HC Deb 28 January 1953 vol 510 cc1153-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kaberry.]

10.33 p.m.

Mr. M. Follick (Loughborough)

I rise this evening to bring before this House a question that is undoubtedly causing some concern among families. My reason for doing so is because I do not think that our examination system is serving its right function or the function that it was intended to serve. What is really the function of examination in education? Is it to be a means of selection. shutting out some pupils who are looking forward to rising to a higher level of education? Is it meant to be a strainer through which the pupils have to pass in order to go from one step in education to a higher step? Should it not be a test for knowledge rather than a test for selection? At present, what the set examination is doing in the schools is subjecting the pupil to high pressure learning, and high pressure learning is never good learning.

The object of education is to develop the knowledge of the pupil, and not to press on the pupil at a given moment to sit for an examination, spreading an atmosphere of fear and dread throughout the schools, even ruining the future of the child and very often bringing misery to the family to which the child belongs. We get a transference of this psychosis from the child to the family, so that we get parents threatening the child that they will not do certain things if the child does not pass the examination. That is bringing pressure learning into our system of education, and it is a wrong system. The system of education should be gradually developing the capabilities of the child, the ability of the child to learn. That is not what we are using the examination for.

I am not speaking about tests without prior warning, but as long as we have this set examination, we shall be driving children to sit for these examinations and to acquire knowledge in order to pass, and that is wrong. It is not only causing misery; I have here details of 12 cases of suicide of young children, with their names, their ages and their sex, and these are cases of children committing suicide because they were afraid to face up to the examination. It is not one case, but 12, within the period from April, 1948, to the present month. I have not sought them out; there may be hundreds more for all I know. I have taken them out in the ordinary course of my daily reading of the newspapers.

I have here details of one child of 14, one of 13, three children of 15—one the child of a Minister who used to sit on those benches which was sent to a cramming institution in order to bring it up to the standard required to be able to pass the examination. That is not gaining knowledge; it is just cramming and stuffing the pupil with a certain amount of knowledge to pass an examination.

I am going to give the names of two children—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—who ran away from home, both of whom said they ran away on account of the examination. One was a boy from Stowe —Michael Reeves, aged 17. He says, "I was quite happy at Stowe, but I became worried about the school exams., and that was why I disappeared." The other was the case of a girl, but I will not give her name. Her mother, referring to the examinations, said, "Janice had been worrying about them for days. She could not sleep. I used to hear her tossing and turning."

If that sort of thing exists, one is bringing misery and dread into the schools instead of happiness. What we want are happy children, because if children cannot be happy when they are children, they cannot be happy later in life. We are spoiling their future and their present to maintain a system of set examinations, which prove nothing in the end, except that either a child has or has not the ability or temperament to sit for the examination.

We do not prove knowledge because it is a high-pressure knowledge. We do not prove ability to learn because children can go to cramming institutes. And, we do not prove character. I suggest that by maintaining carefully kept records throughout the school life of the child, we should be adopting a system of education of the greatest value to this country. We then know, not the result of an examination, but the whole course of a child in his or her school years. I am sure any employer, engaging a young child for his business, would rather have such a record than a school-leaving certificate.

We do not get the best material by this means of set examinations. We only get very often a "Smart Alec," who can go through the examinations. But, the people we are losing very often are the best material; those who are the most sensitive.

Mr. L. M. Lever (Manchester, Ardwick)

Does my hon. Friend intend to abolish examinations at 11 plus as a condition of going in for secondary education?

Mr. Follick

I will give all that presently, but do not interrupt just for the sake of making a point.

With these carefully kept records, we can pass from primary to secondary education with a much safer transference than we can simply by having passed some set examination, for which a child may have been specially prepared. If the education system works smoothly, the record will carry a child right through. A school can be guided by that record as to whether a pupil is of sufficient merit to go on to a different system of education. If we are to continue these set examinations, we are going to continue the sense of frustration in schools. When children commit suicide because of the dread of this overhanging spectre of examinations and to avoid the examinations, we are breeding in the schools a hatred of learning, which will drive children into other spheres of excitement.

Instead of the excitement of being able to learn, they have the excitement of other things, caused by, perhaps, truancy from school to avoid the examinations. I wish to quote from the "Daily Telegraph" a few paragraphs from an educationalist on this very subject.

