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A Broken System Calls for Change Change Needed

“Exam Factories?” NUT commissioned research shows harm

The harm of exams for children and young people and how education could be dramatically improved by stopping them

It does not have to be like this…countries such as Finland, Canada and Scotland do it very differently

Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary

Exams don’t just measure what is the case, they change it. The National Union of Teachers commissioned research into the impact of exams on children, young people and education. It found that the focus on exams at all levels of school has changed the nature of education in ‘wide ranging and harmful ways’. The study found evidence of serious impact on disadvantaged students, a reduction of quality between teachers and students and the complete narrowing of subjects to what counts for the exams. The outcomes were pressure on children to do things before they are developmentally ready and a serious threat to children’s well-being and happiness. “It is not serving the interests of children and young people and is undermining their right to a balanced, creative and rewarding curriculum.”

How exams change the system

The claim behind testing is that it improves attainment. But the evidence shows that while high stakes testing improves test scores it doesn’t improve students’ overall levels of knowledge or understanding. It just improves students’ ability to do tests. Or rather, that specific test. And the lack of a link between a score in a specific test and ability or understanding in another area is problematic in another way. Teachers said that in their experience the Key Stage 2 test scores did not give an accurate idea of children’s knowledge and understanding yet were used to set target GCSE grades. They also said that grades in maths and English couldn’t predict attainment in other subjects and yet were being used in this way. Children and young people’s success (or not) is increasingly being measured and determined by their ability in a very narrow range of skills in just a couple of subjects.

It does reduce education all the time down to that which can be easily measured


The focus of schools on exams naturally leads children and young people to believe that the point of school is getting good grades and qualifications. Universities and employers have spoken out against this, saying that they need people who are independent, creative and divergent thinkers who are able to work collaboratively and that school is failing to prepare young people for life beyond school.

The research found extensive evidence of an increase in mental health problems related to school. Anxiety and stress are becoming an ever-growing problem, with children feeling like failures at increasingly young ages. There has also been an increase in the incidence of ADHD, linked to the expectation and requirement that children sit still for extended periods of time at ever younger ages. Children unable to cope with this school environment are being diagnosed as sick and medicated.

really, really poor self-esteem and really low view of themselves, they do not believe they can do anything


Students from both primary and secondary said that they learned more effectively in active and creative lessons but the impact of pressure on schools to perform well has led to a marked reduction in these. Lessons have a much more standard format, focusing on written evidence in students’ books, the time spent on creative teaching, investigation, play, practical work etc. has reduced considerably. Lessons are taught to the test.

It doesn’t have to be this way

There is absolutely no necessity for school to be this way, exams are not a necessary part of the system and neither are unhappy stressed children a necessary side effect of learning.

The study made a wide range of practical recommendations. As a very first step it is crucial that we recognise the harm being done to young people and that the system was failing to develop the skills and talents needed for either higher education or employment. In place of test outcomes, it is proposed that we adopt a different measure of success, one which prioritises whether children are learning creatively and happily, that they can move on at the end of school to available opportunities and that they are able to contribute as members of society.

It recommended that there be a curriculum that was broad and which was designed to foster creativity, curiosity and enthusiasm to learn. It must be designed to be developmentally appropriate for different age groups. Schools should be expected to foster the talents and skills of individuals, in whatever area of learning that may be in. Collaboration not competition should be encouraged. This ethos should be continued to school staff, the report recommending that headteachers be supported to work in teams to hold each other to account and to support each other. Peer group visits should explore different areas of practice, be constructively critical and support in forming action plans where necessary.

Where there are serious concerns about a specific school, a team of educational professionals with substantial experience both in school leadership and in improving schools should be available to call in to give ongoing support.

We need to demand change

The report is well worth reading in full. We must heed its advice and stop ignoring what all the evidence tells us about the state of education in this country. We need to stop asking for increased counselling for depressed and anxious children and instead demand that we stop making children as young as six so unhappy. We need to stop accepting that education should be a hellish hamster wheel system. One of endless tests and of working towards yet more tests, which are evidence of nothing but ability to do tests. The system is taking away the right to childhood, the right to play – recognised as vital to development – the right to movement and not having to sit still at an age before children are ready. The system is taking away what people should rightfully be able to expect from an education, even the very minimum expectation that school should ‘develop the skills and talents needed for either higher education or employment’. In an increasing number of cases the system is taking away children and young people’s mental wellbeing and in some cases their lives. We have to stop accepting that this is ‘just how it is’ because it really doesn’t have to be.

Read the report in full

“Exam Factories?” was an independent report commissioned by the NUT. The lead researcher and author of the report is Professor Merryn Hutchings: Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University.

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