MILLIONS OF young people are living through the great exam nightmare this week. Around 1.2 million schoolchildren aged seven, 11 and 14 were sitting the SAT exams. Hundreds of thousands more students were sitting GCSE mock exams and GCSEs, and more still have taken AS and A-level exams.
For many the experience is utterly traumatic. ‘It makes you ill,’ one 17 year old sitting AS-levels this week told Socialist Worker. ‘Loads of my friends are getting sick, and it’s because of the huge pressure the exams put on people.’
Young people can now sit as many as 105 separate exams before they leave school. Yet all these exams take place as the evidence grows that they do not serve even the purposes claimed by their supporters. Worse still, there is mounting proof the exams and the educational philosophy underlying them are damaging children’s learning. AS-levels are the government’s flagship exams.
When introduced in September 2000, New Labour ministers hailed them as a revolution in the exam system for 17 and 18 year olds. They have been a catastrophe for students and staff alike, and there are growing calls for them to be scrapped. In maths, in particular, the new exam has been an ‘unmitigated disaster’, according to education experts.
Students sit AS-levels after two terms of post-16 education. The workload for the AS-levels is intense for both students and teachers. In many subjects the syllabus demands a degree of knowledge and maturity, which at that age and after one year’s teaching the majority of students simply will not have. Andy Mulley teaches at a Southampton sixth form college.
He told a recent teachers’ union conference, ‘Students who in the past would get through A-level are now giving up after one year of maths. In the past we were able to increase students’ maths maturity during the second year to the point where they were able to succeed in passing A-level maths and doing maths degrees.’
The failure rate in the AS-level maths exam last summer was 28 percent, more than double the average 13 percent failure rate. It is not just in maths that AS-levels have proved a disaster. Alison Driscoll, a history teacher from Oxford, argues, ‘AS-levels have been one of the most damaging things that have ever happened to a history subject at post-16 level.’ Two thirds of AS-level students have part time jobs.
The pressure to take such jobs has intensified since the Tory government cut benefits for 16 and 17 year olds, a cut New Labour has refused to reverse. Together with the workload for exams, according to a recent survey, AS-level student do an average 57-hour week in school, study and such part time jobs. This system is also generating overworked teachers.
TWO STUDIES by educationalists dispute the basis of the government’s approach to teaching children. Teaching children to read and write is a vital part of education. But academics question if the target and test driven approach with the ‘literacy hour’ pushed by the government helps.
A recent report from Durham, Cambridge and Leicester universities in the Cambridge Journal of Education suggests the ‘literacy hour’ could be damaging children’s development.
‘The literacy hour is hampering oral work in infant classrooms and failing to develop young children’s thinking skills,’ was how the Times Educational Supplement summed up the research.
It found that below 10 percent of children’s spoken contributions in literacy hour were longer than three words. It also discovered interaction between teachers and students of longer than 25 seconds had virtually disappeared.
The result was children were not encouraged to develop their spoken language or their thinking. Researchers concluded, ‘In an educational climate dominated by monitoring, inspection and test results, teaching for understanding was regarded as an optional extra.’
This comes on the heels of another study showing that official claims that the government’s approach has improved reading are also dubious. Government figures suggest standards improved dramatically since 1997. Professor Peter Tymms from Durham University’s Curriculum, Evaluation and
Management Centre says the figures are literally too good to be true: ‘It would be better than any rise seen through any policy in the world which has been properly evaluated.’ Critics argue that the rise in reading results is inflated by teaching to the test, and changes in the way tests are marked and set. The Durham academics’ study is based on the same tests given to 5,000 children in 122 schools since 1997. The study found no significant change in standards since 1997.
‘PUPILS IN my school say the SATs are crap because they are just for the league tables. Everyone is talking about the league tables. The build-up to the SATs started over a month ago. It’s meant classes have been really boring because we have just been doing revision. I think they should get rid of the SATs.
They are not really about helping children and they cause a lot of stress. At the very least they should spread out the SATs like the normal tests teachers give you to see how you’re doing. We’ve all been told we have to come in this week and do the tests even if we are ill, or we will be letting the school down.
My friend has been vomiting every night, she is so worried. Everybody is nervous, including the teachers. They have changed over the last few weeks. Everyone is being asked if they need extra help. At first you think it’s about you. Then you realise it’s all about the SATs. You could be really good at something but not good at doing exams, so you get marked down, and that’s not fair.’
Alana Downey-Orr, 10 years old, took her SATs through the whole of this week
STANDARD ATTAINMENT Tests (SATs) were introduced in schools under the Tories. Teachers always assess children to see where they are in educational development, and so better gear future teaching to their needs. SATs have nothing to do with this. They are about enshrining the market in schools through the use of league tables.
The result brings no real choice for parents. Instead schools pick and choose who to allow in with an eye on their league table positions. That kind of selection reflects and widens social divisions. Selection can also widen racial divisions and reinforce racism. It all damages children by subjecting them to a regime of pointless tests. New Labour has extended SATs beyond even what the Tories introduced. Teachers are increasingly bitter at the SATs regime, especially its impact on the youngest children.
An overwhelming 96 percent of junior school teachers want SATs for seven year olds scrapped, according to a recent poll in the Times Educational Supplement. Literacy expert Sue Palmer told the paper of the experience that is leading teachers to hate SATs: ‘One teacher said a little boy just sat and stared at the test paper, then laid his head down on the desk and cried. It broke her heart.’
In Scotland there are no SATs or league tables. In Northern Ireland league tables have gone and SATs are on the way out. In Wales the future of SATs and league tables is under discussion, and they could soon go. In England only the fanatics in New Labour are still dogmatically defending the SATs regime.