The Chairman of the Notts Education Committee stated: Yet you are aware, or should be, that the best men are often passed over. The best men are often flummoxed by such a literary challenge. The writer is talking of men; not of children. If it affects men like that, think how it affects children. The article goes on: Everybody knows that the first Wrangler seldom climbs high, and that many great men were dunces at school. I seem to recall that Mr. Churchill himself was not an infant prodigy. I have never heard of any examination that the present Prime Minister ever passed at school. If he had passed examinations, I would venture to say, he would never have had the temperament that brought him upon the road to being one of the greatest war leaders this country has ever known.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

A case of late development.

Mr. Follick

There were drawbacks in the right hon. Gentleman's make-up that did not allow him to sit for and pass examinations.

It may be said that if we rely entirely on the records of children that may open up means for teachers to favour one pupil against another. Well, we get the same thing in set examinations, because it is not so very long ago that a headmistress was dismissed. This happened under the previous Government, since I have been in the House. The Chairman of the Notts Education Committee stated: It was decided to give her notice of dismissal and to stop her salary at once, but she could appeal with a legal adviser to a special subcommittee. This lady may have a complete answer. I rather hope she will have. It was said that this case might have far-reaching results.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

What did she do?

Mr. Follick

I am referring to the "Daily Express" of 22nd December, 1950.

Mr. Pickthorn

Did she answer?

Mr. Follick

I do not think so. I will give the hon. Gentleman the paper.

What I am trying to put before the Minister is the belief that we are losing a lot of very valuable material that might benefit the nation, and getting only material that has examination temperament, whereas if we kept the records of children, those with merit would rise to the top, and not those who have a certain temperament that enables them to sit placidly in front of an examination paper and get away with it. In examinations a lot depends on luck. One may be lucky and get just the questions one wants. Or one may be unlucky, time and time again, and get only the sort of questions to which one does not know the answers.

I have quoted from the "Daily Telegraph" what was said by an education specialist, and I am now going to read one or two extracts from newspapers giving the views of others on education. The 11-year plus school examination, which is used to decide which children shall go to grammar schools, was described as an "injustice" by Mr. William F. Hawkins, headmaster of Gibbons Secondary Modern School at Willesden.

I have another cutting here from a known educationist who has exactly the same opinion about examinations for older pupils. Dr. John Lowe, Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, said in Bristol that the suicide rate among university students is higher than among other groups. If this examination spectre affects older students, just think how it affects youngsters, frightening them and causing them dread. Again I read of the agonies and heart-burnings of 10,000 Surrey schoolchildren and 20,000 parents waiting to learn the results of the entrance examination. These are experts speaking, not of the value of the set examination but against the set examination.

I have another cutting which shows to what extent parents will go to make their children pass examinations. Not only do they send them to cramming-institutions, but they even go to the extent of subjecting them to hypnotic treatment. Consider this, with the authority of a Harley Street specialist, Dr. A. P. Magonet, President of the Medical Hypnosis Association: London doctors have been using for some time the method employed by a Suffolk doctor who hypnotises schoolchildren and students before they sit for examinations. I have all this here in print, which I would willingly hand over to the Parliamentary Secretary.

As I want to give the Parliamentary Secretary time to reply I shall now sit down, begging him not to worry about a bit of sneering from a man who knows nothing about the question of school education. I beg him, with his great knowledge of teaching and his knowledge of examinations, of people who have failed and of people who ought not to have failed—as he knows quite well—to think in what way the set examination can be gradually abolished. It cannot he abolished immediately; but it can be done gradually, and have introduced into our educational system a method of records which will carry the pupil right through life, and will be some guidance to his future intellectual development.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

The hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) has made a very vigorous speech against the examination system. With a few of the phrases that he uttered perhaps some of us might possibly agree, but I am afraid that in the complex system of society in which we are now living we cannot possibly dispense with examinations.

In the first place, success in an examination is a badge of competence. The nation demands that lawyers, teachers, doctors and engineers should have acquired a certain knowledge and skills, but how can they show that they have acquired that knowledge and those skills unless they have passed a suitable examination?

The second reason why I think we still require examinations is that examinations in schools are a check. A teacher may be teaching for several months, feeling that he has been teaching very well, and that he has both interested, inspired and instructed his pupils, but he does not know whether or not he has done that unless he sets them some form of examination test. I remember that after I thought I had been teaching certain subjects very successfully often when I set the examination test I found that the pupils did very badly and I had to adopt fresh methods of teaching those subjects which would have better results.

