Primary tests: a barrier to real learning

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It is not surprising that the primary tests are causing anxiety. They are based on curriculum targets that are poorly matched to the age of the child. But there is another reason: the primary National Curriculum now consists of long lists of facts to be memorised – spellings, grammatical terms, fragments of mathematical knowledge. ‘High standards’ is interpreted as longer, more difficult items rather than developing a deeper and more complex understanding.

The current National Curriculum was largely dictated by education ministers Michael Gove and Nick Gibb. Having rejected all expert advice, they insisted on endless lists of detail.

These two arrogant politicians ignored one of the key principles of education for young children: that abstract knowledge should be rooted in experience. This doesn’t mean that children learn from activity alone, but that new ideas should be introduced in meaningful situations.

Experience and abstraction

This was a key principle of 19th Century education reformers such as Friedrich Froebel and Johann Pestalozzi, who have had such an influence on nurseries and infant classes (as we used to call them). The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget tracked the gradual development from experiential to abstract thinking. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky explained the problem of abstract knowledge when divorced from the child’s activity and experience:

Direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrotlike repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum. (Vygotsky 1986: 150)

Instead of representing ideas, the words become an empty shell. Children can be trained to pass tests on the words but still fail to understand them.

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This is why the Charter for Primary Education, written by teachers, academics and children’s authors and supported by the NUT, said:

Learning in symbolic forms (abstract language, mathematical symbols, scientific rules etc) should build upon and work with the child’s experience, use of the senses, and creative and experimental activity.

The problem with the current National Curriculum was summarised by 100 education professors and lecturers in their open letter to national newspapers:

The lists of spellings, facts and rules will not develop children’s ability to think or encourage critical understanding and creativity. It takes no account of children’s age and will place pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation.

Little account is taken of children’s potential interests or of the need for young children to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

Testing the shadow of knowledge

The tests are built around Gove’s and Gibb’s limited sense of children’s learning. They clearly don’t understand that assessment has to be valid, in other words, the method must be fit for purpose. Nobody would dream of checking that a child can swim 20 metres by setting a written test. The final qualification for a GP consists of a simulation with actors pretending to be patients: it requires knowledge but also the ability to apply it, diagnose complex problems, decide on the most suitable treatment and relate to the patient. No written test couldn’t do that. Unfortunately, a combination of ignorance, prejudice and distrust of teachers has led these politicians to impose their flawed tests.


In a recent speech, Nick Gibb argued that ‘all children should be able to write prose where verbs agree with subjects…and pronouns agree in number with the nouns to which they refer.’ He argued that ‘the easiest way for a teacher to explain to their pupils the rules that govern our language is to ensure that they have a shared vocabulary of grammatical terms.’ This is his justification for testing grammar at 7 and 11.

In the real world, almost all children do this automatically by the age of 5, and the very few who don’t are unlikely to understand formal teaching of the principles of agreement. Even very small children use modal verbs (can, will, might) and express themselves in multi-clause sentences including when, if and because. It is hard to understand what good it will do causing stress to children by insisting on testable knowledge of grammatical terminology.

Testing the rules

There is a fundamental error underpinning much of the testing: the notion that people only learn to do things by being taught explicit rules. This mistaken view assumes that:

The chef must recite his recipes to himself before he can cook according to them; the hero must lend his inner ear to some appropriate moral imperative before swimming out to save the drowning man; the chess player must run over in his head all the relevant rules and tactical maxims of the game. (Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, 1948)

Ryle wasn’t arguing that formal knowledge was irrelevant, but that it is best used to refine actions we are already practically engaged in.

The chess-player may require some time in which to plan his moves before he makes them. Yet the general assertion that all intelligent performance requires to be prefaced by the consideration of appropriate propositions rings unplausibly… Efficient practice precedes the theory of it.

Sadly, our ruling politicians think they know better.

Please read the earlier post Protecting children from national tests and connect with the growing parents’ campaign Let Our Kids Be Kids

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