School exams: essential testing or narrow-minded bullying

Intelligence Squared

On October 1st the motion for debate was, “Let’s end the tyranny of the test – relentless school testing demeans education.”

Tristram Hunt – until recently Shadow Secretary of State for Education. He sees the purpose of education as liberation, providing social continuity so that the community sustains and passes on what has been learnt. He believes that as a means, testing can destroy the end, education, by tyrannising schools and students.

Daisy Christodoulou – Research Director at Ark, an educational charity. She was concerned to provide accountability by means of controlled measurement as a means of showing the progress and capacity of children from all backgrounds. She believes that children from poorer backgrounds are less capable of revealing their talent and that formal testing reduces this disparity between them and children whose backgrounds dispose them better to take advantage of education.

Tony Little – recently retired head master of Eton College. He spoke persuasively about education as a way of helping young people navigate adult life beyond the family and of the erosion of culture under pressure from the exam system. He pointed out the inability of cultures to respond to change when domineered by rigid systems.

Toby Young – Tory journalist and founder of West London Free School. He provided a witty dismissal of those who are reluctant to expect robustness of children and pointed out the number of times the panellists would have sat examinations, from the eleven-plus or common-entrance onwards. He is a realist, pointing out the world’s expectations of those who engage with it, with testing and assessment of one sort or another.

I was drawn to the debate by the notion of challenging tyranny, of governments, examination boards and ambitious schools which concern themselves with populations and not the individuals who make up those populations. It is a tyranny that denies opportunities to those who might fail, rather than encourage those who might pass, lest an institution’s success be diminished.  I have written a second English language text book, one that concerns itself with good English rather than particular syllabi or means of assessment. It is aimed at the standards expected of educated adults by encouraging understanding and fostering the confidence of young adults who failed, or were failed at school.

Before training to teach English I re-took the one O-level I failed at school: yes English Literature. Ten years later I was an examiner for the subject. I taught students not to be intimidated by examinations, but to see them as an opportunity to show their prowess or to prove wrong teachers who doubt them.

Once Messrs Hunt and Little had conceded that it was the tyranny that needed to be removed I was happy to support the motion as did 60% of the audience.

Details of What, How and Why: a manual of better English can be seen at:

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