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One long Sats test

In this emotional indictment of our education system, the writer and teacher Francis Gilbert explain

The decision by the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, to kill off the Sats exams for 14-year-olds is arguably the most momentous decision taken by a politician since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Dramatic as it may sound, I believe the scrapping of these wretched exams will have far greater long-term repercussions than the bailing out of the banks.

As a middle-aged teacher who has taught for nearly two decades in state schools, I have had my life transformed. For 16 years, I have been penned up in sweaty classrooms drilling bored teenagers through the pointless complexities of the English Sats papers. I have watched some pupils bow their heads and scribble dutifully over them, while others turn them into paper aeroplanes. I have gone home every day worrying about how I might improve my results in this year's test. In my most depressed moments, my life itself has felt like one long, sad Sats test.

When the Education Act of 1988 introduced the concept of Standard Attainment Tests - Sats, also known as Key Stage tests - I, as a young teacher, cheered. In common with most of my colleagues, I support the notion of testing our children in a regular and organised way. In theory, Sats appeared eminently sensible: Key Stage 1 and 2 tests would assess seven- and 11-year-olds mainly in reading, writing and arithmetic, while Key Stage 3 tests would have equal components of testing in English, maths and science. Children would be assigned levels from 1-7, which were standardised across the whole age range, and therefore parents, pupils and teachers could see clearly whether students were progressing at the expected rate; if a pupil did not move up at least one or two levels between each stage then alarm bells would ring.

In practice, however, these tests have proved to be nightmarish failures. The Sats have not only led to a marked decline in standards, they have broken children's zeal for learning. They have alienated pupils, teachers and parents alike without making schools properly accountable. The root of the problem is this: the Sats have made children better at passing abstruse exams but in so doing have bludgeoned out all enthusiasm for learning, leaving them lacking in initiative, floundering when confronted with unexpected challenges, unable to construct sustained arguments and powerless to think imaginatively. At a stage in their education when pupils could be reading great literature in English, exploring the wonder of numbers in maths, understanding the forces of the universe in science, they have instead been plodding through tedious practice papers and learning the wording of the relevant mark schemes. They have not been educated; they have been trained simply to jump through the hoops of the exams.

How differently I felt in 1991. During that first dawn of Sats I was pleased, because previously there hadn't been any clear targets to work towards and no way of knowing what pupils had achieved before they came to you.

But as the Key Stage tests were phased in, it became increasingly obvious that they were failing to assess the essentials and, more disturbingly, were putting children off school. The KS1 and 2 tests were supposed to give accurate information about pupils' proficiency in the three Rs. However, as an English teacher who was expected to use the KS1 and 2 English scores to inform his teaching, I soon noticed that the levels the pupils were arriving with from their primary schools were inaccurate. More worryingly, the method of "teaching to the test" seemed to have sapped the confidence and passion of children as young as 11. I can vividly remember, five years ago, my new Year 7 pupils groaning when they saw that they would be reading a novel with me at the beginning of the year. "Do we have to read books?" a blond-haired boy named Liam asked me during the first week of term. I had never encountered such resistance to learning before. But then I reflected that he was one of the first pupils who had known nothing but Sats teaching since he was six years old. The effect was shocking: 11-year-old children, who had in previous years been full of eagerness, were now jaded and moaning about the work, fighting and giggling in class, writing only short answers and struggling to read anything that wasn't on a test paper. It was only when I set them a mock test that they shut up and got on with some work: it was the only form of education they understood.

Having been drilled to answer questions on little bites of text, too many children were unable to read longer books independently. Moreover, they seemed utterly disillusioned by the prospect of studying English. Liam sneered at everything put before him until he brought in his own crime novel from home. In desperation, I allowed him to read it even though it wasn’t on the syllabus. Although he was articulate, he was not cut out for taking these exams and achieved a shockingly low level in his KS3 test; in fact, he had regressed academically since primary school. The effect of the tests on him had been hugely damaging, demoralising him to such an extent that he felt there was no point ever trying at school. If they had been better structured, the story would have been very different; he could have written reviews of his beloved crime novels.

I felt I had failed: I had managed to foster a love of reading but this had been at the cost of his failing exams. Ultimately, Liam perceived that his new-found love of reading was disconnected from everything he did in school. Maths teachers report more or less the same problem: overtested and demotivated children are not ready for secondary maths in the way they were before the tests were introduced.

The Key Stage 1 and 2 tests are to be retained. Yet most teachers know that this is where the rot starts: primary schools are obliged to brainwash their charges with test papers in order to keep their school's position high on the league tables.

This is not to say that schoolteachers have an easy life, handing out test papers and asking the pupils to get on with the work in silence. Teaching to the Sats can be extremely difficult. Recently, the tests at all levels have become even more fiddly - and boring.

