Testing Reigns in Britain

But Resistance Is Growing

By Bob Peterson

“High-stakes tests develop a love of learning.”
(repeated on board)

It’s not every day one gets the opportunity to go to England. So when I was invited to attend an educational conference in Manchester on “sharing best anti-racist practices” in Britain and the United States, I jumped at the chance.

My youngest daughter encouraged me to visit the Tower of London to see the Crown Jewels and the place where political opponents to the crown were beheaded. Not being particularly fond of either monarchy or capital punishment, I was ambivalent about the idea.

But much to my surprise, on my first day in England a member of the Royal family, Prince Charles, improved my attitude toward the monarchy.

The 54-year-old prince, who has been notoriously reactionary on many educational issues, convened a conference recently on the teaching of English literature and history. He made headlines by criticizing England’s centralized national curriculum and examinations. “I want to encourage teachers to enrich their teaching despite the straitjacket of assessment,” said Prince Charles. “More frequent exams mean that the time for learning has shrunk and that leads to defensive teaching.”

Maybe our own “King George” (He, too, was appointed, not elected, remember?) could learn a lesson from his monarchical counterpart across the Atlantic.

The prince’s remarks, while newsworthy, were overshadowed by even stronger criticism of over-testing by the headmaster of one of Britain’s leading Roman Catholic schools.

Dom Antony Sutch, a Benedictine monk and head of Downside School in Somerset, condemned the government testing policies, saying that the examinations were now so central to education that even the Prime Minister had to hire private tutors for his children. According to The Daily Telegraph Dom Antony’s comments carried extra force because he is “as far removed as possible from the stereotype of the left-wing educationist opposed to meritocracy and league tables.” (League tables are the public ranking of schools by test scores.)

“A school is damned because it is 574th in the league table – but that school may have worked miracles by giving a child the confidence he or she needs,” said Antony. “It is shameful to say, “This is a good school because it is top of a league table.”

His comments made me think of the recent listings of “schools in need of improvement” in the United States. I know some schools that didn’t make the list and I would never think of sending my daughter to them, and some schools that are on the list that are great schools.

Antony also criticized the “geek culture” in the government, which he says is overly focused on statistics. “People are not machines,” he said. “We seem to believe that you can fatten a pig just by weighing it. The government wants to measure everything — what are they measuring?”

Good question. Just what are we measuring in the new federally mandated tests?

Antony could have been talking about elementary schools in the United States when he continued, “Primary schools are teaching numeracy and literacy simply to pass the appropriate exams, and letting other vital subjects drop. Music, drama, even dance are not necessarily less important. We have reached a stage where teachers tick [check] boxes and say ‘Look how good my system is – it must be working.’ But it isn’t.”

The conservative Thatcher government of the 1980s brought in the national curriculum, partially to undermine the efforts of the Inner London Education Authority, which was run by anti-racist progressive educators (Thatcher abolished the ILEA). Despite vociferous protests, the national curriculum and examinations system has shaped the schools considerably ever since. As in the United States, where the current push for standardization and testing began with the Reagan Administration and was continued by Clinton and the Democrats, the conservative education policies of the Thatcher era have endured under the Labor government of Tony Blair. The testing plague is a bipartisan disease.


The anti-racist activists at the conference agreed that despite the achievement gap between white students and students of color in England, the national curriculum and testing system were part of the problem, not the solution. Chris Searle, a lecturer at Godsmith’s College at the University of London and noted author of several books about inequality and racism in British schools, described the education system in Britain as a “curriculum prison” with the “national curriculum as the prime criminal.” He noted a lack of international voices or literature by people of color in the curriculum and pointed out that when the curriculum was released there were no Black writers on the list of literature in the national curriculum . Searle also said that between the ages of four and 18, students take approximately 75 examinations. “Examinations have ceased to examine children’s real knowledge,” he said.

But the people I met on my trip were not resigned to the fact that their schools were being strangled by the national government. Martin Francis, head teacher (the equivalent to a principal who does some teaching ) at Park Lane Elementary School in London took a decidedly defiant attitude. He was brought into the school to help “turn it around” after it was designated as “failing.” The school of 210 students serves many immigrant children and has 28 different language groups. Martin’s general attitude was: We know what’s best for children – not the central authorities – and we aren’t going to stop teaching in a way that affirms their heritage and engages them in meaningful learning.

He conceded they spend some time specifically preparing kids for exams, but for the most part he felt too many educators in Britain were overly intimidated by the national curriculum and examinations. He lamented that the new generation of teachers that has been trained in the last 10 years has known nothing different than the centralized system of curriculum and testing. “Teachers have become technicians and deliverers – not creators,” he said. “The authorities don’t monitor what we’re doing most days in our schools and classrooms. Why not teach in ways we know that are best for the kids?” Martin challenged. It was refreshing to witness such defiant leadership in a head teacher. We could use more of that attitude in U.S. schools.

As we were leaving Britain there were new reports in the press that members of the United Kingdom’s biggest teachers’ union, the National Union of Teachers, are likely to vote on a boycott of the national curriculum tests that are scheduled for May 2003. The union decided to conduct the vote after a survey showed that teachers felt the tests were having a “narrowing” effect on the curriculum.

Martin’s attitude and the union’s planned action are good lessons for educators here as well. Even though the increased testing pressures engendered by the ESEA are real, we as teachers and principals need to be more willing to expose – and at times oppose – the consequences of that pressure in our schools. When the testing mania undermines good educational practice, we need to work with our colleagues and parents to continue teaching in ways we know are sound. School communities of parents, teachers, principals — and in some cases, students — should become centers of resistance.

In addition, our unions and other professional organizations must start serious conversations about how to collectively respond to this destructive addiction to testing. Those organizations should do so to protect our profession and, more importantly, the integrity of the education we are offering our students.

At the end of my trip I did squeeze in a visit to the Tower of London. While I didn’t see much that warmed my attitude toward monarchy, visiting a structure of buildings that dates back nearly a millennium did make me pause in awe at how much about world history – in this case English – I don’t know.

As I negotiated the narrow steps of one tower, I watched two young teachers walk a neatly uniformed, although rambunctious group of students through the grounds. I thought I am glad that those teachers – at least for the day – had found something better to do with their students than give them practice tests for the upcoming exams.

Bob Peterson (repmilw@aol.com) teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He encourages teachers, parents, and students to contact him by email to relate the impact of the ESEA on their schools.

Winter 2002/2003