The number of parents who are desperately frustrated with a broken school system in the UK is steadily rising, with over 40,000 signing a petition to boycott primary school tests, some going as far as taking children out of school in a day of protest (May 3rd 2016). Parents believe that the tests are placing too much pressure on children and teachers, and restricting the overall breadth and versatility of the curriculum.
At the other end of the spectrum sit government ministers who are looking at achieving short-term outcomes: test results that place the UK amongst the best education systems in the world.
But what are ‘the best education systems’ measured against and do these measures even fit with what success in life equates to?
As an occupational psychologist I spend a large part of my job assessing and developing people in organisations toward being more ‘successful’. Much of my time is focused on leaders specifically, which is relevant as we expect leaders to role model optimal behaviour. What I, volumes of research and thousands of years of history has found is that whilst it’s important for leaders to have a solid level of education (which unsurprisingly doesn’t rest on a detailed knowledge of grammatical rules as expected by SATs), without other essential ingredients they simply do not succeed.
What are these critical ingredients? The list beyond academic results is long but includes: curiosity, emotional intelligence, resilience, self-awareness, an intuitive as well as data driven read of the environment etcetera. None of these factors are covered by SATs tests. In fact the pressure and on-going conditions required to undertake the tests actually diminishes capability for achieving in many of these areas. Children don’t have the space to learn how to learn for themselves, it’s almost like teaching a dog how to bark to a song, it doesn’t mean they can sing, understand the music or replicate the skill in any other setting. Aside from limiting children’s own success in life this will lead to reduced innovation and citizens with a limited ability to give anything back past correcting a document or adding up the accounts.
Beyond all of this success is the core desire every parent has for their child: for them to be happy, well-balanced individuals who grow up to contribute to society. But this too is squeezed out of an education system focused on narrow academic requirements.
Ultimately, testing both directly and indirectly derails children’s future ‘success’. In the short term, while it may provide ministers with the results that they need, it places undue stress on teachers, children, parents and even the education structure itself. Why? Well in simple terms:
- It stresses children and parents.
Whilst Education Minister Nick Gibb claims that he’s “been to many schools where the children don’t even know they’re taking the tests” arguing that “they don’t have an effect on the children themselves because they have no consequences for the children,” he is greatly mistaken. Research has shown that tests impact children in ways that Mr Gibb, not being a psychologist himself, is unaware. Findings reveal that in primary school children pressure from tests can lead to prolonged anxiety and other behaviours that may not seem directly linked to testing such as crying, throwing tantrums and even vomiting (Tim Urdan, assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, USA). This creates a negative cycle of stress and anxiety within the home which can escalate to cause ongoing psychological problems.
- It stresses teachers.
Introducing increased volumes of (unnecessary*) material into a teachers workload puts them under stress. Sue Roffey, Adjunct Professor in Psychology at the University of Western Sydney found that increased stress in teachers leads to a higher number of pupils needing intensive support for behavioural difficulties and learning needs, has a negative effect on pupils mental and social behaviour and decreases teachers ability to perform at their optimum. By proxy this all greatly diminishes what children learn.
- It creates a system that can only cater to a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Focus on testing strains an overloaded system that struggles to cope with the process and volume of material required. Such an environment doesn’t allow for individual differences in learning style due to what ends up being a ‘force fed’ method of teaching to get through all of the detailed material (such as detailed and unhelpful grammar rules). This prevents diverse types of people from flourishing, undermines children’s academic confidence and ultimately impacts self-worth.
Fundamentally every parent strives for the well-being, self-esteem and happiness of their child; really it’s what we all want from life. Ideally, a great education and passion for life long learning would go hand in hand with that and then, finally, good results. But maybe it’s simply not possible to have all of these things?
Finnish statistics would beg to differ. Finland, according to traditional measures of education systems (and those that Minister are aspiring to) are amongst the best in the world coming 3rd in reading and 5th in maths (source: OECD PISA 2009 results). But at the same time the Finnish are ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world (source: World Happiness Report 2016). And interestingly the school system encourages focuses on problem solving skills, encouraging curiosity and applying learning to the real world. Learning styles that produce good leaders and good citizens. Unlike our system:
- Children rarely take exams or do homework before their teens. In fact there’s only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken when children are 16. This takes pressure off the children, parents and teachers.
- Teachers are nurtured rather than pressurized taking 2 hours a week out for professional development and all taking a master’s degree funded by the government. In addition, the national curriculum is only a broad guideline allowing teachers the freedom to optimize their own potential and individual style. As a consequence they have satisfied, educated and well-developed teachers which equals satisfied, educated and well-developed pupils.
- The difference between weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the World (source: OECD PISA report). because the system is flexible enough to allow for individual differences to be catered for.
So what’s the answer? We need to look beyond the short-term approach taken by our government. Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education expresses his panicked and knee jerk reaction saying: “We’ve got to do something, we’ve got to act early, and a health check at seven is a good idea.” This hardly sounds like a strategic perspective or that of a strong leader.
Tests are simply pushing our system to its breaking point, both physically in terms of the structure and mentally in terms of all those concerned. This does not bode well for the future of education in the UK or the prospect of healthy, happy, well-balanced children. We need our Ministers to be brave enough to slow down, stop panicking and look at the bigger, broader and longer-term picture. Leveraging learning from where things have and are working elsewhere like Finland and rapidly taking a dramatic but considered change in direction.
* I say unnecessary as I have struggled immensely pouring over fronted adverbials with my 9-year-old daughter. It’s difficult to a) help explain the nonsensical grammar rule that neither I, nor any of my very well-educated friends have come across or b) convince her of the point when I see no point in it myself.