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Mike Rosen: Children are being tested to destruction

As the unions threaten to boycott final year primary school tests, Michael Rosen argues exams do nothing to help children learn

Issue No. 2150

What goes on in primary schools is an intensely political matter. Two important things happened last week that highlight this fact.

The national conference of headteachers has come out strongly against the testing of children in their last year at primary school. This supports the resolution from the NUT teachers’ union, which has said it is going for a boycott of the Sats tests.

Why, after all these years of isolated opposition to testing from the left, do we now have such unanimity?

There are several reasons, the first pragmatic. Every teacher and headteacher can see that the tests have twisted education.

So much emphasis has been put on a school’s test scores that schools have been forced to become training grounds for the tests.

Lessons have become practices for the tests. Hours and hours have been taken up with dull worksheets, quizzing kids on each tiny fact on the page.

Talking, reading, writing and listening to each other have been broken down into tiny units and each unit is taught and tested as if human beings’ minds are machines going through production.

But the truth is that we get hold of the ability to talk, read, write and listen as human beings through co-operation, encouragement, discussion and excitement.

If you break things down into units, with tests hovering over you, it’s harder to make the connections between the words we say and the words on the page or the kind of writing you see in a book and the kind of writing you do yourself.

So the government is in serious trouble. Ed Balls is huffing and puffing saying a Sats boycott would be illegal, but no one is intimidated.

It’s vital that we keep the opposition as broad as possible – parents and children have to be involved.

This means making clear that the kind of “information” that the tests supposedly give us as parents is useless and misleading.

All over the world, teachers have come up with ways to inform parents about how their children are doing in school that encourage them to think of a next step they might take in their learning.

One way to do this is to get teachers, children and parents to keep “learning journals”.

So instead of parents’ evenings being times when we are confronted with wodges of worksheets, we can have conversations about pieces of writing or experiments that children have chosen to represent their progress.

Parents and children would contribute to the journal observations on what the child is doing at home with their reading or talking.

This way, the process of “assessment” is itself part of education and not something stuck on the end as a humiliating test of what you don’t know.

Not only do we have to fight for the abolition of these tests, but we have to develop these alternative ways of talking between parents, teachers and children.

Meanwhile, the government’s education adviser Jim Rose has waded into another political issue – children’s language. There is a widespread assumption among people who have been through a lot of education to call this “word poverty”.

On this basis, schools must teach children how to speak what Rose calls “standard English”. This is nonsense. These statements are made with no evidence.

In the long history of educationists announcing that working class children can’t speak, there are hardly any examples of recordings, transcripts and analysis. Instead, you have thousands of examples of people in authority over children reporting that certain kinds of children are not talking to them.

Very few people speak “standard English” and none of us speak it all the time. Standard English is what I have written here – composed sentences that obey certain rules invented over 200 years ago.

When people who write like this speak, more often than not we don’t finish sentences, we interrupt ourselves, we repeat ourselves.

But Rose is talking class war. He is really saying that working class children’s speech is inadequate. Inadequate for what?

Is he saying that regional and local accents and dialects can’t carry complex thought and ideas?

No one has ever produced any evidence for this. For example, just because you say “I haven’t got any,” it doesn’t mean you are a better thinker than someone who says, “I ain’t got none”.

Teachers have always tried to teach children to write standard English.

No one has ever found out how to get every single child to do it. The Victorian method of getting children to recite standard English phrases didn’t work. Testing and practice testing doesn’t work either.

We need an assessment of what children need that is based on examples of work, discussion and co-operation.

This means making schools places where children make, do and experiment – the talk about such activities will develop thought and language. They should also be places where children read a wide variety of whole books – the thought and talk about this reading will develop thought and language.

This is what we have to fight for.


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Tue 5 May 2009, 18:31 BST
Issue No. 2150
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