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27 August 2017


By sheer coincidence, I heard from three parents over the last few days whose children (all in Year 9) had sat the NAPLAN tests in May this year (an Australian standardised test of numeracy and literacy skills for school pupils in years 3, 5, 7 and 9) and who had been awaiting their results nervously.  All parents spoke of the anxiety this pressure created for their children, especially in light of these results now being linked to the literacy and numeracy benchmarks expected for HSC recognition. 

It is a well-known fact that our young people nowadays, in many countries of the world, are over-tested.  In the UK, where I spent most of my teaching career, students sit their SATS exams aged 7 and 11, which have a role similar to that of NAPLAN in Australia and are used as an important measure for secondary school entry.  They then sit their GCSE exams aged 16 before embarking on their final two years at school.  In both countries, league tables, published online and in national newspapers, do not only measure the students but also the schools, which are ranked according to their students’ results.

Heads of underperforming schools are often anxious, as these results can make or break not only their school’s reputation, but also their own careers, especially if they have been drafted in specifically to turn around a failing school.  Heads of competitive private schools know that some parents will base their school decision on this flawed method of measurement, so they, too, are often anxious.  People who come from a business background and who are used to accountability and measurable outcomes often find it hard to understand why educators are so frustrated about the pressures thus created.

In the UK, league tables have been in existence since 1992.  In Australia, the MySchool website and national league tables were only launched in 2010, and at the time they were praised in the Sydney Morning Herald  (27 January 2010) as a much needed way of “introducing greater transparency and accountability into our school system.”  The article also mentions their introduction as a great way to identify under-performing teachers and provide incentives for high-performing staff.

Don’t get me wrong:  I am all for accountability and for dealing with underperformance robustly.  This, however, is not the way to do it, not in education.  As educators, we deal with individuals, with children (in the case of SATS or NAPLAN some as young as 7 or 8), in whom we want to instil a love of knowing things and finding things out, a love of reading, a love of learning for learning’s sake, a sense of wonder, a spirit of curiosity, and increasingly the courage to experiment and acquire entrepreneurial skills.

If the systems we work under and a seemingly ever-growing bureaucracy stifle all of this and force teachers to teach to the test (either because they are worried about their jobs or because better results may qualify them for a pay rise), we are not doing our young pupils any favours and we are missing the point of education.  In education, it is all about the individual student.  There will be children who end up with B grades but have overcome massive difficulties to get there.  Should they count less than the high-flyer who effortlessly manages the top grades?  And should their teachers be penalised instead of praised for the enormous effort to get their struggling student to the point of passing their exams?  Or, worse still, should we ban weak students from entering for exams in order to manipulate our place in the league tables? Some schools do.

As teachers, we know that a pupil is so much more than a number.  Succeeding as a teacher cannot be measured in the same way in which we measure business productivity.  If we want to assess a school’s success, we should do this by reflecting on the value we added between a student entering and leaving that school. And by ‘value’ I do not just mean the improvement of an exam score.  I also mean their wellbeing, their sense of empathy and compassion, their confidence, poise and leadership skills, their sense of gratitude and service, their willingness to contribute to the world.  There is no league table that can do justice to the complexity of transforming a young person’s life.  Is it any wonder that more and more passionate educators burn out and throw in the towel in an educational climate that sidelines them, sucks the passion out of them and allows bureaucrats to thrive? 

Measuring a school’s worth by its place in the league tables has not only been found to be contributing nothing to student achievement, it has in fact, as education practitioners anticipated, increased social inequality, prejudice and segregation.  And there is something else it has done:  it has corrupted some educators with hitherto unblemished professional records and driven them to take desperate or unethical actions.

This week the Deputy Head of Britain’s most famous private school made headlines after allegedly leaking confidential exam material to colleagues in his department.  As Principal Examiner for the Cambridge Pre-U, a distinguished qualification offered by many private schools alongside A Levels and IB, he had privileged access to exam questions.  As a consequence, the students lost their marks.  He now no longer works at the school.

