School accountability is resulting in narrow priorities and anxious children, research shows

4 April 2015

New research by Emeritus Professor Merryn Hutchings and Dr Naveed Kazmi for the National Union of Teachers examines the impact of school accountability on children and young people. The interim report, in which Professor Hutchings presents emerging findings, published today, finds:

  • Anxious, stressed and disaffected pupils in all phases of education and all types of schools who are pressured to work at a level for which they are not yet ready;
  • who receive a narrow education at the expense of a broad and balanced curriculum; and
  • who are conditioned to view the purpose of schooling as solely to pass exams.

According to surveys of teachers and case studies of schools, conducted as part of this research:

  • pupils are losing self-confidence and motivation as a direct consequence of accountability measures, this in turn impacts on behaviour;
  • exam pressure is causing some pupils to develop serious stress-related conditions;
  • teachers have less time to focus on pupils’ social and emotional development;
  • SATs preparation is putting a squeeze on time in Year 6 for music, art, design technology and topic work. In some cases they are not taught at all; and
  • lower-attaining pupils in both primary and secondary schools are often removed from classes for booster sessions in English and maths and so are receiving a narrower curriculum than their peers. These are often the disadvantaged pupils who are least likely to have access to wider learning and cultural opportunities outside school.

And of Ofsted, the findings:

  • show that Ofsted grades are strongly related to the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in a school; and
  • support evidence that there is a disincentive for schools to take pupils who might reduce overall test scores.

The interim report finds no evidence that accountability measures can reduce the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

As part of Hutchings and Kazmi’s ongoing work, a survey of 8,000 teachers was conducted between 21 November and 14 December 2014. Here are a few of its emerging findings:

  • 84% agreed that the focus on academic targets means that social and emotional aspects of education tend to be neglected. (see 3.1.3 of attached)
  • 93% said the focus on targets meant there were fewer opportunities for pupils to engage in creative, investigative and practical activities. (3.3.2)
  • 97% reported an increased focus on maths and English teaching with less time spent on other subjects. (2.4)
  • 90% reported that some pupils are being asked to learn things for which they are not yet ready (3.3.1)
  • 94% of secondary teachers and 76% of primary teachers reported stress-related conditions amongst pupils, around the time of public examinations and SATs. (3.1.1)
  • 96% said accountability pressures meant they did not have enough time to focus on the needs of individual pupils and many commented that they did not know their pupils as well as in the past (3.2)

A further phase of the research will survey parents. The full report will be published in summer 2015.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said:

“The NUT has long argued that league tables, high-stakes testing and other accountability measures have a negative effect on children and young people. Teachers, too, are placed in the invidious position of carrying out myriad requirements to fulfil the Government’s desire to measure everything that can be measured. What gets lost for those who matter most, the pupils, is the rounded education that we all wish to see and the emotional and pastoral support that children and young people also need from their teachers.

“Despite a mass of evidence that accountability mechanisms fail to achieve their stated aims, it is clear that the Coalition Government has only worsened matters. It is deeply saddening that some of the pupils interviewed as part of this research feel reduced to a statistic – jumping through hoops for the benefit of others, and with no space to discover the creative and positive learning that school should provide. It is even more disturbing that some are experiencing serious stress-related conditions because of the pressure that is being piled upon them.

“Whichever Government emerges after the May election, one thing is for sure – the stifling and damaging effects of Ofsted, high-stakes testing and excessive workload simply must not continue.”

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