Giles Fraser: On the value of what is pointless

21 April 2010

ON 10 MAY, on what, incidentally, will be the first day of a new govern­ment, 600,000 children aged ten and 11 — including my daughter — are scheduled to take their SATS tests in maths and English. At least, that was supposed to be the plan. Last week, however, head teachers in England voted overwhelmingly to boycott these tests.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described SATS testing recently as reducing children to “measurable outputs trained in a mechanistic model of education”. This is strong stuff.

To be fair, there are many who support SATS testing, including all the main political parties. They ar­gue that it provides vital informa­tion for parents, and shows how their child is getting on. This information then goes towards generating league tables, which reveal how one school is performing against another. This — so it is said — provides parents with the information they need to make an informed choice when considering which school to send their child to.

The idea that children are being measured so frequently in modern education is something that bothers me. Continual testing simply pro­motes the idea that the learning one does in the classroom is always done for some further reason rather than because it is valuable in itself.

What I find so important about faith is its pointlessness. Worship in church is done for its own sake. Indeed, the whole purpose of going to church is completely miscon­ceived if it is seen as a way to build up points to get into heaven (or into a church school).

Just as two lovers stroke each other for no greater purpose than to express their love, or children play in the playground for no greater reason than simply to express their delight at being able to run around, so the deepest and most important things we do in life are, in one sense, quite without purpose. They are not the means to some other end: they are ends in themselves.

The problem with too much testing is that it feels as if it turns the joy of learning into a series of practical hoops that one has to jump through in order to get on in life. In contrast, the reason why religious faith seems like an important ally of learning is that, at their best, both originate in wonder at the universe.

Both have at their heart a deep curiosity about the world, a delight in exploration, and the exercise of the imagination. This must not be crushed by the modern obsession for everything to be measured and tested.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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