The National Union of Teachers has just balloted on a boycott of the national tests (SATs) for 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds. In addition, two initiatives have been launched more or less simultaneously, but independently of each other, After meeting Education Minister Charles Clarke, five of the country’s most established and respected writers – Chris Powling, Bernard Ashley, Philip Pullman, Anne Fine and Jamila Gavin – published a pamphlet, Meetings with the Minister. Unaware that this was in the offing, at about the same time I established the ‘Authors Against the SATs’ statement. This was published in The Times Educational Supplement supported by more than 100 children’s authors and illustrators opposed to the current testing regime.
What’s all the fuss about?
SAT testing began under the Conservative government in the early 1990s. The tests were resisted with a boycott in 1993 but they survived and have come to dominate the life of schools. Now, not only do 7-year-olds sit these widely despised tests, but there is a roller coaster of ‘optional’ tests (which every school does) at Years 3, 4 and 5. Primary schools have booster classes, SAT clubs and mock tests. Swimming, PE and ‘fripperies’ such as the expressive arts are routinely cancelled to permit more revision.
Even Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools in his 2000/2001 report has voiced misgivings:
‘The drive to improve performance in the national tests in English and Mathematics also absorbs more teaching time, particularly in Years 2 and 6. Headteachers report that, when something has to give, it is often extended practical or problem-solving activities in subjects such as science, technology and art that are squeezed out. This represents a serious narrowing of the curriculum.’
Finland is top of the OECD* rankings for reading and writing but has no such system of national tests. Teachers there are given the freedom to decide how to teach the curriculum, a freedom teachers in England can only envy. Even within the UK, Scotland has a different system and Wales is rapidly moving away from the SAT model. Clearly, it is hard for the Government to argue, as did Mrs Thatcher, that: ‘There is no alternative.’
The effect of constant testing
What is exercising the minds of writers for children most of all is the effect of constant testing on the teaching of literature. Excerpts, and the use of them as comprehension materials, have come to dominate English lessons. Some secondary librarians say that many children voice surprise that they are actually expected to read a whole book!
It is in this context, and against a background of squeezed spending on books (16% less spent on primary books and 10% less spent on secondary ones, according to the Bookseller) that authors have entered the discussion.
In the ‘Authors Against the SATs’ statement we argued that ‘Children’s understanding, empathy, imagination and creativity are developed best by reading whole books.’ We attacked the emphasis on reading excerpts and examining them through tick boxes and one word answers. One author who had her work used for the SATs, Pat Thomson, found she could not answer questions on her own story to the satisfaction of the examiners! We further argued that: ‘the SATs and the preparation for them are creating an atmosphere of anxiety around the teaching of literature’ and that the resources devoted to testing materials should be redirected into school libraries. The huge sums spent on the tests would be a significant shot in the arm for book provision.
I had expected a handful of authors to respond to my round robin letter. I was astonished by the response. Over 100 writers and illustrators got in touch within a week. Not only that, they often sent me indignant essays, detailing the negative effect of the tests on children’s enjoyment and understanding of literature.
Take this from illustrator Ian Whybrow: ‘It’s the filleting of books to supply comprehension exercises that I object to… Teachers and their classes need time to enjoy books together.’
Reading is becoming utilitarian
And there’s the rub. It is the very notion of enjoying a book, a poem, a play for itself that is under attack in our schools. Reading is becoming utilitarian. It is done to extract information, to find something out, to be tested. It is not undertaken for pleasure. What is odd about all this is that almost any teacher you know understands that the child who reads for the sheer exhilaration of immersing themselves in a good story absorbs, almost by osmosis, the rhythms and cadences of language. It is far easier to teach a reader the principles of grammar. Finally, vocabulary widens immeasurably. A blessed spin-off, in other words, is that the reading child is a successful child.
Since the publication of the statement, authors have addressed numerous meetings of teachers and parents. Pat Thomson, for example, addressed a hugely successful fringe meeting at the NUT conference. I have personally lost count of the number of meetings at which I have spoken around the country, from Bristol to Birmingham, Liverpool to Manchester.
Meetings with the Minister
Just as I was watching the ripples spread I was told about Meetings with the Minister. At a reception for children’s authors at 10 Downing Street, two of the contributing authors spoke to Charles Clarke, the incoming Education Secretary. Clarke agreed to a further meeting. Their discussions gave rise to the pamphlet. What is astonishing is how the five contributions, written independently of each other, and the SATs statement all concur on most of the major points.
In his contribution Bernard Ashley, a former headteacher, says this:
‘We now expect children to analyse books and poems before they’ve learned to enjoy them. Is this because analysis is easier to teach-and-test than enjoyment? Or, perhaps because a “text” is so much cheaper and more manageable than a book?’
