Targets make our kids go from Bard to worse

November 7, 2003

Obession with assessment is crushing creativity in schoolchildren, laments Ros King

Do your first-year students complain that the course you teach is too difficult? Have you noticed that they are failing to make connections between what you taught them in the first week and what you taught them yesterday? Can they pick up the correspondences between your course and your colleague's? Are they beginning to demand that you tell them exactly what has to go in to that first assignment? Before you complain that students these days are less intelligent than they were ten or 20 years ago, or that widening participation goes hand in hand with lowering standards, stop to think about those students' previous experience of education.

Consider the testing culture to which they have been subjected since the introduction of the National Curriculum ten years ago, and the effect of the fear generated among teachers by Standard Assessment Tests and league tables on what and how they teach.

While I was looking for school placements for students taking a "Shakespeare in the classroom" course last year, a head of English told me:

"I hope you won't be doing any of that drama nonsense." Now, Shakespeare was a dramatist. He wrote plays. To demand that Shakespeare should be studied as if he did not "do drama" is like demanding that the properties of a giraffe should be explained in terms of its properties as a tomato.

The same week, a Tower Hamlets advisory teacher told me that she felt that many teachers were afraid of pursuing creative options while teaching the literacy hour. This is despite the fact that the Department for Education and Skills also, nominally, accepts the proven importance of creativity in fostering children's intellectual development and academic achievements across the curriculum.

This term I asked my students to write down their memories of Shakespeare at school. The results made depressing reading. Most agreed with the student who wrote: "Each class was heavily geared towards exam success and appropriate question-answering skills." They inevitably put the boring hours of "spider diagrams" down to poor teaching. What they wanted was to be allowed to think through problems, not to be conditioned to see the play through the teacher's eye for testing purposes. Contrary to popular opinion, when given the chance they were bowled over by the words. One student warmly remembered the actor who came to work with them, who "spent time on the words, what they mean and their rhythm", with "enthusiasm for the text and its power".

This situation is not, however, the teachers' fault; nor is it necessarily the fault of the curriculum. The literacy framework does not prevent teachers providing learning environments that would enable children to be creative, argumentative, problem-solving, motivated people - exactly the kind of students we need to come into higher education. But, equally, there is little in the documentation that makes clear to teachers that they are permitted to do this. Instead, it highlights objectives that "have been selected to help teachers in defining targets and as a focus for assessment".

Observations in schools over the past few weeks suggest that there can scarcely be an English lesson taking place in a good school anywhere in the country that does not have assessment as its primary focus, or even its teaching tool.

Given the truly appalling nature of last May's Sats at all levels and in all areas of English, this is a disaster. The tests were an intellectual disgrace, demanding an approach to literature, criticism and the process of the students' own writing that was inept, unimaginative, misguided and plain wrong. In the name of standardisation, those who do the marking have no freedom to spot the intelligent, if unexpected, answer. If it does not correspond exactly to the range in the handbook, it cannot be given a mark.

Teachers, therefore, have no option but to teach to the test - their school's league table position depends on it. We can continue to ignore this or, as academics, we can investigate what is happening in our own subject areas and recognise that an ability to think critically and imaginatively is as important to particle physics as it is to English literature. We should then demand that creative thinking skills are given at least as important a place in the school curriculum as spelling and numeracy.

Until that happens, we can insist more loudly that, as university admissions tutors, we have every right to say that we cannot rely on As at A2 level as indicators of suitability for entry. This year, next year and in five years, we too will have to teach these poor kids.

Ros King is senior lecturer in English and drama at Queen Mary, University of London.

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