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Let’s End the Tyranny of The Test: Relentless School Testing Demeans Education

British children are the most tested in the industrialised world. Is regular testing worthwhile training for success in later life, or have our schools become exam sausage factories?
We’ve all been there. The jangling nerves and the sleepless nights. The hours of cramming and the nail-biting wait for the all-important results. No one enjoys school exams but they are a necessary evil. Without them, how would pupils – and their teachers – be able to mark their progress, and universities know which students they want to admit to their courses? And let’s be honest, without the structure provided by regular testing, how many young people would knuckle down to study and learn anything? Exams are good training for the pressures of working life – whether it’s a copy deadline, a presentation or a deal that needs to be closed at the eleventh hour.

That’s the traditional view of our schools exam system, but many are questioning whether this country’s culture of testing and league tables actually works for the benefit of our young people. Our children are now the most tested in the industrialised world, with the average pupil enduring at least 70 formal tests during their school career. The pressure on parents to get their children into the best schools and universities has led to an arms race, with children spending increasing amounts of their time being drilled for exams, and schools becoming obsessed by results and league tables. In the end, what good does it all do? In international rankings Britain lags behind many other countries that don’t fetishise exams and league tables the way we do. And despite all the testing, 20% of young people in the UK leave school functionally illiterate and innumerate. We should stop the culture of the one-size-fits-all exam factory and allow our schools to foster independent and creative thinking and recognise that children are talented in different ways. As Albert Einstein said, ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’

Does regular school testing help our children to flourish or hinder their development?


For the motion

Tristram Hunt

Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum

Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. He is a former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and a former shadow education secretary. He read history at Trinity College, Cambridge. Between 2001 and 2010, he was Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London, and presented a range of radio and television programmes for the BBC and Channel 4. Hunt’s books include Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, the award-winning biography, The Frock-coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, and Ten Cities That Made an Empire.

Tony Little

Former Head Master of Eton College

Head Master of Eton College from 2002 to 2015. He has set up academy schools in the East End of London, and founded a state boarding school near Windsor. He has recently published An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education, a book for teachers and parents alike, which aims to answer fundamental questions such as, what kind of people does society need and what is education for?
Against the motion

Daisy Christodoulou

Head of education research at the charity Ark

Head of education research at the charity Ark. She is known for her book Seven Myths about Education where she argues that our children are being let down by ‘discovery learning’, which places emphasis on students finding out for themselves, and instead advocates traditional fact-based lessons.

Toby Young

Editor of The Spectator

Chief executive of the West London Free School Academy Trust and the editor of Spectator Life. His books include How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, How to Set Up a Free School and What Every Parent Needs to Know.

Sir Anthony Seldon

Leading contemporary historian, educationalist, commentator and political author

One of Britain's leading contemporary historians, educationalists, commentators and political authors. Head of Epsom College since February 2023, he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham from 2015 to 2020 after being a transformative head for 20 years of Brighton College and then Wellington College. He is author or editor of over 45 books on contemporary history, including the inside books on the last six prime ministers, was the co-founder and first director of the Institute for Contemporary British History, is cofounder of Action for Happiness, was honorary historical adviser to 10 Downing Street for ten years, was the UK's Special Representative for Education to Saudi Arabia, was Deputy Chair of The Times Education Commission, was a member of the Government's First World War Culture Committee, was chair of the Comment Awards, is a director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the President of IPEN, (International Positive Education Network), is Chair of the National Archives Trust and is initiator and deputy chair of the ‘commission on the centre’ run by the Institute for government.