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UK students are the most tested in the world



Testing: the problem, not the solution

Testing: the problem, not the solution

A REPORT by ChildLine, the NSPCC backed children’s helpline, has confirmed what has been reported anecdotally for some time: exam stress is increasing and children are suffering as a result.

UK-wide increases in the level of child testing, dressed up as performance monitoring for schools, is ratcheting up pressure on students to perform; if not for themselves, then for the sake of their schools’ ratings and teachers’ careers.

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “The pressure to do well is being felt by an increasing number of young people across the country.”

The bare statistics show that ChildLine delivered 3,077 counselling sessions about exam stress to school pupils in 2015-16. Almost a quarter of this counselling took place in the lead-up to exam season.

The UK Government has faced criticism for turning schools into ‘joyless exam factories’, while it has continued to extend its testing regime to include children as young as six. In Wales, where the Welsh Government has formerly reduced the amount of testing, the political controversy over Wales’s standing in the PISA results table has resulted in the reintroduction of some testing.

Whether this is to help students improve their results or make the Welsh Government feel better about its own failings, by shifting the blame for years of under-achievement on to schools and their staff, is unclear.


ChildLine is not alone in noting a trend towards increasing anxiety and stress in school children.

A survey of 338 mostly secondary school heads carried out by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) found that more than half (55%) have seen an increase in anxiety and stress among pupils in the last five years.

Former adviser to the UK Government Natasha Devon, who was fired after suggesting that the increase in anxiety and stress in pupils was directly tied to its reliance on testing, testing, testing.

In her TES column following her dismissal, Ms Devon said ‘Our government claims to be prioritising children’s mental health while apparently aspiring to an academic system implemented by countries where the child and adolescent suicide rates are staggering’.

She continued: “Arguments about ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ are being used to justify piling unlimited amounts pressure on children. Stress is to mental health what avocados are to dieting – only a little is helpful. Furthermore, children (particularly those at primary age) are still in developmental stages where stress can impair cognitive development.”

While Ms Devon was talking specifically of the situation in England, it would be a mistake to believe that Wales was not affected by the same problems.

In 2014, UCAC, the Welsh teachers’ union, warned the then education minister Huw Lewis that testing was destroying the confidence of young learners.

Members of the union NUT Cymru said the reading and maths tests put too much pressure on children too young. One incident was reported in which a child stopped eating because of the stress caused by testing. NUT Cymru claimed the tests had little impact on attainment.

It was, however, the PISA results that caused the Welsh Government to reintroduce tests for seven year-old children.


The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is operated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD is is an international economic organisation of 34 countries, with 25 observer members, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

It is a forum of countries describing themselves as committed to democracy and the market economy, providing a platform to compare policy experiences, seeking answers to common problems, identify good practices and coordinate domestic and international policies of its members.

So, PISA – and its rankings – are a method of identifying and sharing good practice combined with the coordination of policies (of which education is one).

That is all fine, you might think, especially if you are of an internationalist market-economy cast of mind.

However, the bases upon which PISA compiles the league tables are far from standardised across the OECD nations.

Countries are ranked separately in reading, maths and science, according to scores based on their students’ achievements in tests.

Those test scores are, however representative only as they are tweaked to fit a common scale, where the OECD average is always 500.

But all students participating in PISA are NOT asked to respond to exactly the same questions. Some students are not asked any questions on reading and, in 2006, science was the ONLY test subject faced by all students.

Professor Svend Kreiner an expert in bio-statistical modelling says PISA is ‘not reliable at all’. And he should know: the statistical system PISA uses to create its controversial tables was created by his own student mentor.

Professor Kreiner says: “I am not actually able to find two items in PISA’s tests that function in exactly the same way in different countries. There is not one single item that is the same across all 56 countries. Therefore, you cannot use this model.”

TES reported in 2014 that if tests were administered slightly differently, Denmark – held out as a beacon of good practice – would fall down the table of 56 countries to number 37 from its perch at number 5.

So, far from being some sort of educational penis-measuring exercise embarked upon every three years, the PISA tests are a statistical tool of dubious value applying non-standard criteria to students and educational systems that vary in terms of their development , maturity, and cultural backgrounds.

In addition, being a tool of an organisation favouring one set of economic solutions to the world’s economic problems, there is the distinct danger that children are being viewed in terms of their future utility to the native economies than valued in and of themselves.


Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT teaching union says: “Teachers see very clearly the effect of stress on students and are reporting exam stress among school children from primary school upwards.

“Many relate it to the joyless examfactory approach this government has towards education, and the high-stakes nature of testing.

“We have the most tested children in Europe and also some of the unhappiest in the world.”

A retiring head teacher, Kit Messenger, wrote in her letter of resignation: “Judgments made of schools are now so restricted to a small set of measures that the pressure to focus only on reading, writing and mathematics has become untenable and I have increasingly felt that we are ‘factory farming’ our children and failing to prepare them adequately for a successful future in this changing world.”

If students are becoming more stressed, and there is every sign that are, there is a distinct danger that they will become disillusioned not only with the education system but the process of learning itself. With a focus on hitting hard targets under examination, students – even the keenest of learners – can develop a skewed and purely utilitarian view of education and what education is for.

There is a lot of grumbling from employers’ organisations about students not being provided to industry able to write, to spell, and to do simple arithmetical problems. Interestingly, there always has been.

