Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Testing, testing... is this thing on?

Children born in the school year that crosses 1983 and 1984 were the guinea pigs of UK education. They were the first to take SATs tests at age 7, the first to take SATs tests at age 11 and the first to take SATs tests at age 14 (these latter tests were dropped in 2009). If they took A-level examinations after their GCSEs, they were also the first to take AS-level exams.

That means that if they went on to sixth form they were under the pressures of serious examinations every year for five years (SATs at 14, mock GCSEs at 15, GCSEs at 16, AS-levels at 17 and A-levels at 18).

We are constantly told that the reason that students get higher exam results than before is because the exams are too easy. It never occurs to journalists, politicians and the professionally outraged that the reason students do better in exams is because that is what they spend most of their time at school doing. What they don’t have much time for is learning.

At school we were assured by our teachers that we shouldn’t worry, as “you can’t fail SATs”. So what were they for? The tests enabled league tables of school exam results to be made and wealthy parents moved to the catchment areas of the highest performing schools. This drove house prices up and - in Adam Curtis’ memorable phrase - “kept the poor out”.

We all know what happened to the housing market, but what happened (and continues to happen) to the children and young people who managed to complete the examination hurdles? They have gone from the constant anxieties of exams to the constant anxieties of the ‘flexible’ job market and (technically illegal) unpaid work. And the well-being of children in the UK is not good. The test results say one thing, but more sophisticated studies give the real story:

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