SPECIAL REPORT: Exam Factories of England

The National Union of Teachers in Britain said there is unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems among pupils of all age groups and abilities, particularly around test or exam time….reports Asian Lite News

school childrenChildren aged 10 or 11 are said to be “in complete meltdown”, in tears, or feeling sick during tests, and problems can be made worse by their competitive parents, according to the Exam Factories? report commissioned by the Union and conducted independently by Merryn Hutchings, emeritus professor at London Metropolitan University.

The project contains a survey of almost 8,000 teachers, an extensive literature review and quantitative research utilising case studies of both heads and teachers and children.

Taken together, this research demonstrates the negative impact on children and young people in England of the current range of accountability measures in schools. These include Ofsted inspections, floor standards and the whole range of measures published in the school performance tables (attainment, pupil progress, attainment gaps between groups of pupils etc.)

Professor Hutchings finds that: The Government’s aims of bringing about an increased focus on English/literacy and maths/numeracy and (in secondary schools) academic subjects, has been achieved at the cost of narrowing the curriculum that young people receive.
The amount of time spent on creative teaching, investigation, play, practical work and reading has reduced considerably and there is now a tendency towards standardised lesson formats. Pupils questioned for this study, however, say that they learn better when lessons are memorable.

Teachers are witnessing unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems amongst pupils, particularly around exam time. This is prevalent in secondary schools but also in primaries.

school educationPupils of every age are under pressure to learn things for which they are not ready, leading to shallow learning for the test and children developing a sense of ‘failure’ at a younger and younger age.

Accountability measures disproportionately affect disadvantaged pupils and those with SEN or disabilities. Teachers report that these children are more likely to be withdrawn from lessons to be coached in maths and English at the expense of a broad curriculum. Furthermore, some schools are reluctant to take on pupils in these categories as they may lower the school’s attainment figures. Ofsted grades are strongly related to the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in a school.

Ofsted is not viewed as supportive. It is seen as punitive and inconsistent, with the ability to cause a school to “fall apart”. In their analysis of a school, the inspectors also have a tendency not to take on board the way that individual circumstances affect outcomes.

Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the NUT, the largest teachers’ union, said: “Merryn Hutchings’ report is essential reading for Government and policy makers of all political hues. It demonstrates in vivid terms that the accountability agenda of Government and Ofsted is having deep-rooted and negative effects on both primary and secondary pupils. It is also clear that this will worsen on the new Government’s watch and spread to both teachers and children in Early Years settings.

“Schools feel enormous pressure to placate the whims of Government and Ofsted. Teachers at the sharp end are saying this loud and clear: ‘If it isn’t relevant to a test then it is not seen as a priority.’ The whole culture of a school has become geared towards meeting Government targets and Ofsted expectations. As this report shows, schools are on the verge of becoming ‘exam factories’.

“The accountability agenda stifles schools and is damaging children’s experience of education. School should be a joyful time in a child’s life when they are able to learn and play in a structured environment that develops their talents, skills and understanding and leaves them with a thirst for knowledge for the rest of their lives.

Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns at Young Minds, said: “The findings of this research are very concerning as they demonstrate that both pupils and teachers are under a lot of pressure to achieve results in a pressure cooker, exam factory environment.

“Many of the young people Young Minds works with say that they feel completely defined by their grades and that this is very detrimental to their wellbeing and self-esteem. We have to question the role of schools in relation to developing well rounded, confident young people, and there is a growing movement of high profile people, including the current Director of the CBI, who are saying that education cannot just be about learning academic subjects.

“Young people are growing up in a really pressurized, fast paced world and they need to learn the skills to navigate this new world successfully – character education, resilience building and life skills are all just as important as exam results. A young person can have the best grades possible but if they can’t cope or deal with the harsh realities of modern life then our education system is failing them.”