In futures work a blindspot is something you can’t see because your assumptions about the way the world is are so strong that they act as blinkers to listening to other views about it. (There’s an amusing discussion of this at the ‘Simply Speaking’ blog).

The depth of a blindspot can be assessed by how quickly the discussion is closed down – and the strength of the language used to do this. I couldn’t help but think of this as I watched the instant and negative reaction of the government, the Conservatives, and newspaper leader-writers to the argument of the General Teaching Council that the extensive testing of under-16 year old children in England might be bad for their education.

The story in brief: the General Teaching Council, which is the professional body for teaching in England (and an independent regulatory body set up by the government), whose “purpose is to help improve standards of teaching and the quality of learning in the public interest”, gave evidence to an inquiry on “Testing and Assessment” by the House of Commons Select Committee on Skills and Education. The evidence hasn’t yet been published yet but was circulated to journalists. To quote one report:

“It says exams are failing to improve standards, leaving pupils demotivated and stressed and encouraging bored teenagers to drop out of school… Schoolchildren in England and Wales are now the most tested in the world, facing an average of 70 tests and exams before the age of 16. Standard Assessment Tests, or Sats, currently taken by children at the ages of seven, 11 and 14, should be abolished, it concludes.

The response from ministers was immediate: that’s not going to happen. The Conservatives agreed just as quickly. One absurd newspaper column compared school tests to the columnist’s (untaken) driving test. Newspaper leader writers joined in.

If blind spots are about assumptions, then some assumption-testing might have asked a couple of questions.

The first might be whether being the “most of” anything – in this case most tested – is usually a good policy position.

The second might be to wonder what the UK evidence said, given that it’s possible to have a look at whether there are differing outcomes in Scotland (which has a different system) and Wales (which has abolished SATs).

The third might be an international question: broadly, Japan is close to England in terms of testing, and Scandinavian countries furthest away. But the social and educational outcomes in Scandinavia are widely regarded as superior.

And the fourth might be to look at the news of vast cohort study by London University’s Institute of Education also reported this morning. It shows that disadvantaged children are already a year behind in attainment terms by the time they reach nursery school. (Scots children were ahead of the UK average; Bangladeshi and Pakistan children were likely to be behind, but this may be an income effect, since they’re also like to be far poorer (see my post on the recent Rowntree report). Generally, the labelling that results from frequent testing disadvantages those who do poorly.

What’s also striking is that this isn’t new. There was a flurry of coverage in 2003 on SATs for 7 year olds, which seems to have been prompted by a Liberal Democrat sponsored survey which found that teachers and parents reported that their children were stressed by them. But although there was media coverage, it seemed to provoke little political response.
But sometimes with emerging ideas, they go through a cycle of being ignored before they start irritating people. The irritation is a sign of greater traction, that the emerging idea is finding its way into the mainstream. As (I think) Tony Benn said, “First you’re mad. Then you’re dangerous. And then you can’t find a sensible person anywhere who’s willing to disagree with you”.