It is well established that the act of research has an impact on the subject of that research and, arguably, observation of an individual or activity is likewise not without consequences.
So, if you stand in a playground to watch a particular child you can almost guarantee that child will come up to hold your hand and walk round with you and families being assessed or monitored on their child care or parenting skills will behave in ways that are not necessarily representative of their practice out of sight. We all do it. Consciously or unconsciously, our behaviour changes for many reasons – suspicion or resentment, fear and anxiety, a desire for attention or to please. So we must be always aware of the impact of our intervention and account for it in our final assessment and conclusions.
Primary schools are now working towards the SATS tests. Though less is heard about out-and-out cheating, the need for schools to succeed in this crude assessment process means that all sorts of other strategies come into play. Whether it is the child or the school that is being tested, the impact on both is huge, with, for instance, a shutting down of the rest of the curriculum, booster classes after school or coaching classes with the head teacher every week. So much for original assertions that the children would not know they were being assessed. Now they cannot fail to appreciate the importance of the process.
In an education system driven by fear of failure as much as desire for success, by the needs of business and industry and by a political desire to be a leading nation in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the skewing effect of testing: on the child, the curriculum, school life, on morale. This is the system we are in and, however much politicians deny the reliability of the figures, the Unicef report makes for uneasy reading about the effects of such a system.
Somewhere in there is a gut instinct that there must be a better way, where teaching and learning are fun, inspired and inspiring where assessment takes place but in a low-key, less obtrusive way and where children learn to value friendship, co-operation and learning for its own sake as much as for the piece of paper at the end.
Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker