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Putting the Horse before the Cart

There are many parts of our lives that have been disrupted at best or completely destroyed by this pandemic – a drink in the pub with friends, going to a concert, having your nails done (less of a problem for me personally) – but one of the least lamented has been the scrapping of exams for the second year in succession. Indeed, the reaction from many quarters of the educational world ranged from relief to jubilation. The unmitigated disaster of 2020’s ‘mutant algorithm’ and the continuing disruption to normal school life had left many teachers and students skeptical about the possibility of a fair and robust system, and despite the lack of clarity about the replacement, it still felt like this was the only sensible decision.

However, the enforced abandonment of exams has led to a growing clamour for a full examination of the exam system from a surprising range of voices. Everyone from teacher unions to David Davis MP have said that this is the moment to reconsider our system. Scrap GCSEs, move to an International Baccalaureate, reinstate a strong vocational offer – there have been lots of ideas, some imaginative, most well-meaning, all based on dissatisfaction with the current system.

Seizing this moment makes sense. Even if we reinstate exams next year, the impact of two years of Centre Assessed Grades will continue for some time. Will we return to the attainment levels that we had before the pandemic? This would seem very unfair to the class of ‘22 who could well be competing for the same university places and jobs as their peers from this year’s cohort. Progress data will be hugely destabilised, given the fact that we have two year groups travelling through school without Year 11 data, followed by two further year groups without Year 6 data. If we’re going to shake up the system, now is the time to do it.

However, I have found much of the debate dispiriting in its scope, treating as it does, the issue as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be grasped. The question that we’re answering seems to be little more than how we find a fairer and more efficient way of managing the exam system, rather than trying to understand the purpose of our education system and the role of effective summative assessment. It’s almost as if the sport of football was designed so that the offside rule worked successfully – we might solve a particular problem, but if that happened at the expense of the whole game, would we call it a success?

The way that our secondary education system has been established is that we have two points at which students make a significant choice about their next steps – Year 11 and Year 13. Since the days when these points were established, the landscape has changed significantly. The era when the vast majority of young people would leave the education system at one of these points and directly enter the world of work have gone. Nowadays, for almost all students, age 18 is the threshold point at which a potential employer or academic institution needs an accurate picture of how their specific skills compare to their peers who might also be competing for the same spot.

By contrast, the decision taken at age 16 is to choose the model of learning that they will engage with during the next stage of their journey. This could be an academic sixth form, a vocational education route at an FE College, or an apprenticeship. There are almost no young people who take their GCSE exams and then leave all forms of education, and the few who do so tend to be the ones who have failed in the current system with almost no exam passes next to their name.

So the key information that we need for students at age 16 is which is the best route for them to follow. And yet the information we gather is how they compare to all students nationally in a suite of 8-10 subjects. I can think of almost no situations where that is needed to decide next steps.

Let’s take the example of a highly academic student, with an interest and aptitude in STEM subjects, unsure of their ultimate destination but certainly heading for university and perhaps intending to go on to become a doctor. What do we need to know about them at 16? We need to know that they have the ability to cope with a challenging academic curriculum, specialising in Maths and Sciences. We need to know that they are diligent and focused on study. We probably want to know that they are literate, well-read and developing good emotional and interpersonal skills. We would also like to know that they have had access to a broad and stimulating curriculum that has given them the opportunity to understand other areas of the curriculum – however, knowing how they have performed in these subjects compared to a national average is unlikely to be important or relevant.

Another example: a student who has had a successful school career without being an academic high-flyer, performing reasonably well across most subjects. They don’t have a clear idea about the job they will end up doing, but they have good people skills, and are interested in a service industry career, possibly retail or hospitality. This student is faced with a dilemma when they approach the end of Year 11. Do they continue with the gold standard academic route and focus on A levels, cut their losses and go down a vocational route, or hedge their bets with some combination of the two? The biggest problem we have in the promotion of vocational courses is that it is always seen as what you do if you are not capable of coping with an academic route – and given the way our exam structure works, why wouldn’t you think that?

Finally, let me offer another example, one that has some personal resonance: that of a 16 year old with a moderate learning disability attending a mainstream school. At the end of Key Stage 4, they are likely to attend the local FE college, where they will take part in a course with a strong emphasis on employability and life skills. They will be supported into work placements, with the hope of finding one which is well-suited to their interests and talents and could then lead to permanent employment, perhaps in a supported capacity. What do we need to know about this student at 16? We don’t need to know how their academic performance compares with the picture across the nation, a set of exam results which is basically a catalogue of failure. As the father of a child who has been in this position, I can report from first experience that it tells you nothing at all about that young person, other than that they have been badly served by the exam system. We need an assessment profile that tells you what they can do, where their strengths and interests lie, and hasn’t wasted half a year getting them to prepare for exams that serve no purpose.

If, like me, you’ve been around for a while, you may remember the Tomlinson report, published in 2004, probably the last serious attempt to wrestle with this problem by fundamentally re-imagining the structure of 14-19 education. It was well-received within education, but the scale of change proposed proved too controversial for the then Labour government and the Secretary of State for Education at the time, Ruth Kelly, not known as one of education’s great reformers. Widespread change at that time was seen as unnecessarily disruptive, whereas at the moment, the disruption has happened – it’s not a question of whether we’re going to rebuild our education system, but how we’re going to rebuild it – by trying to erect an exact copy of a system that is not fit for purpose, or by placing the needs and aspirations at the centre of our vision for education. The DfE, Professional Associations, curriculum bodies, Chartered College, stakeholder groups, employers – everyone who has an interest should be involved in the discussion. If not now, then when?

I haven’t written this piece with answers, not least because there are no easy answers, and because there are people out there who are more qualified than I am to make suggestion. However, acknowledging the problem and beginning a serious attempt to solve it is always a good start. We’ve evolved an education system that is set up to respond to the demands of its final exams – how about doing it the other way round?

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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