Testing time for teachers as well as students

August 15, 2006

August is the cruellest month for hundreds of thousands of teenagers waiting for GCSE and A-level results. But now research supported by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, the UK's largest initiative in education research, has shown that it is not only students who suffer from the stress of major public exams and national tests.

A project led by Professor Mary James has shown that teachers, too, are unhappy about the pressures created by high-stakes exams and tests, the need to cover the curriculum at break-neck speed, and the tick-box culture that has developed in many schools.

The problem with tests and exams, she says, is that they are no longer just about seeing what students have learned. They are also used to judge the success of teachers and schools. Parents use school results to decide where to send their children, and because funding follows the students, poor results have severe financial consequences for schools. Results in tests and exams can also affect teachers' own pay rises.

Professor James and her colleagues worked with 1500 staff in 40 schools. A survey of 558 classroom teachers, and interviews with 42, found that most of them feel a tension between helping students to be more effective and independent learners and pushing to meet performance targets.

She says: "Teachers know that the days are long gone when children could learn everything they needed to know in life during their school days. Teachers want to help children become more effective learners. This means helping them to learn how to learn and to understand standards of high quality learning, having proper conversations in the classroom, making the most of the knowledge children bring into the school from outside, and helping children assess their own learning."

Teaching in this way allows children to take more responsibility and produces more effective teaching and learning. But Professor James and her colleagues found that only about 20 per cent of their sample of teachers felt able to put effective teaching for learning before teaching to targets and tests. Those who were able to give priority to helping students to become independent learners were usually teachers who had a strong sense of their own responsibility and believed that they could make a difference. One school in which the majority of teachers held this view was also a school where exam results were exceptionally good. This suggests that if teachers concentrate on good learning, the results will follow without teaching to the test.

She says, "Unfortunately, the pressures to meet performance targets were constraining how teachers teach for the majority of the teachers in our research, and reducing their ability to give students the skills they need. The system should reduce their significance, and create incentives for schools to make sure children become effective learners. That would make for better learning as well as happier teachers."
Mary James is a fellow at the Institute of Education and was deputy director of the TLRP. Interview requests via Martin Ince 0771 939 0958 or Alexandra Saxon at ESRC, 0797 1027 335


1. The Teaching and Learning Research Programme is the UK's largest education research initiative and runs from 2000 to 2008. It is directed by Professor Andrew Pollard. More details at www.tlrp.org or via Martin Ince.

2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC total expenditure in 2005-06 is £135 million. At any time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

3. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

Economic & Social Research Council

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