country which is seen as relaxed, high performing and respectful of teachers, has many more timed, ‘quiet’ tests in primary schooling than we do. Frequently these come from well-designed learning materials and, interestingly, from teachers’ associations. The Finnish State has a history of testing too: tests from the centre, not to all children but to a sample, for the state to make judgements about the quality of schooling in the country. Overall, a high density of formal tests… in Finland – where testing also is far more frequent than in typical primary schools in England – pupils aren’t stressed by the high levels of testing.

Maybe this could offer us a way forward?

The absurd demands that are, it is said, being made by school management can be alleviated through thoughtful curriculum design, for example a ‘joined up curriculum‘ would help enormously. Traditional subject boundaries, especially at ks2 and 3, help protect a broad curriculum offer and, especially, the Arts. We should test more often, we should design better tests and teachers should be at the forefront of the design of these tests. For accountability purposes the state could run sample tests to ascertain overall quality of schooling and, indeed, schools. In the meantime, let’s ditch the absurd ‘don’t panic’ approach that may be adding to the stress our youngsters feel.



6 thoughts on “Don’t Panic About Tests

  1. Your point about the “DON’T PANIC!” approach resonates strongly with me. I’m a former Head of Drama currently having a break from teaching. It strikes me that your pedagogical line of enquiry could have a revitalising impact on my practice. Any chance I could come into your place of work for a chat, or maybe to observe a little learning?


  2. The issue as I see it is one of inscrutable government approaches to accountability where children are used as pawns in their game. Furthermore the pressure created by some senior managers which at worst can be a form of bullying impacts directly on some teachers panic. Of course the rational argument is to collectively develop a pedagogy for learning where tasks are progressively designed to enable children to become active, problem solving type learners so tests can be more taken in their stride. However such curriculum design is a long term project whereas government accountability measures come around year after year. So, for example, the much reduced use of manipulatives, as blogged by Andrew Jeffries recently, post KS1 is symptomatic of the impact testing can have. Apologies if this response is a little rambling… Regards Mike


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