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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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New independent sixth form opens in Haverfordwest



A NEW independent sixth form is set to open in Haverfordwest in September 2021. The latest addition to Castle School, which relocated to Haverfordwest in 2020, the new sixth form will offer 20 different A Level subjects and a BTEC in business through bespoke study programmes that include options to study online or in the sixth form. Students will also get the option to complete work and study placements abroad.

The launch of the sixth form comes after a busy year for Castle School, which relocated from Narberth to Haverfordwest in September 2020, taking over and refurbishing Glenover House, a beautiful old ‘gentlemen’s residence’ that had been empty for five years. The move enabled the school to expand and increase its educational provision.

In addition to its main building, the school has a cookery school and performing arts facility in Snowdrop Lane, and a further site on Snowdrop Lane which is being specially converted to create the sixth form centre. The site will also include an indoor sports facility for whole school use.

The sixth form is designed with flexible study in mind: as well as offering a broad range of subjects and the ability to study online from any location, it will provide instant access study support as well as face to face teaching. In addition, students will get the option to study for one of their A Levels at Pembrokeshire College, in order to experience a different learning environment.

Other milestones for Castle School this year include the opening of a second independent school, Westward House, in St Clears and the purchase of a narrow boat, which will be moored on the Avon and Kennet canal. This will give pupils opportunities for short residential trips to Bristol, Bath and beyond.

“With a floating hotel licence, our newest acquisition will enable small groups of pupils to take their studies further afield and benefit from enhanced learning, extracurricular boating skills and a look at the wider world,” said Harriet Harrison, owner of Castle School and Westward House.

“Things have been tricky over the past year, but along with many others we have seen the difficulties of a world of Covid not as an opportunity for excuses but as a time for stepping up, working harder and making things better and stronger wherever possible. Our schools are thriving, and despite being desperate to get back to normal, we have used this time to improve our facilities for all the children in our care who are coming back after these long periods of lockdown and remote schooling. We can’t wait to see everyone.”

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U-turn on compulsory lifesaving lessons in Welsh secondary education



SCHOOLS in Wales will now teach first aid and lifesaving skills as part of the new curriculum.

Wales will join England and Scotland by introducing first aid and lifesaving kills to their national secondary education curriculum.

Kirsty Williams, Education Minister had previously rejected the calls for emergency resuscitation skills to be compulsory in school.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was introduced in the secondary school curriculum in England in September 2020.

Local authorities in Scotland have also committed to introduce lifesaving skills to their secondary education curriculum.

The British Heart Foundation had backed the campaign for CPR to be taught in schools.

In a long fought battle, Suzy Davies, a Welsh Conservative Member of the Senedd for South Wales West, secured the commitment from the Welsh Education Minister in the course of debating amendments to the new Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill, which will make sweeping changes to the way Welsh children are educated.

The new curriculum for Wales is planned to come into force from 2022.

Children, parents, families and medics have long argued that regular teaching of CPR in particular will raise our children to have the skills and confidence to step in and save the life of someone in cardiac arrest if they encounter them outside a hospital setting.

The commitment was included in the Welsh Conservative manifesto for the Assembly election in 2016, and Suzy Davies, the Shadow Education Minister, said:

“After 10 years campaigning for this, I was beginning to wonder if it would ever happen.

“From securing cross-party support for this in my early days as an Assembly Member, through several debates and pitches to different Ministers, on to my own proposed legislation which found favour among Senedd Members, it was difficult to understand why Welsh Government was so resistant.

“In this country, our chances of surviving a cardiac arrest outside hospital are as poor as 10%. In countries around the world where teaching CPR and defibrillator use is compulsory, those odds improve dramatically. These skills are quick and easy to learn and easy to remember.

“ Alun Davies MS – himself a cardiac arrest survivor – has rightly argued that we should be able to learn these skills at any time in our lives and that defibrillators should be a commonplace feature of our public landscape. I couldn’t agree more – but how simple it is to ingrain these skills from an early age and raise generation after generation of lifesavers.”

Under the new curriculum, teachers must follow statutory guidance made by Ministers to support various aspects of the new way of teaching. After changes guaranteed by the Education Minister, this guidance will now instruct teachers that they should teach lifesaving skills and first aid: It is no longer optional.

The mandatory teaching of life saving skills and first aid (not just CPR) has been supported by the medical profession, including paramedics and fire service co-responders, as well as charities like St. John’s Cymru, British Heart Foundation, Calon Defibrillators, Cariad and the Red Cross.

It is taught through many youth groups, including Torfaen Sea Cadets who trained Aneurin Metcalfe, the young man who saved someone’s life only this week.

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Styling their way to the top



FOUR hairdressing learners: Holly Mathias, Jenna Kilgallon, Helaina Thomas and Leah Rees, recently earned themselves a place in the next stage of the Concept Hair Magazine Learner of the Year Competition.

The candidates were invited into the College to show their fully presented entries as evidence and then submitted them remotely to the Concept Hair Magazine judges in December.

The categories for the competition were: Festival Hair, Red Carpet, Old School Barbershop, Celebration of Colour and Safari.

The unique styles allowed the learners to show off their creative hair styling skills from plaits to updos, to bold colour creations.

Charlotte Jones, Hairdressing lecturer was over the moon with the learners’ success; “We were all so impressed with the creativity, dedication and enthusiasm of all the students who took part in the competition. Also, the students who supported the entries during the day and the models who gave up their time to be involved. They should all be very proud of what they have achieved. The results were amazing!”

The students worked to COVID regulations ensuring all the correct PPE and procedures were followed.

Finalist, Holly Mathias entered three categories which included; Styling Level 2 – Festival Theme, Hair Up Level 2 – Red Carpet and Avant Garde – Safari.

Holly shared her experience; “Taking part in the Concept Hair competition, has really boosted my confidence and proved that hard work really does pay off. The support from the staff at Pembrokeshire College is outstanding. I would recommend everyone to take part in this competition as not only is it an amazing experience, but it really allows you to think outside the box and be as creative as you can! I would 100% take part in this competition again.”

Holly plans to go into full-time employment when she completes her course and hopes to one day work on cruise ships or even own her own salon.

The next stage involves the candidates submitting photographic entries on the 12th March where six will be shortlisted for the national finals which is set to take place virtually in April.

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