Former Eton head criticises ‘joyless’ and ‘Victorian’ exams system

Tony Little says emphasis on testing has ‘gone too far’

A “joyless” and “Victorian” approach to exams and testing is “undermining the culture of our schools”, the former head of Eton has said.

Tony Little, who left the public school last year and is now chief academic officer for GEMS Education, criticised the “continuing shackling of a relentless testing process” and said testing had “gone too far”.

Speaking at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai today, he said: “The relentless pursuit of testing has led to the atomising of knowledge.

“Through this culture of testing we arrive at a format that tends to test by silo in an age that demands academic and technical rigour beyond boundaries. We’re hamstrung and limited and old fashioned, quite Victorian in the way we go about it.”

He said the English government’s introduction of the Ebac performance measure had “had the unintended but inevitable consequence” that performing and creative arts had “withered and in some cases died, because the school’s limited resources go into those areas that can be measured.”

Mr Little said he liked formative assessment, which could help support teaching and learning, adding: “I can even see a place for more heavy handed standardised testing especially when it can expose complacency in schools, especially those schools that are inclined to believe their own myth.”

However, he said, testing had “gone too far” and that the current system was “often joyless”.

“Today we inhabit the great age of measurement… It’s undermining the culture of our schools. We have got it out of kilter, we need to redress the balance.”

Speaking at the same event, Simon Lebus, group chief executive of Cambridge Assessment which runs the OCR exam board, said exams had “become a battlefield for a proxy culture war about educational philosophy.”

“[Exams] are a form of essential social protection, in as much as they provide an invaluable safeguard of educational standards, an effective way of signposting and marshalling progress through the curriculum and equitable access for educational opportunities,” he said.

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