League tables were introduced to increase competition between state suppliers of education. The idea, derived from sports performance, was to give parents an idea of where 'their school' was compared to their neighbour's school.
To some extent this is inevitable when governments fund schools or anything else for that matter: money spent by Parliament has to be accounted for and not just in terms of receipts but also in terms of the quality of the service. Unlike the private sector in which feedback from customers in reduced sales or increased complaints gives business people an incentive to adapt and change, feedback mechanisms in government bureaucracies are more indirect, subject to political influences, and as many obfuscations and diversions that incumbent officials can think of. You don't believe me? Watch a few episodes of Yes Minister to get the gist, and if you don't get it after that, then read some essays by C. Northcote Parkinson ("Parkinson's Law"), or Ludwig Mises On Bureaucracy.
So the money has to be accounted and the quality of service assured - which is a much improved situation than not accounting for the money or checking the quality of provision.
The problem concerning education is that a pupil's needs are so individualistic. State imposed quality levels necessarily ignore the individual because schools and pupils need to be compared on an equal basis. I have no idea how to compare two children - it cannot be done. How do you compare yourself to your neighhbour? On your ability to do algebra? On your salary? On the holidays you go on? All would be superficial and meaningless.
Certainly, I can assess their maths skills for the same questions and one may get 10 out of 10 and the other 5 out of ten. According to what the government intends to this will mean that the first pupil is in the top ten percent of the country and the second in the bottom 50 or 60%. Naturally this will encourage many parents to get concerned about their children's standing in society - and the new feudal order that governments enjoy cultivating despite rhetoric otherwise, will be cemented in people's minds. Those at the top become the experts, those at the bottom the plebian class to be controlled by the elites. Personally, I hoped we were moving away from Plato's class system in which three classes are pulled aside during their education to either rule, protect or to do the hard work. We are all unique and have skills that are exchangeable in the market place, regardless how well we do in a tiny area of life called schooling.
But what an effect such divisiveness has on people. "I was no good at school..." "I was terrible in exams..." "I hated school..." why? because school was testing them in areas that they were not competent or interested. As Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Can we not learn from that yet? Focus on the first clause - everyone is a genius: look at what a child can do when left to exercise their initiative!
Now imagine a ten year old growing up thinking, "I'm no good, I'm in the bottom 30%. I'm useless, I'm only good for stacking shelves." So why are so many very rich people school dropouts? Because schools and their tests only focus on certain aspects of ability, not all. They do not test emotional or natural intelligence for instance, or much of Gardner's seven intelligences. Business people are often visionaries; they see gaps in the market place or innovate in ways everybody else is saying can't be done. Few academics make good business people - we're tied to texts too often and believe our worth is a function of our ability to succeed in exams.
A child is unique. Most people admit that. The ones who don't are not looking properly or refuse to acknowledge their own individuality. But those who accept individuality then proceed to insist on standardised tests for all children of the 'same age range' so they may be compared and placed in league tables. The top ten percent will no doubt feel very proud of themselves but what about the 90% of kids who don't make the top grade? It's the same philosophy with companies and government offices that have employee of the month: whoohooo - and the rest of the employees? They suck is the implied meaning. Such division and competition is unhealthy - it undermines self-confidence and human potential; in effect it is a war on the human soul.
So if someone admits that children are unique and then goes on to argue that they should be sitting standardised exams at such a young age, there is, we must observe, something wrong with their reasoning.
It is somewhat different for older children who sit exams aged 15 and 16 - at least that is when they have some choice over the matter, which they do for about a fifth of their curriculum. There is an element of voluntariness in their choices to do exams - or at least to revise or not revise for them. There is also a greater maturity that they can at least understand why they are completing their courses with exams. But eleven year olds? They are still predominantly children in wonderfully exotic and imaginative and crazy ways. But the government wants to kill that.
Ten year olds already do a standard assessment test in the country to check whether their school is actually teaching them. Accordingly, their education slips as their teachers train them for exams that really do not mean much to the children and have no impact on their lives, and if they did, we should surely question the logic and morality of defining a child's future at the age of 10!
In my practice I work with lots of children of all ages and abilities, and I see what early exams such as the SATS do to children's confidence. I see so many teenagers who freeze in exams because they are taught by the school system that they 'must get it right'. This is despite the research in psychology that consistently shows that people cannot think clearly under stress. But hey, let's keep on testing them because that's what we've always done.
And what does it imply when they don't? They're a failure. I've felt it myself when I did a practical exam a few years back - I was so nervous I forgot some basic protocol. Because of the SATS my colleagues and I observe a lot of exam nervousness in older children - now imagine the effect if that exam 'graded' the child nationally. I've no doubt that our tuition company will witness an increase in demand from parents keen on improving their child's standing - we'll teach them the bigger picture, as we always do, that pre-pubescent children's precociousness or lack of is no indicator of their future abilities or how wealthy they'll be one day, that exams do not measure all of their intelligences, that they seek to box their child when their child should be stretching, developing, and flying.
Early exams that the government is proposing are divisive and stressful; the minister wants to 'raise the bar' i.e, improve standards - in what we must ask? In creating a more stressful culture? Isn't there enough of that anyway? The only beneficiaries, as often is the case with such initiatives, are the officials, examiners, and statisticians who will create, implement, and analyse the results, which, in an era of supposed austerity is another reason why such folly should be abadoned, but the primary reason is the mental and social health of our children.
Just say no to exams for little ones!