Crash test babies

The BBC reports:

Six-year-olds in England will face a new reading test next summer, after trials this year.

They will be tested on how they read using phonics, where children learn the sound of letters and groups of letters.

Currently, children face their first exam at the end of their third year in school (Reception, Year 1, Year 2).  These exams are called Standard Assessment Tests (SATs).   The new exams will be a year earlier, towards the end of Year 1, when in fact around a third of the children are still 5.

Let’s leave aside the issue of whether a sole focus on phonics as a method of teaching children to read is valid. I am not qualified to comment, though there are concerns at that it may lead to the exclusion of other teaching methods.

What I do know is that when SATs were introduced in the 1990s, sceptics were reassured that these really, really, weren’t exams for children, and that there was nothing to worry about.  

As time went on, SATs results became ever more important to the school’s reputation, as Ofsted reviews began to focus more and more heavily on the hard data they provided, to the expense of qualitative evaluation of whether children were happy, caring to others, communicative, and other increasingly unimportant issues. 

As a consequence, schools started to prep the children for these tests, and the pressure built both on children and staff. 

Lots of people my age will be able to tell you stories about the pressures put on children to perform – my own favourite is a friend in London being begged by a teacher to send her clever, but sick, daughter in for SATs as the school needed her scores to up the average.

Now the government, which we’re led to believe doesn’t believe in soul-destroying managerialism but in something called ‘free schools’,  is going through exactly the same process.  

But this time it will be imposed on children who, if they lived in other parts of Europe, would not yet have been anywhere near a school.  (Strangely, I don’t see mass illiteracy coming up as a problem in Sweden or Finland, where children only start school by the age of seven.)

But there’s no need to believe me.  Here’s Professor Greg Brooks, emeritus professor at Sheffield University, who knows a thing or two:

What they are proposing is horrendous. It is a vast waste of money. Even though I’m an advocate for synthetic phonics, I completely disagree with this test. It will inevitably cause teaching to the test, deflecting attention away from more valuable areas of the curriculum.

Never mind though, the government is planning to find extra curriculum time as part of its entirely thought-through plans to woo women voters.  

They’re planning to slash school holidays. 

You remember holidays, don’t you?  Those times when children used to get to be children, and do things like playing and growing up and stuff.  

But perhaps I’m just old-fashioned about what children are for.

  1. Mil
    September 16, 2011 at 10:08 am

    As I tweeted not long ago, it’s the Cabinet which needs the cane – not the education system. But then they already probably use it on each other …

    The really worrying thing about all of this is not that Gove & Co are prejudiced. It’s that they are prejudiced *and* incompetent. Incompetence in the name of a burning mission is just about the most noxious combination of all.

  2. skidmarx
    September 16, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Matthew Wright highlighted Michael Rosen’s opposition to phonics on The Wright Stuff this morning, citing the same sort of reasoning as you end your post with: getting children to enjoy reading is the way to get them to read.

  3. September 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Having taught with synthetic phonics for many years, I have always coped perfectly well with a simple one page assessment sheet which I used sporadically to keep on top of children’s progress. This was then passed on to the next teacher who carried on the process – the children hardly noticed it was happening,,,,so, no need for a test!

    As for the phonics debate…why not give the children the tools they need to decode words with synthetic phonics AND enrich their time at school with plenty of reading to the children, oral storytelling, drama, rich language. Once children have acquired BOTH a love of story and language and some technical skills they will surely be getting best of both worlds.

    Why do people feel they have to lean to one extreme or the other?

  4. skidmarx
    September 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Because the love of story and language will likely lead to a desire to learn how to express oneself in the prescribed manner, but starting out by instilling a sense of wrongness in what children do is liable to stunt their outlook permanently.

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