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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 16:57 GMT 17:57 UK
Fear caused by testing pupils
By Gary Eason at the NAHT conference in Jersey
Head teachers have been describing a "climate of fear" in schools brought on by constant testing of pupils and the emphasis on their results.
They called for a return to "real education" with a broad curriculum in England and Wales rather than a focus on reading, writing and arithmetic.
They wrung a promise from the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, to consider indicating in the league tables schools whose results suffered from having large numbers of pupils with learning difficulties.
But Mr Blunkett warned delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers' annual conference that to do so might deter parents from choosing those schools.
In a debate on curriculum matters, Gareth Matthewson from Whitchurch High School, Cardiff, said the emphasis on testing and results had created a "climate of fear" in schools.
"Colleagues, it's a disgrace," he said.
Results were used to create "meaningless league tables which tell you no more than the part of town in which is school is located."
But schools were now judged by them, which was unfair. In years to come, educationalists would look back in disbelief on the current phase of "testing madness", he said.
"As we spend time preparing pupils for tests, real opportunities for learning are lost."
Doug Fallows, from Portland Primary School, Birkenhead, said tests had their place, as a means of assessing pupils' achievements in the effort to raise standards.
But they should not be allowed to distort or narrow the curriculum.
Jim Price, from South View Community Primary School, Peterborough, proposed the shortest resolution on the week's agenda: "Conference calls for a return to real education."
He stressed that he was not opposed to the government's literacy and numeracy strategies, with their targets for improving the performance of 11-year-olds in reading, writing and maths.
But they involved more work than would fit into the timetable slots allocated to them, he said.
As a result they had the "seriously detrimental effect" of marginalising other supposedly "foundation subjects", especially physical education.
"How many of us are in the process of lengthening the school day to make time for the foundation subjects?" asked Tom Jordan, from St Augustine's Catholic Primary School, Stamford.
"Pupils and staff are seriously feeling the effects of fatigue and stress," he said.
And Lyn Gallimore accused the government of pursuing "a political agenda not seriously an educational one" in providing extra funds for booster classes aimed at raising pupils' achievements.
The government's targets and league tables relate to the percentage of children achieving what is known as "Level 4" by the time they leave primary school - the level expected of their age group.
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, was challenged on this with regard to pupils with special educational needs, when he answered questions from delegates following his speech to the conference.
"It is very difficult for those children to achieve Level 3 never mind Level 4," said Brian Norbury from The Grange Primary School, Bootle.
But data from special units within mainstream schools was included in the league tables of results.
"We have asked repeatedly for the playing field to be levelled ... to show a far more honest picture of our school," he said.
David Blunkett said the problem was one of definition: some schools had special units and could be identified as such.
But others had a reputation for excellence in teaching pupils with special needs and were prepared to take them in, even though they did not have a special unit attached to them.
And some education authorities were working hard to give extra help to pupils with difficulties, without formally registering them as having special needs.
"Having said that, I actually think we should do something," he said.
"If we can iron out those genuine difficulties I would be prepared to put a line in, indicating that the school either has a unit or makes a special effort."
But he warned: "There are parents who are concerned that the emphasis that a school places on helping children with difficulties might cause difficulties for their children."
In that they were "utterly wrong" - being blind, he spoke with authority on the subject - "but let's just be very careful what we do so that schools with good intentions don't end up with further difficulties," he added.
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