Then, again, examinations are also an incentive. If all teachers had first-class brains and all pupils were very intelligent and industrious there might be no need for examinations, but they are a spur to effort. Boys and girls try to do well in an examination even if nothing very much depends on the result. Schools would be lacking in incentive if no examinations were set from time to time.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will draw his remarks to a close if the Parliamentary Secretary is to have an opportunity of replying.

Mr. Morley

Finally, we must have some sort of examination for entry to the grammar school, because although a report is useful it is not enough.

10.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

If it is not intrusive for me to join this symposium, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) spoke so kindly of me that I should not like not to say something, nor should I like to fail in my gratitude to the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Morley), who answered the argument so much better than I could.

I am not quite certain which portions of the hon. Member's speech I ought to answer. He appeared to think that my Ministry is directly responsible for all sorts of examinations. As the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen knows, the Ministry I represent, when there is no one better about, is, in fact, only responsible for a small number of examinations. For instance, the one of which we have been speaking—the 11 plus—is the responsibility of the local education authority. Of course, the Minister has a duty to intervene when the local education authority has been plainly unreasonable, although I think I am right in saying that that duty of intervention reposes on one Section only of the principal Act by way of direction, and has never been used.

All this is very much a matter of suggestion, advice, negotiation, and the climate of opinion than the sort of constituency thing or failure of administration, easily debatable on a half-hour Adjournment. I have the deepest sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says about the strain of examinations. I was myself a very bad examinee. I believe that it is purely the failure of one's moral character. One does badly because of physical effects—sick headaches and all that. I have the deepest sympathy with him as a teacher, too. So often one's best pupils have not achieved the best result at the right moment.

Nevertheless, it is true that examinations are necessary at quite frequent intervals in life. I do not think that there is any way round it. There must be set examinations, and one cannot disguise the fact. We all know how difficult it is to explain anything to a child and how difficult it is to disguise anything from it. The child is bound to know that he is going to have examinations.

The people who cause that kind of harm to examinations are the people who exaggerate—and I hope I shall not be misquoted by one sentence—the importance of education and all certified educational achievement as a contribution to happiness. There are far too many people who think that we should have been perfectly happy if we had passed the chartered accountants' examination for example, and that if only our children passed they would be perfectly happy. It is not as easy as that. This is one of the greatest factors in the weakening of France during the last three generations. This development is ahead of ours. The weakening of the whole nation is caused by the fact that children are conscious that their mothers and fathers are agonising whether or not they are failing in the bachot, or whatever it may be.

About that, my Ministry cannot do very much. It can do its best to persuade the world that—I think with respect that in this technical sense this is a question of reports rather than records: the records are the things kept inside the profession—reports ought to be used as much as possible and, therefore. examinations used less. We must do our best to try to persuade parents that they should want their children to be as well educated as possible, because it is only those who can do best with their own intellects who can do best with their own bodies or morals—a man is a whole creature and cannot be broken up.

Very often one thinks, "I owe everything to the fact that I passed an examination at 13 "as, indeed, I personally did. But, who knows, if I had not passed, I might have had a far more glorious career doing something else, or perhaps a far less glorious career. Who knows? I do not. One must do one's best not to let people think that human happiness all turns upon it. I am certain that the Ministry, so far as it has any direct contact, Her Majesty's inspectors and all teachers, certainly all teachers who are at all influenced by the Ministry in this respect, take that line.

I do not think that it is helpful to count up suicides and attribute them to examinations. Suicide is a most terrible crime and misfortune wherever it occurs, not so much to the immediate victim as to everybody around the immediate victim, and what the reason was in any special case, with the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, is more than I should care to be dogmatic about. If the victim is a schoolboy or an undergraduate, it is sometimes said that it must be because of an examination; but it should not be too easily assumed that that was always the reason nor, if it were, that that was necessarily an argument against examinations.

There is one thing in favour of examinations, though I am the last to be a champion of them. This is the counterpart of the suicide argument. Once you are a fairly good batsman, once you are a more than ordinary county batsman, what matters most in deciding whether you shall play for England or not is not whether you are a slightly better or worse batsman than your competitor. but whether you are the sort of batsman who is likely to do better on the last day of a Test match than your norm or whether you are the sort of batsman who is not. To some extent what is called the set examination, the climacteric examination, does test that quality.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.