In Australia, NAPLAN tests have been administered since 2002, but large scale cheating incidents have only happened since the introduction of league tables in 2010.  In Queensland in 2012, 24 school staff were implicated in breaching exam security or administration procedures.  They involved seven principals and one deputy principal – one can only speculate about the pressures they must have been under.  Their offences ranged from leaking exam questions prematurely to encouraging students to re-write some answers after the official end of the test.  Some staff got away with written cautions, for others it spelt the end of their careers.

In England, a headmaster was jailed in 2003 for three months after forging the exam answers on his pupils’ SATS tests.  Where students had left blanks, he wrote in the answers himself.  Where they had made mistakes, he amended them.  His career ended in tatters, and his only defence was the pressure on his school to perform in the league tables, a school that had encountered financial difficulties and could not afford the quality teachers to ensure better results.

In Scotland in 2009, a teacher circulated confidential oral exam questions to students – unfortunately for him, he used school email for his purposes and put in the subject line (in capital letters):  DESTROY AFTER READING, which alerted the IT staff.  It ended his career as a teacher.

In England, an award-winning headmistress took her own life in 2015 when her school was downgraded following an inspection by the Office for the Standards of Education (OFSTED) in the UK.  She cared deeply about the children in her school but felt she had let everyone down when the school slipped in the exams league table.  The inspection happened during the time of a major building project when the school was a building site, which was found to have exacerbated the stress this Head was under at the time.

Another English head was banned from teaching for life after instructing her staff to help pupils during their SATS tests and pointing out their wrong answers to them herself during live examinations.  This year, an Academy headmaster was banned from teaching indefinitely for altering his pupils' SATS answers so that his school would retain its ‘outstanding’ rating by OFSTED.

On 13 December 2016, the Daily Telegraph reported that, while student cheating has decreased in the UK, teacher cheating has increased.  In 2016 alone, 388 penalties were issued against school staff (as compared to 119 in 2014) – an increase widely attributed to “the steep increase on the pressures and stress of a results-driven culture at schools.”  According to this article, one teacher in a low-performing school in a deprived borough of London openly acknowledged and justified helping his students in exams by writing answers on the board or giving them unauthorised extra time, as they did not have the same level of help that children of middle-class parents get at home.

This is, of course, wrong.  I am a strong believer in academic integrity and honesty, and people who undermine the system in any of the ways described above are acting unethically, subversively, unprofessionally and often illegally.  It is, however, often the best people, those who care the most about their pupils, those who passionately believe in equality of opportunity, who are tempted to act like this, no matter how deeply flawed and misguided their actions are.  I think it can be safely assumed that all the educators mentioned above entered our noble profession with high ideals at some point in their lives and with the sincere intention to make a difference in their pupils' lives.  If this is the case, it is time to change the systems.  Not the teachers.

These days we do, as a friend and colleague of mine used to say, weigh the pigs more than we feed them.  Personally, I do have high standards and a strong belief in the necessity of foundational knowledge. I absolutely agree that pupils should learn strong literacy and numeracy skills. If passionate teachers are allowed to do their jobs, if they are given a certain degree of autonomy in their teaching style and methods, if they are allowed to inspire, even to be mavericks at times rather than be stifled by the latest pedagogical fads or pressured into teaching to the test, these will come automatically.  Pupils who are inspired to read and to develop a love of literature will improve their literacy, their reading and writing skills.  Pupils who are inspired by their Maths or Science teachers will develop an interest in and improve on their numeracy skills – they will need them if they want to become the entrepreneurs of the future.  What better incentive could there be?

We all know that a healthy amount of stress can be a good thing and prompt us to do well in an exam or any other challenging situation.  I do, however, firmly believe that no pupil aged 7 or 11 or even 13 should suffer anxiety because they are over-examined in futile tests at their tender age.  No teacher should suffer stress and sleepless nights because of SATS or NAPLAN tests, let alone resort to acting unlawfully.  And no head teacher should be driven to suicide for a thing as stupid and as arbitrary as their school’s place in the league tables.

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