Consent and the Fundamental Problem with Testing

In a recent keynote speech FREE RANGE: A LIFE WITHOUT SCHOOL, I talked about a free range education liberating us from the relentless tyranny of assessment and testing. Since I started home educating over seven years ago, the outcry against primary school testing has grown increasingly louder. Most of the voices seem to accept that some kind of testing is necessary, whilst deploring the way it is being carried out. But I disagree with testing fundamentally.

Kevin Stannard wrote recently in the TES, "the prevalence of testing linked to school status, teacher accountability and student progression creates a backwash which disfigures both curriculum and pedagogy. Time allocated to subjects deemed more important in high-stake tests – numeracy and literacy - expands, squeezing out other curriculum subjects, like the arts, which results in an impoverished educational experience. It is not the substance of the tests that matters so much as the shadow they cast. As Thomas Huxley says, “Students learn to pass, not to know. They do pass, and they don’t know.” (Stannard, 2017)

Our culture seems to be obsessed with measuring, testing and assessment, but as home educators, our children are never obliged to sit a SAT, or even a GCSE or an A-Level, as a measure of their achievement or of their worth. Of course, they might choose to, but that is very different. Consenting to something is very different from having something forced upon you. Consent is something I have been thinking about a lot recently in the context of education. Consent involves knowing what you are buying into; knowing what your alternatives are; and reserving the right to say no – even after you have signed up and said yes. It’s incredible to me that, whilst we live in a time and culture where safeguarding, health and safety concerns & protecting ourselves against liability seem to have become sacrosanct, our children are being raised in an educational system which deprives them of consent. They are not asked if they want to go to school, or if they want to complete an assignment. Schools are, by their very nature, authoritarian, obsessed with compulsion and control. Underlying this prevalent idea that education is something that is done to children, rather than something they actively participate in is, I think, the idea that we do not actually trust them. John Holt suggested that trusting children is, in fact, key to free range education, yet he says, “Nothing could be more simple or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we ourselves could not be trusted.”

The fundamental reason I disagree with testing is that the values that are repeatedly heard from school are not values our family accepts. Values such as, “It’s all about qualifications” … “What you want to be achieving are those A stars across the board” … “Qualifications are what will open the doors of opportunity.” Schools are, by the language they speak, exam factories. They are seen as a means to an end, a means of gaining these precious bits of paper our society deems to be so important and life-determining. But, actually, the values imparted by our school system are not true. Life is not all about qualifications. What you want to be achieving might not be A stars across the board … In fact, for most children, this is not possible or realistic, labelling far too many as failures in ways that can damage them for life. Qualifications are not what will open the doors of opportunity. Not necessarily. Is our schooling system not therefore a house of cards built on a foundation of untruths?

When the light went out in my son’s eyes over seven years ago, and we made the radical decision to remove our boys from the school system, it was because the values of the system did not sit right with us. In our home educating, I wanted to promote different values and to build on a different foundation. First of all, these values come from my Christian faith which says that we are each created in the image of God. Therein lies our worth and value. It is not something to be earned or worked for. We are loved and accepted – just as we are. It is a grace-given truth, not dependent upon our achievements, grades or any qualifications. So my vision for education is founded upon the unique personhood and innate value of each child, and education needs to be respectful of that unique individual. My vision at home would be to nurture my children to be the unique individuals God has created them to be. This is worlds apart from the values our school system currently purports. Daniel Greenberg, the co-founder of Sudbury Valley Alternative School likewise said, “The starting point for all our thinking was the apparently revolutionary idea that a child is a person, worthy of full respect as a human being.”

In September, my eldest son chose to go to a local University Technical College to do his GCSEs. He was 14 and he is there by consent. (Remember consent? Consent involves knowing what you are buying into; knowing what your alternatives are; and reserving the right to say no – even after you have signed up and said yes?) He is there by consent. Yet, there is a culture clash. Whilst the school want the good grades, we want our son to continue to be the unique, independent, quirky, inventive, creative individual we have raised him to be, someone who doesn’t just accept what he is told, but who questions, explores, pushes boundaries. And he is not a fit-the-mould kind of a boy. You can imagine the challenges for the teachers who now have him in their classrooms! Honestly, I don’t think they quite know what to do with him. I have spent years encouraging and nurturing such creative, intrinsically-motivated innovation in my boy and if the price to pay for those good grades is all that we have worked for, then that will be too high a price to pay. Because, in my understanding, the qualities I see in him are the qualities that make him stand out. Such qualities are more valuable than a bunch of A-grades, which were never our end goal anyway.

How about you? You might have a different belief system from me … but what are your values? What is your vision for your children’s education? Is it compatible with what is happening in our schools? Such questions are important, for they form the foundations of our educational choices - if we will take the time to stop, and to ask and to consider.

© Alice Khimasia 2017