CHILDREN are suffering distress. One child cried. The controversy over the introduction of the Scottish Government’s new tests for children starting school in P1 has often focused on the stress they cause the children. But where is this stress coming from? Why would a child leave a test crying? And is this even the chief argument against testing?

The mental health of our children is something we talk about more than ever before. This isn’t surprising, because there are regular reports which speak of rising anxiety and depression among children. We worry therefore about the impact of social media and body image standards. We worry about the pressures they are under at school. We worry, particularly, about testing, whether it be the new baseline tests children are sitting in P1, their National 5s, or, in England, the notorious SATs.

But sociologist Frank Furedi believes that often, where there are reports of test-traumatised children, it is the parents and teachers that are causing the stress. We are unconsciously communicating our own anxieties to them. “It’s almost as if the way we approach the subject we expect our kids to cry and be upset,” he says. “And we inadvertently communicate those ideals to them. We are almost inciting children to behave in this way.”

Sue Palmer, chair of Upstart, has been a keen voice in campaigning against the new tests, and encouraging parents to withdraw their children from them – an option which the Government had originally said was available but, last week, U-turned on, saying it was only available in “exceptional circumstances”. Palmer believes the tests are “terrifically blunt instruments, counter-productive at least, and could actually be seriously damaging for some children”.

Testing at such a young age is pointless, she says, as well as potentially damaging. “We did see, when tests were done this year,” she says, “some children were distressed by the actual test itself, because it was something bewildering. And worrying for them.”

However, Palmer also acknowledges that a chief problem with the tests is that “the adults become tense”. “The schools are already under pressure from local authorities to make sure their children perform as best as they can, and that they’re reaching these wretched benchmarks. The headteachers therefore are tense about it. The parents become concerned: ‘Will my kids do all right?’ So you’ve got this tension. Children are not dim. They pick all this up.”

Furedi believes this is just one symptom of the climate of “hysteria and fear” generated in education. Other examples he gives are that now, when children transition from primary to secondary school, there is talk of the trauma of transition. “We have a fear of failure in kids, a fear of their fragility. The word fear just comes up time and time again and. of course, the fear of testing acquires this incredible importance. The problem is the way education has become elevated and acquired a far greater significance than in the past, as a way of acting as a gatekeeper for where the kids end up”.

Over the past few decades, Furedi, whose son left university last year, has observed as a parent some of the changing attitudes. “I could see how parents every year were getting more and more involved in their kids’ homework. It almost felt like it wasn’t just the children who were going to school, but the parents were being judged as well. If little Mary did well in her exams, that was a reflection on her mum. If she failed in her exams, then the mother failed as well. So that kind of living through your child in education process has become a very disheartening and malicious process. Parents have lost sight of the boundary between their role and that of their kids.”

That said, Furedi is not an advocate of standardised tests – and has an issue with how well they work, and how they impact on the wider system. “These tests are stupid,” he says, “but not because they cause psychological trauma. They’re stupid for educational reasons.” Furedi’s concern is that tests have become part of the mechanism we use as much to hold schools and teachers to account as to test students.

Meanwhile, it’s not so much that educational expert Sue Palmer is against all testing – it’s that she too is against the impact of such testing on the wider system. Children below the age of eight, she believes, should be learning through play – and, as chair of Upstart, she’s an advocate of a kindergarten system similar to the one they have in Finland for the three to seven age group. Only after that, she observes, should formal schooling start, and should there be any attempt at “standardisation”. She cites long-term studies from the United States that have shown the earlier the person started formal schooling, the more likely they were to have “less educational success, more mid-life problems both with health and relationships, and die earlier”.

She believes that baseline testing is antithetical to a play-based system, and will only ever undermine it. Though the Scottish curriculum for excellence was originally designed to be play-based for these early years, testing, she says, is likely to push it towards formalised learning, standardisation and, ultimately, a”high stakes” test-based system. “You introduce national standardised testing and it becomes competitive. I think it’s related to consumerism. The consumerist philosophy is that if you’ve not got whatever thing is rated, you’re a dead loss. It’s all competitive.”

The problem is the atmosphere of pressure that is created, she says. “That doesn’t do anything for the relationships within the classroom between the teachers and their children. You’re not going to get the caring, supportive, non-judgmental relationships the children need.”

Like Palmer, Furedi believes the early years shouldn’t revolve around targets and testing. “I think there is a very intrusive approach to early years. I think the early years should really be about letting kids develop their social skills, interacting with other kids, playing, learning to develop peer-to-peer relationships. Very often without adult intervention.”

One of the chief reasons given for implementing standardised testing is that it allows us to measure the attainment gap, and see what progress is being done on narrowing it. Furedi is sceptical, however, about whether education itself can narrow the gap between rich and poor.

“I think all the evidence shows that education does not in and of itself play a role in the increase of social mobility. What it can do is help a certain minority of children from underprivileged and poor backgrounds to break through. If they’re lucky, right school, right teachers, right parents, they may well jump ahead of their peers and their potential can be realised. But I think we do overburden schools with too much responsibility.”

Palmer, meanwhile, believes we already know the attainment gap is there – we don’t need to collect more data on it. “What we need to do is things which will help to close that gap. And that’s not standardised national testing when they’re age five.”

So, is she encouraging parents to withdraw their children because the tests might be damaging to them, or because of worries about their impact on the wider system? “I think it’s about both. Parents know their children really well and some of them will realise they don’t want their children put under that pressure for one reason or another, but I would hope that also Scottish parents would think, ‘No we want this to be the best place in the world to grow up, for all children, and this is a retrograde step’.”

Destress. Four things parents need to stop worrying about

Getting their children to read early

Sure, if your kid is keen, let them grab a book and start learning to read. But research shows that pushing them to read too early can be counter-productive. One New Zealand study followed two groups of children, one which started to learn at five, the other at seven. It found that by the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability between the two groups, but that those who started at the age of five had developed less positive attitudes towards reading and showed poorer text comprehension.

Banning or severely limiting screen time

Parents these days are either ignoring their kids, while they update their Facebook posts, or fretting about how long they’re spending on screens. Parental virtue-signalling will often revolve around boastings of screen bans or how little time their children spend online. However, recent studies have suggested that some of the recent advice on keeping screen-time severely limited.

Research by Oxford University found that a moderate amount of screen time known as the “Goldilocks” period might boost teenage wellbeing. Another study published in the journal Child Development questioned the strict guidelines set by the American Academy of Paediatrics of a limit of one to two hours a day. Lead author Dr Andrew Pryzbylski said: “There is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological wellbeing.”

Making their kids eat food they don’t like

If your child’s a fussy eater, you probably spend a lot of time stressing over how to get them to eat their greens or other hated foods. Research, however, shows that pressurising them doesn’t work, and only ruins your relationship with them. A University of Michigan report found that insisting children ate the foods wasn’t linked to behaviour towards food changing – and at the same time only caused meal-time tension.

Squeezing in that extra extra-curricular activity

Music lessons? Karate? Football? The constant ferrying of children from clubs to lessons and groups not only stresses parents but is knackering our kids. One study, done in the northwest of England, found that 88 per cent of children were taking part in organised activities on four to five days a week, with 58 per cent of them doing more than one an evening.

The result, they found, was that families were spending more time together, the expenses made them more broke, and children were frequently exhausted. Lead author Dr Sharon Wheeler observed: “A busy organised activity schedule can put considerable strain on parents’ resources and families’ relationships, as well as potentially harm children’s development and wellbeing.”