Martin Fautley

Martin Fautley

Professor Martin Fautley, Director of the Centre for Research Education at Birmingham City University

I was interested to read on the BBC news website the comments of a Prep school head, in that he thinks that online tests will replace the traditional written ones within a decade: Pen and paper exams will be a thing of the past by 2023, David Hanson of the Independent Association of Prep Schools will tell its annual conference.” This put me in mind of a heart-wrenching piece I read in the Washington Post last week.

In the American piece, a mother bewails the effects that mass testing has on her child: “He went from a child who looked forward to school in the morning and would return home talking about the projects and interesting things that went on in the classroom, to a child who cried at night, had stomach aches, and begged to stay home in the morning.” Now I’m not saying that simply transferring testing from things done by teachers in classrooms to being done online will suddenly disengage and upset pupils all over the country, but there are some wider issues to be considered with regards to these stories.

In the UK we are used to teachers working with pupils, and designing, delivering, and marking the work of the pupils in their class. This means that, especially in primary (and prep) schools, teacher get to know the children in their classes really well. They know how to motivate, how to ‘jolly along’, and how to care for the youngsters in their class. And care they do, in spades! (Just watch a recent episode of Educating Yorkshire, for the teacher who says if a particularly naughty boy fails, it’ll be her fault!) So, for me, the American mum hits the nail on the head when she says: “…parents are tired of testing companies, rather than teachers, evaluating their children.” This is the key point. Testing companies do not know (or care about) the children the way the teacher does. Testing companies are in it for the money. Testing companies care about the spreadsheets, the bottom line, and the remuneration. They cannot duplicate the in loco parentis cares of a human classroom teacher, who will worry about, nurture, and, yes cry, over the pupils in his or her care. Testing companies won’t do this.

So why do I seem against online testing? Well, how young should a child be to be told that they are a failure on a national level? I regularly meet people my age who tell me of the traumatic scars they carry from failing the 11+ many years ago. Do we want to bring this back for our children? Do we want some poor child to be told they are officially the lowest-scoring pupil in the country? Suppose that’s your daughter? What would you say to her?

So, am I over-reacting to this announcement? Surely a move to online testing is only a natural progression from where we are now? When I was a teacher, I remember parents talking to me at parents’ evenings saying things like: “Never mind how well my daughter/son is doing at school, do you think s/he’s happy?” How do you test for that online?

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Martin Fautley

Martin Fautley

Director of the Centre for Research Education at Birmingham City University
Martin Fautley

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