Philip Pullman is equally trenchant, damning the ‘mechanistic approach which seems to have taken hold of the way teachers talk about the process of writing’. He goes on to criticise the ‘brutal, unceasing emphasis on testing and marking’. Finally, and tellingly, he points out that, in the National Literacy Strategy framework, out of 71 verbs used to describe the process of reading the word enjoy doesn’t occur once! Philip warns that we may be creating a generation who ‘feel nothing but hostility for literature’.
Anne Fine’s piece will also ruffle Government feathers. She argues that there has been a ‘disastrous slide in standards of creative writing’ and says that she no longer judges children’s writing competitions. ‘The fact is,’ she says, ‘most bright children… absolutely HATE planning, drafting and redrafting. She concludes by asking Government to reverse policy and ‘be rid of the results of this ideological tyranny’.
It is Jamila Gavin who directly addresses the SAT tests. She rightly says that no teacher is opposed to testing. But, as she continues, ‘there is testing and testing. There is the fun of learning, competing against oneself and trying to do better; and there is the testing to meet targets – with the pressure of a teacher knowing that if targets are met, more money is forthcoming.’ SATs ‘too easily stultify the teacher’ and ‘instead of encouraging them with enjoyment, confidence and creativity, rather induce fear, stress and insecurity.’
The pamphlet concludes with an action plan drawn up by Chris Powling. Readers of Books for Keeps will recognize much of the agenda: regular reading for pleasure, silent reading in school, browsing in the library, book weeks including the celebration of book ownership, library membership and ‘free range’ writing in class.
Vision, commitment and resources
I would add some suggestions of my own. At reading development conferences I have argued that the present post of Literacy Coordinator is useless. Most of the time the Coordinator is drawing up targets for children jogging along the SATs treadmill. The rest of the time they are attending meetings with local authority representatives in an effort to improve their test results and rise up the league table. Teaching to the test is their talisman. How much better it would be if there was a post of Reading Development Officer (the name is negotiable – what about Book Lady or Book Guy?) This person could take small groups of children into the library to browse the best of modern children’s literature. They could help tailor each child’s reading to their interests. I have no doubt that the number of children reading for pleasure would rise dramatically. Then there is the vexed issue of underachieving boys. I was recently at a conference at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton, Lancashire. It occurred to me that it would be a great idea to bring along these lads, and girls, to meet the likes of Jay Jay Okocha, tour the ground and do a couple of writing workshops with well-known poets and novelists. There could be a rolling roadshow at grounds around the country. But this kind of initiative is dependent on vision, commitment and resources. Sadly, all that is being channelled into the SATs regime, and with inevitably diminishing results. In the last couple of years the improvement in test scores has stalled. No wonder – you can only teach to the test for so long before it ceases to be effective.
Meetings with the Minister is a well-argued and thoroughly stimulating read by some of the top practitioners of their art. It should be worrying for the Government that seven Carnegie Medal winners and the recipients of many more literary awards have lined up against the SATs and the worst excesses of the National Literacy Strategy. The authors of Meetings with the Minister say that Charles Clarke has listened to their arguments. That has not stopped him making very aggressive statements to the press about teachers disrupting children’s education. The truth is, it is the SATs which have disrupted children’s school lives. A boycott would not mean strikes. It would mean redirecting teachers’ energies back to what matters, the drive, imagination and humour which switches youngsters onto the joy of learning. It is a sad symptom of the present emphasis on raising standards by testing children to distraction that, while visiting over 150 schools a year, I meet English teachers who don’t themselves read for pleasure. I don’t believe this is their fault. It is the result of a quite appalling system of assessment based on the faulty notion that literacy can be grafted onto the minds of young people.
For years the teaching of English in particular, and the education system in general, has been upside down. It is time we set it back on its feet.
If you want to join the campaign against the SATs and see a change in the teaching of English you could:
* write to Charles Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Education
* lobby your MP
* write a letter of support to the NUT, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1 9BD
* if you are an author or illustrator, support Authors Against the SATs (email: email@example.com )
*The OECD is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is an authoritative body which ranks the various countries’ educational achievements.
Meetings with the Minister (0 7049 1472 7, £4.95 inc. p&p) is available from the National Centre for Language and Literacy, The University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Earley, Reading RG6 1HY, tel: 0118 378 8820, fax: 0118 378 6801 (cheques payable to University of Reading). It can also be ordered online at www.ncll.org.uk
Alan Gibbons is a full time author and a regular speaker at schools, libraries and conferences. His latest book, The Dark Beneath, is published by Orion (1 84255 097 7, £4.99 pbk).