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Britain needs an education revolution to end the exam factory culture

CHARITY Barnardo’s discovery that exam and school stress affecting children is parents’ single biggest worry as we enter 2019 ought to set alarm bells ringing.

More parents — 42 per cent — are anxious about the impact of relentless testing on their offspring’s wellbeing than are frightened that their kids could be bullied (38 per cent) or that Brexit would have a negative impact on their future (40 per cent, though 35 per cent expressed hope that Brexit would be positive for their children).

Given the wall-to-wall media coverage of Brexit and the very real growth in bullying and harassment of children (especially online, and particularly targeting teenage girls) and related hate crimes under the Conservatives, the fact that exams cause parents the greatest fear for their children’s welfare exposes the scale of a problem that few politicians have yet faced up to.

The “free schools” and academies programme which is still being doggedly driven through by the government — Theresa May confirmed her intention of creating yet more academies in October despite mounting evidence that they increase inequality and do not improve pupils’ performance — was dressed up in the language of empowerment and choice in the days when the Tories still bothered to try to defend their policies.

But the reality is that schools have become more micromanaged than ever, forcing children at younger and younger ages to undergo standardised testing so that their school can be measured against others.

The exam factory is policed by a punitive inspections system that is an insult to teachers’ professionalism, denying them space for independent judgement as to how best to help their pupils learn.

The whole fails to take account of localised or individual needs. Heads desperate to maintain and improve their school’s league table rankings have an incentive to offload children with learning or behavioural difficulties. 

This is especially true when per pupil funding has been dramatically slashed and simultaneous cuts to local authorities (whose link to schools has been severed anyway where academies have taken over) have removed or massively reduced a whole range of services that have rarely been economically viable to run at school level — special educational needs support, specialist behaviour support, specialist teachers in a range of fields.

Childline now says exam stress is “overwhelming” for many children. Year after year, reports find mental health problems are increasing among the young because of exam stress; the 2015 investigation Exam Factories? commissioned by the National Union of Teachers (now part of the National Education Union, NEU) found links to rising instances of self-harm and anorexia.

And what has all this achieved? There is scant evidence that constant testing improves learning; instead, each year we are treated to lectures from “business leaders” about how school-leavers lack the basic skills needed in the workplace. Testing is not aimed at better education as such, but at providing a standardised measurement system to help marketise schooling, facilitating competition between schools, between teachers and between children themselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Mexico, new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to reverse the neoliberal education reforms of his predecessor. Educationalist Pasi Sahlberg, who coined the term “Germ” (global education reform movement) to define the commodifying market trend in education systems that began with Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Education Reform Act, hails from Finland, where excellent results are obtained from a schooling which involves almost no formal exams. The weekend articles the Morning Star has been running on the experiences of NEU teachers who visited Cuban schools show the far more human approach that socialist society has to education.

It’s high time we took a leaf out of their books. Labour promises a transformative government in so many ways. Let’s make an education revolution part of that prospectus.

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