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Dear Ms Morgan: this isn’t education, it’s testing, testing, testing

3rd June 2015

Congratulations on keeping education out of the headlines during the election. I guess that’s what you were appointed for. We can all imagine how it might have been if your predecessor had been in the job. There was a real danger for your party that he might have brought into the limelight many educational issues that your strategists preferred not to be openly and fairly discussed. One example: the yet tighter grip on children, parents, carers and teachers that the testing regime is going to have over the next five years. Under your government, children entering the system will have different kinds of national tests, first when they arrive, again at the end of year 1, again at the end of year 2, year 6, year 9 teacher assessment, year 11 and year 13.

Most of these tests are “high stakes” because the future of a whole school community (then rebounding on to several nearby school communities) will turn on how the pupils perform. At a stroke of a pen, you can rule that the group of teachers in a school are, in your words, “coasting” and overnight, headteachers can be removed or demoted, and the relationships that schools have with each other and their locality are fundamentally changed. Yet this draconian way of dealing with the way a school works overall depends on tests that are based on narrow criteria. Subjects that should involve interpretation and reflection are reduced to single right and wrong answers. Though the arts, thankfully, are mostly outside of this weights-and-measures approach to knowledge and understanding, they suffer from being demoted in the priorities fixed by your office. I say “the arts” suffer, but I mean “the pupils”, squeezed out of benefiting from the kinds of participatory, collaborative, creative work the arts offer.

Yet saying this underestimates the effect the high-stakes testing has on the day-to-day nature of education. It breeds yet more tests. A secondary pupil in year 9 can expect to be doing a sit-down test at the rate of one a week for a whole year. The system is becoming instruct-and-test over smaller and smaller time spans.

You might be delighted to defend and celebrate this. Given that you’re in charge of it, I would hope you would. An election might have been a time when you could have entered into open discussion with pupils, teachers and parents about it all. How many parents of very young children know that their child will have to face three high-stakes tests in their first two to three years of school? Can you point to a body of opinion expressed by the parents of older children that they wish their children had experienced this by the time they were seven? Does it really not matter to you that a raft of professional bodies responsible for education in the early years have expressed their disagreement with your new “baseline” tests for four-year-olds? Shouldn’t this have been a matter that was discussed publicly with parents, teaching bodies and academics over a few years? Or is democracy for us masses just something we do once in five?

In particular, these tests for four-year-olds have an extra, pernicious, effect. They will invade the way we bring up children before they go to school. While politicians love to praise the sanctity of family life and bemoan the “nanny state”, these tests for four-year-olds will foster a family culture of test-itis. They will lead many parents into thinking that the best gift they can give their young children is a pre-school, pre-test app or booklet. At the very moment when the human condition is at its most curious, when the environment we adults construct can as easily foster that curiosity as slap it down, you are guaranteeing that many parents will focus on thinking that education is about doing tests.

If he hasn’t thrown it away, your colleague Nick Gibb has an important piece of research that I gave him. It is a longitudinal study carried out over 20 years in 27 different countries on the value for a child of having books in the home. Many other pieces of research have pointed again and again to the value of reading for pleasure. This is as important – if not more so – for nought to five-year-olds as it is for everyone else.

I can’t stop myself from imagining how a government could divert the time, effort and money being devoted to testing four-, five- and six-year-olds into the support of their reading through school libraries, local libraries and paid, trained librarians.

Yours, Michael Rosen

Read more on the Guardian website