When Michael Gove had the baton of the education portfolio wrenched from his reluctant hands last year, I had some optimism that his successor, Mrs Nicky Morgan, would be more than Gove-lite. The new Secretary of State for Education has certainly made emollient noises about teachers and has even invited the teaching profession to share their concerns about workload. So I was somewhat dismayed when our Secretary of State whipped off her benign mask and showed her true colours. In an interview with the Sunday Times Nicky Morgan proclaimed: “We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel.” And how will she ensure this is achieved?
“The new tests for 11-year-olds we are introducing next year will be strengthened to ensure that every young person is meeting the mark.” Not so much Gove-lite but pure unadulterated Gove with the threat of dismissal for Heads who fail to ensure their pupils come up to the mark.
Where does one begin to respond to a Secretary of State who announces policy cloaked in threats? Accountability has become so much part of education that there is some perverted logic to extending it to sacking a Head Teacher for failing to “meet the mark” set by the Secretary of State for Education. After all in the push for academies there has already been collateral damage with Head Teachers’ careers coming to an abrupt end – all in the name of standards.
How utterly dismal and depressing it is that hard-working professionals can be viewed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the undulating waters of education policy. We have come a long way if a Head Teacher’s raison d’être is purely results with no regard for the broader educational imperative facing our young learners who are growing up in a world of exponential change. Of course youngsters need to learn the basics but if testing of basics to ensure children “come up to the mark” becomes the school’s major focus (because otherwise the Head Teacher will be presented with a P45), how far can a school’s function be truly educational?
Only recently the Department of Education published league tables which presented an extraordinary examination scenario where my school (where 93% of GCSE grades were A*/A last year), was awarded ‘0’ in the table because we offered a mix of GCSEs and IGCSEs. And we were not alone. We had examination league tables which were demonstrably cast straight from “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with high performing schools propping up the bottom of the table. Fortunately for me my job is not on the line. As an independent school we have the educational luxury of choosing the best qualification for our learners – we are not regulated by the latest diktat about league tables. Yet I am acutely conscious that this brutalist approach to measuring our schools is the iron-hand weighing on the shoulders of our school leaders across the country. Of course there are schools that can do better – indeed all schools should believe this is the case. Yet the battle-lines (and I use this term advisedly) which have been carved between the government and educators, means that the education of our young people, which is the most rewarding of challenges, has become a war of attrition, as evidenced by Mrs Morgan’s most recent announcement.
Most tragic of all, to me, is the underlying assumption presented by the Secretary of State for Education that Head Teachers and teaching staff don’t really care enough about how the children in their schools’ progress and it takes the cracking of a whip by Mrs Morgan to ensure each child performs. How sad that we have come to this.
What a Goveian dog’s dinner! David Blunkett’s assessment of the reforms to the examination qualifications’ framework at the recent HMC conference – with a nod to his dog Cosby – sums up perfectly the landscape which presents itself to schools across the country. Whether in the maintained or independent sector, we really are all in it together. The phased changes to ‘A’ Levels from 2015-19 are far from desirable and will result in a host of unintended consequences.
Having sat in a packed room of Heads at the conference all eagerly seeking enlightenment, I learnt that a number of colleagues were proposing to offer three of the new linear ‘A’ Levels as their sixth form curriculum offering. I completely understood the thinking behind this, however, I came away with a sense that the proposed reforms were moving us back to the ‘A’ Levels of my youth when studying an ‘A’ Level really was all about preparing for university. The fact that the boards back then were under the umbrella of Oxford, Cambridge and London signalled this clearly and the narrow offering at sixth form was designed to funnel the student to their chosen specialist subject. And of course a relatively small number of students actually studied ‘A’ Levels as university was about a scholarly elite.
Fast forward to 2014 and the world around us has fundamentally changed. This is an age of globalisation, technological revolution and exponential change. An age when, more than ever, citizens need to be capable of interrogating innovation and discovery, of having the capacity to think critically and of being scientifically literate. And an age where large numbers of young people go onto university. How on earth does narrowing the focus of learning at 16 prepare young people for the lives they will live? With universities in this country like UCL offering inter-disciplinary degrees, and with well established Liberal Arts courses here and abroad, the examination reforms fly in the face of the world our young people will live in. Gone are the days when thinking in specialist silos was the desired educational outcome. In tomorrow’s world our young learners have to be able to join the dots in their thinking, linking ideas and thinking creatively. Of course there are specialist areas but how many of our young people will be slavishly following a career defined by a specialist degree?
