Chief inspector Amanda Spielman has claimed that merely speaking about tests could subliminally cause a child to endure growing anxiety over their performance in the classroom.
Ms Spielman was speaking as thousands of youngsters across the country began their SATs and GCSEs yesterday.
She said: “Primary schools are a good place where this is illustrated. Good primary schools manage to run key stage tests often with children not even knowing that they’re being tested.
“Seven-year-olds (think) ‘oh we did a maths booklet today, great’.
“I was in a primary school not long ago where I saw something that did concern me, where the head was going around clapping the year sixes on the shoulder saying ‘so are you feeling OK about the test, is everything going well for you?’
“And I thought actually maybe that is well-meaning, but maybe that’s actually subliminally encouraging children to feel anxious. So there is something really important about how we do these things.”
The comments come amid rising concerns that a “teach to the test” system is having a negative effect on the children’s mental health. Asked whether positive encouragement from headteachers could impact the well-being of children, Ms Spielman stressed that everyone needed to think about their behaviour.
She said: “Because the mere act of talking about something – somebody other than a classroom teacher talking about it – might just help to ratchet things up that bit. There is something about not inadvertently ratcheting that is really important, I think.”
She added: “Clearly, testing happens in every system throughout the world. It only becomes a big deal for children if people make it so for them.”
Ms Spielman was talking ahead of the launch of Ofsted’s new inspections framework. The framework will see a crackdown on bad behaviour in classrooms, with schools being judged on the learning environment they provide for students.
It also introduces separate judgments about learners’ personal development, and behaviour and attitudes.
The separate behaviour judgment will assess whether schools are creating a calm, well-managed environment free from bullying – while a personal development judgment will look at the work schools and colleges do to build young people’s resilience and confidence in later life.