DRAFT OPEN LETTER TO THE MINISTER OF STATE FOR SCHOOL STANDARDS
While educators may have become accustomed to policy ideas floated upon little else but thin air, especially in the field of education, it behoves those who speak from a position of responsibility to examine some of the evidence before doing so.
The idea of moving examinations to a younger age to relieve stress at GCSE and A-level stages (Schoolchildren should take exams earlier to cope with mental health pressures, says education minister, reported in the Independent, 7th February), may at first seem akin to the principle of inoculation, but the matter is not as – apparently – simple as that complex issue.
It is well-known that stress can become habituated during childhood. The fact that its symptoms may not be apparent at the time does not diminish what can lead to explosive outcomes in adulthood. But that lack of appearance does not reduce direct consequences. For example, in 2016, the BBC reported on a survey of teachers belonging to the ATL Union, which found some children as young as six exhibiting signs of stress, self-harming, or having suicidal thoughts as a result of the existing emphasis on SATs testing.
Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, is on record warning that this emphasis, including at GCSE level, reduces worthwhile education: "...good examination results in and of themselves don't always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum. In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed-out and flimsy understanding". And this from the former head of the exams regulator, Ofqual.
As further evidence, the Schools Minister might like to consider the comparative lack of formal testing in educationally successful countries such as Finland and the much higher levels of reported contentment in Denmark and Scandinavia in general. Something, perhaps, to do, in part, with their rather more relaxed educational climate?
We have been told that the Schools Minister favours "rigour". He may have forgotten that the greatest rigour in human beings occurs between two to six hours after death.
No-one would dispute the value of testing, when this contributes formatively to education of children and young people. Formal exams rarely do this. They may contribute instead to mental health problems and, more significantly, undermine the development of the creativity and rounded thinking that is almost universally recognised as essential for successful modern societies. Pupil progress can, and should, be tracked through a variety of methods and these can be applied to provide support as well as acknowledge learning.
Steiner Waldorf educators, in particular, aim to encourage and challenge through a rich picture of a wide range of abilities and learning styles. Intensive sitting of exams may suit the successful candidate for life as a government minister. A full palette of practical, artistic and emotional as well as academic skills are needed in childhood for a life of human flourishing.