Exam Factories?

4 July 2015


Today, the National Union of Teachers publishes Exam Factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people. The study was commissioned by the NUT and conducted independently by Emeritus Professor Merryn Hutchings of London Metropolitan University.

This is a wide ranging research project that incorporates a survey of almost 8,000 teachers, an extensive literature review and quantitative research utilising case studies of both heads and teachers (not all of whom are NUT members) and children.

Taken together, this research demonstrates the negative impact on children and young people in England of the current range of accountability measures in schools. These include Ofsted inspections, floor standards and the whole range of measures published in the school performance tables (attainment, pupil progress, attainment gaps between groups of pupils etc.)

Professor Hutchings finds that:

  • The Government’s aims of bringing about an increased focus on English/literacy and maths/numeracy and (in secondary schools) academic subjects, has been achieved at the cost of narrowing the curriculum that young people receive.
  • Recent accountability changes mean that in some cases secondary schools are entering pupils for academic examinations regardless of aptitudes or interests. This is contributing to disaffection and poor behaviour among some pupils.
  • The amount of time spent on creative teaching, investigation, play, practical work and reading has reduced considerably and there is now a tendency towards standardised lesson formats. Pupils questioned for this study, however, say that they learn better when lessons are memorable.
  • Teachers are witnessing unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems amongst pupils, particularly around exam time. This is prevalent in secondary schools but also in primaries.
  • Pupils of every age are under pressure to learn things for which they are not ready, leading to shallow learning for the test and children developing a sense of ‘failure’ at a younger and younger age.
  • Pupils’ increased attainment scores in tests are not necessarily reflected in an improvement in learning across the piece. Teaching can be very narrowly focused on the test.
  • The Government and Ofsted’s requirement that schools target pupils on Free School Meals with Pupil Premium money is prompting some schools to take the focus away from special educational needs (SEN) children. Accountability is discouraging schools from including SEN children in activities targeted at Free School Meals children even when children with SEN need the support more.
  • Accountability measures disproportionately affect disadvantaged pupils and those with SEN or disabilities. Teachers report that these children are more likely to be withdrawn from lessons to be coached in maths and English at the expense of a broad curriculum. Furthermore, some schools are reluctant to take on pupils in these categories as they may lower the school’s attainment figures. Ofsted grades are strongly related to the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in a school.
  • Ofsted is not viewed as supportive. It is seen as punitive and inconsistent, with the ability to cause a school to “fall apart”. In their analysis of a school, the inspectors also have a tendency not to take on board the way that individual circumstances affect outcomes.
  • The legacy effect of past Ofsted requirements means that these practices are still “drilled in” despite no longer being measured or required. These include the focus on marking of pupils’ work in a standardised manner and the monitoring of lesson structure.

Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said:

“Merryn Hutchings’ report is essential reading for Government and policy makers of all political hues. It demonstrates in vivid terms that the accountability agenda of Government and Ofsted is having deep-rooted and negative effects on both primary and secondary pupils. It is also clear that this will worsen on the new Government’s watch and spread to both teachers and children in Early Years settings.

“Schools feel enormous pressure to placate the whims of Government and Ofsted. Teachers at the sharp end are saying this loud and clear: ‘If it isn’t relevant to a test then it is not seen as a priority.’ The whole culture of a school has become geared towards meeting Government targets and Ofsted expectations. As this report shows, schools are on the verge of becoming ‘exam factories’.

“The accountability agenda stifles schools and is damaging children’s experience of education. School should be a joyful time in a child’s life when they are able to learn and play in a structured environment that develops their talents, skills and understanding and leaves them with a thirst for knowledge for the rest of their lives.

“Nicky Morgan knows from her Workload Challenge that teachers are under ridiculous pressures and that a great many hours are spent on accountability rather than teaching. It is staggering that she can claim to have absorbed and empathised with those 44,000 responses and yet still arrive at a new raft of policies which appear precision engineered to worsen the situation. Plans to introduce baseline assessment in Early Years, the rumoured reintroduction of Key Stage 1 SATs at age seven, the reinforcement of the Ebacc and the Education Secretary’s onslaught on so-called ‘coasting’ schools will do nothing to enable schools to meet the needs of every child and young person.”

Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns at Young Minds, said:

“The findings of this research are very concerning as they demonstrate that both pupils and teachers are under a lot of pressure to achieve results in a pressure cooker, exam factory environment.

“Many of the young people Young Minds works with say that they feel completely defined by their grades and that this is very detrimental to their wellbeing and self-esteem. We have to question the role of schools in relation to developing well rounded, confident young people, and there is a growing movement of high profile people, including the current Director of the CBI, who are saying that education cannot just be about learning academic subjects.

“Young people are growing up in a really pressurized, fast paced world and they need to learn the skills to navigate this new world successfully – character education, resilience building and life skills are all just as important as exam results. A young person can have the best grades possible but if they can’t cope or deal with the harsh realities of modern life then our education system is failing them.”

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