The end of exploration

Here’s quite an effective parent’s polemic about the soul-destroying obsession with testing in English schools from Zoe Williams in the Guardian today. Hang on, I seem to remember writing something in similar vein for the same paper, long ago. It’s about science SATS, and I obviously felt strongly about it at the time as a parent of kids going through the system. It had absolutely no effect. I recall a few private comments that I was on the right track, but no-one said anything publicly. The kids went on to secondary education, duly dropped science, and are now done with schools. Thank heavens for that, as since I had my little rant everything seems to have got steadily worse. Almost everything I hear now second hand about schools and how they work remains depressing for anyone who cares about real education. Here’s hoping Williams’ piece gets more traction  (we have comments now!), and it is time for the pendulum to reverse its swing. But I can say the rot set in a long while ago…

Now, who can give the proper names for the parts of a plant? Chances are, if you were an 11 year-old in a British school, you would raise your hand. It is one of the irredeemably dull things you just had to learn in Science.

Exams, known as SATS for standard assessment tests, look, like being the death of the proud hopes for science in primary education. Once, the National Curriculum in the UK was going to be a great new beginning for science. For the first time, every child starting out in school had to study science from the start, to ask questions about the natural world, to find out how to investigate simple phenomena, to do experiments, even.

And very cute they were. For a few years, kids experience science as play. They mix and separate, dissolve and heat, begin to understand the states of matter, the turn of the seasons and the more elusive properties of electricity and magnetism. A couple of years ago, my eldest daughter counted science her favourite subject. It meant exploration. It was open-ended. It demanded some creative input. In a small way, it was like real science.

But come Year Six (the 11 year olds) and all that is abandoned. Progress must be reckoned on a measurable index which can be transmitted to secondary schools, published in league tables, and make the Secretary of State for Education look good at question time. Teachers must put aside imparting anything interesting about science, and make their pupils learn the correct responses to a set of startlingly dull questions.

This has two anti-educational consequences. As it induces rote-learning of the worst kind, it teaches that prescribed responses are what the system requires, not understanding. In half a term, science moves from unanswered questions to unquestioned answers. And it puts almost everyone off science because the subject is perceived as boring and pointless, the more so because of the contrast with what has gone before. It is a pale reflection of the enticing version of science that children are introduced to, and devalues the work of both teachers and pupils in developing that vision.

Maybe a decent secondary school will reduce the damage, but the effects of such a strong turn-off are hard tom undo. An awful lot of this cohort, by my guess, will stick to their current conviction that science is boring, and stop doing it as soon as they can. And, in five years’ time, the perennial hand-wringing about a lack of interest in tackling science at A-level will still be with us.

The really sad part is that teachers and teacher educators (that I talk to) acknowledge that these Year Six tests are pretty disastrous educationally; most of them think much the same about the Maths and English tests. But hardly anyone is saying so.

Mathematics, English and Science are set to be the only three compulsory areas in the national primary curriculum in future. Why science survives at the expense of History, Drama or Art beats me, actually. But if it means those subjects remain uncontaminated by tests, they will undoubtedly have the edge over science in interest, enthusiasm, and long-term commitment. If David Blunkett’s intention in elevating Science as one of the compulsory trio is in line with the thin rhetoric about “preparing 21st century citizens and safeguarding the nation’s future in a competitive scientific and technological world” the current state of the tests probably means he is doing exactly the wrong thing.

The National Foundation for Educational Research, which develops and administers the tests, has just advertised for someone to lead a team to continue “enhancing” the science tests for 11 year olds. Whoever gets the job should set themselves a little test. Can they take a long, hard look at the existing SATs for science and honestly argue that they are not educationally counter-productive? Then they should resolve to do something about it. (1998)

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