Tyrannical Testing

Write up: Intelligence Squared debate, 01/10/15

Motion: ‘Let’s end the tyranny of the test. Relentless school testing demeans education’

Chair: Sir Anthony Seldon

For: Tristram Hunt, Tony Little

Against: Daisy Christodolou, Toby Young

My mother, having brought this wonderful event to my attention, accompanied me and another friend to the stunningly beautiful Emmanuel Centre last week to witness this intriguing debate.

As we watched the lecture hall fill up with people, it was hard not to notice that the majority of audience members were middle aged white professionals, although we did notice at least one group of secondary school students in the crowd.

It was no surprise therefore, when, before the lecture began, it was revealed that the majority of audience members had told the ‘debate officials’ (I doubt that’s their official job title but it’ll have to do!) that they were ‘for’ the motion. Yes, surprise surprise, they agreed with the ex Eton headmaster and the well spoken politician. And no, before you ask, I was no exception.

During the opening speeches, all of the participants expressed their thoughts in an articulate and thoughtful fashion. I found Toby Young to be a particularly effective, entertaining and  persuasive public speaker. However, I do feel that his side of the debate was very much let down by the wording of the motion itself.

If you take a moment to reread the motion, you will notice that it refers to the ‘tyranny of the test’. Clearly, no one in their right mind is going to vote for tyranny when there is an alternative that is worded in a more reasonable manner. If the motion had simply been ‘Relentless school testing demeans education’, the debate would have been slightly more focused, if not quite as sensational. But I suppose Intelligence squared do have to sell tickets…

As you might expect, Daisy Christodolou’s speeches were peppered with relevant facts and figures, all gathered, as Toby Young indicated, through using various research methods and, of course, testing. Tony Little and Tristram Hunt’s speeches felt a little more anecdotal in comparison and tended to focus more on the importance of quality teacher training and the nurturing of well rounded school environments capable of preparing students for the challenges of tomorrow.


What was perhaps most interesting about their disparate perspectives on the issue of testing was that they all agreed on a number of issues, the most significant of which being that testing is an extremely important weapon in any educational armoury. They seemed to disagree merely on the extent to which standardised testing should be employed on a national scale as a means of gathering information about student attainment and holding schools and teachers accountable for their work as educators. Tony Little and Tristram Hunt went so far as to advocate the gradual abandonment of GCSEs over the next ten years in favour of a 14-18 baccalaureate style qualification that allows more space for practical and vocational training.


One member of the audience did raise the issue of the state’s role in testing at school level. This, to me was one key area that was not sufficiently explored during the course of the evening, but that would make for an extremely interesting debate in its own right. I would also have liked to hear more about the way exam and test results are published and scrutinised by the government and the general public. One could argue that it is not the tests themselves that render ‘relentless testing’ so tyrannical, but rather the pressure that accompanies them. One way to reduce this pressure would be to increase the number of tests students are obliged to take so as to decrease the pressure attached to individual sets of results. The only problem that would remain would be the apparent atomisation of learning that testing, according to Little and Hunt, always seems to involve.
To conclude, I believe that the two sides of this debate were not very far away from agreeing with one another. Both sides believe that schools should be safe environments for learning that prepare students for later life. They also agree that testing is an important and valuable tool that can motivate students to learn and enable us to assess the quality of education on offer in our schools. They only seem to disagree on the frequency with which students should be obliged to sit standardised tests, the results of which are collected and assessed not just by the individual school but by the government, and eventually, the public.


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