What we should be advocating is an examination system which supports breadth and values more than the outcome of a test. Sadly, the direction of travel in our educational world, set by Michael Gove, is such that the challenge of educating our young people for tomorrow’s world has become even harder. We shall of course ensure that our students in our sixth form are prepared for our national qualification framework. We shall investigate how we can ensure our students have as broad an education as can be offered within the Goveian straight-jacket of qualifications. Yet the broader imperative will and shall remain learning. As Alvin Toffler said:
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
Learning is for life and not just for university.
Are schools able to set the priorities that they know are fitting for students for now, rather than they might have been for 25 years ago? Teachers are in perhaps the most powerful position in the world. They personally shape the life experiences of the next generation. Students and teachers deserve a vision. Actually, it is more – the change our young people are facing demands a coherent vision for education – and not one that is dominated by some form of assessment metric.
For those of us subsumed in the everyday life of a school it is all too easy to become caught up with the mechanics of education. The curriculum, timetable and qualifications are often how school life is triangulated. It was ever thus – certainly my schooling fitted neatly into this particular educational hierarchy.
Curriculum and qualifications are currently the meat and drink of our national debate. Much blogging and tweeting captures the lively discussions taking place in this very familiar fulcrum. Very familiar indeed. Canon of knowledge, standards, employability litter the discourse on education. Yet, what we hear less about is arguably most important – how are we preparing our young people as learners for a future which will have a landscape marked at least as much by the unknown as the known?
As we see the technological revolution unfold around us, we lack a road map for this future. The old verities which have traditionally dominated school life are not enough to prepare our young. Their lives will be characterised by change driven on remorselessly by innovation and invention. Surely learning must be about the development of the whole child to ensure they are properly prepared for their world and not just prepped for a set of examinations? After all, life itself is not a set of exam papers where you pass or fail.
As the century progresses, the pace of change is, if anything, increasing exponentially. The capacity to think and more importantly to think differently is critical. Education must be about learning in a way which transcends the conventional metrics : it must also aim to encourage a range of literacies which can otherwise be lost in the melee of schemes of work and specifications. To the twin metrics of English literacy and numeracy should be added amongst others scientific, digital, cultural and visual literacy. In this way an individual is well placed to interact with and interrogate their world in a meaningful way and ensures a young person is properly equipped for their life journey.
The challenge for today’s educators is to lift their focus from the inevitable granular character of our national obsession with measurement, to the future which is broad brushed and uncertain. I do not underestimate this challenge but surely to constrain our debate as we habitually do is failing to educate the next generation in a way which is right for them and their lives in tomorrow’s world.
A vision for learning – full animation
Contemplating the world of public examinations is like living in the Matrix. There are two worlds but which one is real? The world where grandiose plans for reform are solemnly presented by ministers as if the system works like clock-work or the one which appears dangerously over-stretched and creaking under the weight of expectation?
It is well documented that schools are engaged in a kind of guerrilla warfare with examination boards who are grappling with a perfect storm of providing a service as usual and reacting to government imposed reform. I have some sympathy. Indeed so too do Ofqual it would appear, who have intervened as a sanity check on the timetable for exam reform giving the exam boards a breathing space. However, despite my sympathy, I worry that something pernicious is happening. The widely publicised challenges to the exam boards, questions raised at the Select Committee in Parliament, and general unease of teachers are eating away at the trust and confidence in the exam process.
Rather like believing a pound note is literally worth this amount and is not merely a piece of paper with a fancy watermark, we need to believe that the exam grade is an accurate and fair reflection of a student’s performance under examination conditions. Sadly schools, including ours, are reporting – angrily – anomalies in marking which are baffling. In fairness, many wrongs have been righted after a remark by the boards but this has raised questions in its own right. Illustrative of this is one student’s work this year where a complete page was not marked – despite the paper being double marked. Needless to say a third re-mark resulted in an improved grade.
The broader issue is believing in the grade. The pressure on the student sitting on a university offer is huge. It was ever thus but my sense is that the confidence in the grade awarded has been eroded in recent years. And confidence is everything. So much is at stake. Let us not forget that the grade is the passport stamped. This should be with confidence, good to go on to the next stage of the journey. Our experience is that the increasingly fine margins in exams can be jeopardised by huge mistakes. It is important to remember that every exam statistic, every grade, relates to an individual and their lives.
My grave concern is that exam boards are battling to maintain the highest standards – of course they are not hell bent on destroying the dreams of students. However, the pressure on the boards is such that injustices will inevitably occur. Whilst our political masters point to a future where standards will be driven up, the aspirations of today’s students are dampened by the very human mistakes of the exam boards today.