Every year for as long as the writer can remember, and certainly stretching back to his own school days, a talking head will appear on the TV news claiming that schools are not equipping school leavers for jobs and ‘the needs of business’.

It’s enough to make the historically minded observer wonder whether there was EVER a period when businesses were content with the product of state education.

Thumbing through news articles and government reports stretching back over sixty years while researching this article, the answer to that question is ‘apparently not’.

But what has changed, in order to try to ‘meet the needs of business’ is an increasing reliance on tests and testing of children en masse, while losing sight of the value of the individual’s journey through the education system.

The stripping away of music, art, history, and a host of other subjects, means that students are losing a sense that learning is rather more than simply testing them in order to allow Education Ministers to smile smugly at PISA tables.

It is at least arguable that testing is not curing the problem of preparing pupils for the needs of business and commerce, but exacerbating and – to an extent – creating a cadre of students who will simply drop out of learning due to stress, pressure and a lack of opportunity to acquire knowledge for its own sake.

After all, with the pleasure stripped out of learning, what motivation is there for a child of eleven to acquire skills that will help a stranger aged eighteen get a job?

Such outcomes would not be teachers’ faults; that would be the fault of the system.

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Teacher’s gruelling challenge to help visually impaired child



TEACHER Sion Jenkins is running 100 laps around a famous Pembrokeshire landmark to raise money to help a visually impaired child in his class.

He is aiming to raise £2,000 on crowd funder platform Go Fund Me by doing laps of Carew Castle and Mill in just 24 hours, about one hundred miles in total.

Sion said: “I decided that I wanted to raise money to help purchase a trike/adapted bike to help a visually impaired child in my class.

“Due to his sight, he isn’t able to ride a bike – and is desperate to gain some independence/confidence and ride a bike like every other child.

“On the back of a challenge set by school, to complete the ‘100 challenge’ as a tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore, I decided to tie the two together and have a go at completing this gruelling challenge.

“100 laps of Carew Castle and Mill will total just under 100 miles – in less than 24 hours.”

If you would like to contribute to this epic challenge this is the link:

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Schools partnership promotes the benefits of outdoor learning



OUTDOOR learning across the county has received a welcome boost over the past 12 months as a result of additional funding secured by the Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools (PODS) project, which has covered the cost of a Co-ordinator working directly with schools.

Thanks to financial backing from the People’s Postcode Local Trust and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Trust, the PODS Co-ordinator has been able to help with the delivery of high quality, curriculum-linked learning experiences in school grounds and local outdoor spaces.

Part of the Co-ordinator’s role is also to bring together local and national organisations, including Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Discovery team, teachers and head teachers. Pooling their diverse knowledge and expertise, the partnership seeks to share good practice and promote the benefits of taking lessons outdoors.

Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools Co-ordinator Bryony Rees said: “Last summer, the Welsh Government recognised the importance of outdoor learning in the post-lockdown return to school. We have been working hard to support this by giving children and teachers increased opportunities to take their learning outdoors.

“We have already engaged with a number of schools across Pembrokeshire and produced some live webinars. Supporting resources for these can be found on HWB. This has made it possible to reach out to even more schools with practical information, inspiration and advice on delivering outdoor learning programmes.

“Several schools have taken the opportunity to develop their school grounds to support outdoor learning and more recently, Neyland Community School has introduced outdoor lessons every Friday.”

During the most recent lockdown, work has continued online and the PODS website has been developed to provide teachers with some learning resources. Outdoor learning ideas and inspiration for teachers and parents are also shared on the PODS Facebook page (Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools) and on Twitter @PembsOutdoorSch.

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Education announcement welcomed by Pembrokeshire County Council



THE LOCAL AUTHORITY has said that it welcomes the Welsh Government’s announcement today (Friday, 29th January) that schools will be the first to reopen when Wales’ current lockdown restrictions are lifted.

First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced that the ‘alert level four’ restrictions will remain in Wales for three more weeks but following that period, there would be a ‘phased and flexible back-to-school approach if coronavirus cases continue to fall’.

He said primary school children would be the first to return, if the public health situation continues to improve, and that students studying vocational qualifications would also be among those prioritised for the phased return to colleges.

Mr Drakeford said: “We’ve seen a really welcome fall in cases of the virus all over Wales, but they are still too high and the NHS continues to be under intense pressure.

“We need to keep the lockdown restrictions in place for a little while longer to help us bring rates of the virus down further. If we can do this, we will create the headroom we need to get children back to school after half term – starting with the youngest at primary schools.

“We will work with teachers, colleges, local authorities to plan for the safe return of children to school over the next couple of weeks and keep parents updated.”

Pembrokeshire’s Director of Education, Steven Richards-Downes, will be meeting virtually with Welsh Government ministers today together with other Education Directors.

Mr Richards-Downes said: “We welcome the Welsh Government’s statement that schools will be the first to reopen, whenever that may be.

“We will continue to work directly with unions, headteachers, governing bodies and other Council services to ensure that schools are Covid-safe when they are re-opened.

“Distance learning will continue for now and parents should contact their schools directly if they have any queries regarding this.”

He added: “Any parent experiencing difficulties with digital exclusion should contact their school directly.

Free school meals payments will continue to be paid to families who have applied for them, as planned. The next payments will be made on Thursday, 4th February.

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