It’s time to close the school “exam factories”

Educational assessment can seriously damage a child’s health in Britain’s modern schools system.

At least, that is the belief of a union representing educational professionals. A recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) suggests the mental health of children as young as six is being put at risk by overwhelming assessment stress.[i]

What is more, there is widespread reporting of self-harm among pupils, with nine out of ten teachers pointing the finger of blame at classroom anxiety. Staff are even aware of children attempting suicide, including pupils at primary school, according to the survey.

The shocking findings highlight fears within the educational community that schools are becoming little more than exam factories, obsessed by grades and league tables. No one can argue the educational development of today’s young people is important but the single-minded drive to improve classroom attainment at the expense of the overall development of children is hugely damaging.

Leaving school and entering the wider world with a string of exam passes will not, in isolation, equip children for the path that lies ahead. Instead of preparing children as young as six for national tests, educational attainment should be complemented with the fundamental development of each child’s character.

The ATL survey, coupled with a growing body of academic research including work conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, suggests there is an escalating call for character education to be given more prominence in UK schools.

Some 84% of UK parents believe teachers should encourage good morals and values in their children and 91% of adults said it is important that schools help develop good character.

Such findings cannot be brushed under the carpet. It is evident that parents see academic attainment as only one part of a school’s responsibility. They want their children to develop a good moral character, which will prepare them for successful and fulfilling lives as flourishing individuals.

The growing call for character development in education has not gone unnoticed by the Government. In 2014, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said that “for too long there has been a false choice between academic standards and activities that build character and resilience” and the two “should go hand in hand.”

The Department for Education established a £3.5 million fund “designed to place character education on a par with academic learning for pupils across the country.” This funding began in early 2015 and is to be repeated this year. With the recent release of the Government’s White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, character education has been given a more prominent seat at the educational table.

Efforts are being made to encourage schools to focus on the development of children’s character, but the ATL survey suggests there is a long way to go. The Jubilee Centre’s Character Education in UK Schools research reported  that 80% of secondary school teachers and 75% of primary school teachers consider that the existing assessment system in UK schools hinders the development of the whole child. The change required is not happening quickly enough for children already in the system.

There is no quick fix to this escalating problem. Teachers and educators may want to move away from the “exam factory” culture, but, for now, schools remain heavily judged on their performance in exams and league tables.

Head teachers and senior staff are reluctant to take the focus off testing because they fear their schools will slip down the “one-size-fits-all” exam league tables and their careers will be jeopardised.

Rather than chastising teachers, stakeholders should openly support “brave” school leaders who make the judgment call that a child’s development is not solely reliant on test scores.

There needs to be widespread recognition that academic attainment goes hand in hand with character development, providing the adults of tomorrow with the tools they need to live a flourishing life.

Michael Fullard, Teaching Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

[i] ‘Children as young as six “stressed” about exams and tests’ – available via:


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