Jayne Dowle: Testing times that will only destroy pupils’ confidence

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Youngsters should be left to enjoy learning rather than feeling they are under the microscope.

IT was parents’ evening at my daughter’s school recently. I went along expecting to find out how she is doing, what she is enjoying and where her strengths and weaknesses lie.

I came out absolutely none the wiser about how Lizzie is finding Year Five. The teacher spent almost the entire 15 minutes telling me about the new assessment system the school was putting into place.

Since the Government decided to abolish the dreaded attainment levels – “3a, 3b” etc – to describe what your child has achieved, primary schools have been free to choose a method of assessment they prefer for their pupils.

Lizzie’s school has gone for the Sheffield Stat, a system devised and used across at least 50 schools in Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

Its aims are laudable; from a layman’s point of view at least, it seems to concentrate on assessing a series of objectives which children have to master before they can move on to the next stage of work, rather than relying on a judgmental test score as SATs did.

Personally, I wish that children at primary level didn’t have to be tested at all. It’s too much pressure. And I wonder just how much time is wasted on it, because once they reach secondary level, they are assessed all over again.

If my teenage son’s academy is anything to go by, this is an ongoing and interventionist process – I’m pleased that since he landed there two years ago in a very shaky state, he has moved up in ability groups.

For me, testing at primary school has always been more about how the school is doing, rather than what my child is achieving in black and white.

I appreciate that it is important to have a method of measuring and marking the progress of pupils, but surely it is more important for every child to be treated as an individual. And I mean a proper individual, with a personality and everything, not a dot on a graph.

At this parents’ evening, I didn’t even see any of Lizzie’s work. Didn’t get chance to look at her writing books or hear first-hand about how engaged she has become in this term’s topic, dinosaurs. What she can’t tell you about dinosaur DNA isn’t worth knowing. Where though was the passion and interest she shows at home?

The over-riding impression I came away with was that all the children in her class were generally not up to scratch and must work harder and faster. This can easily be translated into, “the children are not working to fit the criteria it says here on the new rubric, so therefore must be forced into that direction”. No wonder Lizzie comes home from school crying some days.

I am sure if you’re a teacher, assessment is a really interesting issue. A word to the wise though, parents are selfish. All they really care about is their own child.

That’s why my heart sank when I heard the news that the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, is thinking of bringing back “robust and rigorous” national testing for seven-year-olds.

If this is her way of making her mark in the post vacated by Michael “Gradgrind” Gove, I would like her to stop for a minute and think about the damage she is about to inflict

And this is not just the impact on the children, who will be completely confused. I’m thinking also about the teachers, the school management teams, and not least, the parents, who have to pick up the pieces when their sons and daughters are distraught.

Mrs Morgan says that when her own son went through his Key Stage One tests he didn’t even know he had taken them until afterwards. Well, all I can say is that her son must go to a different kind of school from every other child I know.

When my son took his, and later, when he took his Year Six SATs, he was traumatised by the experience. I quickly learnt a defence mechanism with other parents, who would find a way to brag about their own child’s shining 5a at any opportunity.

It wasn’t nice, and it dented Jack’s academic confidence for years. Mrs Morgan says it is up to parents and teachers to manage the pressure on children should national testing be re-introduced.

Great. Just what we need. It’s bad enough contemplating this from a parental point of view. If I was a teacher though, I would be punching the wall in frustration.

Does Mrs Morgan really want to upset all the hard and painstaking work primary schools across the nation have each put in to instigate an alternative method of assessment?

Is that what she wants her tenure at the Department of Education to be remembered for? Yet more confusion, more stressed-out teachers leaving the profession in utter dismay, and more children coming home from school crying?

She needs to concentrate her efforts on securing the funding to send those 1,500 top-flight teachers she promises to lift standards in the schools which desperately need it. And leave our Lizzie and her classmates to enjoy learning without feeling that it is they, and not the dinosaurs, who are under the microscope.