Overtested and demotivated children are not ready for secondary maths in the way they were before Sats were introduced

The English Key Stage 3 test, for which I have prepared pupils, follows a very set format: a reading paper, a writing paper and a Shakespeare paper. In maths and science, there is a similarly rigid rubric. At a glance, the English Key Stage 3 test looks quite easy to teach. With Shakespeare, for instance, it benefits the teacher not to read the whole play, because only two scenes are tested; it is far more effective to show pupils the film and then drill them into understanding the two scenes set for the exam.

“I’ve spent years copying this off the board and it makes me feel like a robot. Copy this, copy that. Do this, do that”

But the truth is that, while the examined texts are facile and unrewarding, the actual teaching is a complicated affair. This is because guidelines require that teachers teach every lesson to "learning objectives". At the beginning of each lesson the teacher writes at least one learning objective on the board, requiring pupils to copy it down in their books and focus on that particular concept throughout the lesson. The response of one of my recent pupils, Leroy, sums up the attitude of many children. "I've spent years copying this off the board and it makes me feel like a robot," he told me. "Copy this, copy that. Do this, do that. When are we ever going to do something we want to do?"

Leroy was a clever boy, but he messed around a lot during my Year 9 classes. In consequence, he achieved only an average Level 5 Sat, setting him up to achieve similarly undistinguished GCSEs. He should have gone on to do A-levels but didn't because he disliked school so much. The exam system was entirely to blame for his dropping out.

Another pupil, Nicole, who was aged 13, once looked up at me at the end of the lesson and said that her hand was hurting from so much writing. "This is all I do in every lesson, just fill in worksheets, but I never quite know what's important about any of this. Will I need any of this when I go to work?" she asked with sad resignation.

Nicole was a dutiful student and attained top marks in her Sats, but told me that she forgot everything she had learned a few weeks after the tests. It was an exaggeration, but it illustrated another problem with the tests: pupils didn't see that any of the skills they learned could be transferred to any other sphere. The Sats foster the belief among our students that school is abstracted from the world beyond the classroom, existing in its own tortuous bubble.

Why then, if I hate them so much, do I feel apprehensive about the demise of the Key Stage 3 tests? In truth, these tests are all I’ve known since I started teaching in the 1990s; they have provided a structure, a crutch, an easy if very mundane regime to impose on my pupils. Like many teachers, I perceive that we need a way of assessing schools’ performances so that failing institutions are identified. But this should be done separately from assessing pupils’ individual performances.

Needless to say, the scrapping of the Sats for 14-year-olds does not mean the scrapping of league tables or the measures that make teachers accountable for their pupils' results. While much is uncertain, it may be that teachers are scrutinised even more closely. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is piloting "stage not age" tests, which are rather like music exams - tests that are taken when the pupil is ready to take them. It seems certain that these exams will assess pupils' knowledge and understanding of the new National Curriculum, which, worryingly, looks even worse than its predecessor in its use of ambiguous jargon. Will the government never learn? What pupils and teachers need are clear, concise guidelines that give them freedom to teach as well as definite goals to work towards.

The government's refusal to countenance chang ing the format of the remaining Sats suggests that the system will continue to fail our children. All the Sats should be abolished now and replaced with simple, sensible tests. If something isn't done, and soon, we will produce another generation of dispirited and ill-educated children.

Francis Gilbert's "Parent Power: the Complete Guide to Getting the Best Education for Your Child" is published by Piatkus (£9.99)

A short history of British examinations

The Higher School Certificate was introduced in 1918 for school leavers, and was usually taken at the age of 18.

The eleven-plus was created as part of the Butler Education Act 1944; it tests verbal and non-verbal reasoning, mathematics and writing in order to see which 11-year-olds should go to grammar school.

O-levels (Ordinary levels) were introduced in the 1950s as subject-based qualifications under a General Certificate of Education, testing 16-year-olds on academic knowledge. The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was the school-leaving qualification awarded between 1965 and 1987 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the majority of pupils who did not take GCE O-levels. O-levels and CSEs were replaced in 1986 by GCSEs (the General Certificate of Secondary Education).

A-levels were introduced in 1951, replacing the Higher School Certificate, testing students in academic subjects at the end of the sixth form. In 2000, A-levels were reformed and AS-levels were created, testing students at the end of their first year in the sixth form. A2-levels tested pupils at the end of the sixth form. All A-levels became "modular": each A-level consisted of six modules, tested either by coursework or by examination, enabling pupils to retake modules if necessary. A-levels were reformed again this year, the number of modules being cut from six to four.

Key Stage tests and school league tables based on their results were introduced in the 1990s. KS1 tests for seven-year-olds are in reading, writing and maths, and also offer teacher assessments in science. KS2 tests (11-year-olds) cover English, maths and science, as did the old tests for 14-year-olds. In October, the government announced the end of testing for 14-year-olds, to be replaced by teacher assessments.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge