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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

James Parrott Collection Christophel Alamy
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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

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