Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Book Review

Education by numbers

Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing
Written by Warwick Mansell
Publisher: Politico's 2007

You should read this book if you too believe that the current testing regime is counterproductive to education. No, you are not alone, as Warwick Mansell's unusually broad research base demonstrates in this well-written book.

The argument focuses on the negative effects on pupils, where "pursuing results almost as ends in themselves has been forced on schools, in their desperation to fulfil the requirements of hyper-accountability. But this grades race is ultimately selfdefeating. It does not guarantee better educated pupils, just better statistics for schools and the government."

Do you know that pupils in year 6 spend an average of 150 hours teaching time in preparation for SATS? That's just a start. He examines time spent on exam preparation throughout the system and contends that the DCSF is actively encouraging 'cheating' and wasted teaching time by endorsing the National Strategy with its concentration on just this.

This is supported by exam boards, in competition with each other, increasingly telling teachers exactly how to produce the right answers. "With results so crucial, an atomised exam will mean an atomised learning experience for pupils."

Spoon-feeding to the exam and exhaustive re-drafting of coursework removes, in his view and mine, the responsibility from the pupils to learn, so what price independent learning?

The GNVQ section makes fascinating reading. He has analysed the results of high performing schools in detail and you may make your own judgements - you already know that you can't get to the bottom of GCSE A*-C for these schools but Mansell has done so using the Freedom of Information Act.

He demonstrates that: "As pupils reach the end of the process, it is impossible to tell whether any improvements in the results which emerge occur because there is an underlying rise in the quality of teaching, the boards are increasingly helping staff to teach to the precise requirement of the exam, or the exams are getting easier."

For me, Mansell's research evidences neither conspiracy nor cock-up but a disastrous combination, despite good intentions, of stupidity and lack of intellectual honesty by politicians afraid to be seen to be soft on standards and teachers.

Irene Dalton is a former head and ASCL consultant.

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