Exam Culture - Who owns the learning? - September 2017

Exam Culture - Who owns the learning?

The 24th of August was a day for celebration as students across the country received the results of their GCSE exams.  Happy faces of successful students opening envelopes containing printouts of the fruits of their labours over the last two years were, quite rightly, broadcast through the media as proud parents and relieved teachers looked on from the margins.  Exams day is and has always been a time of mixed emotions but, nonetheless, one to highlight a milestone in a young person's educational journey.

This year was of particular significance as it marked a step-change in grading and assessment at GCSE as the first of the reforms instigated by Michael Gove, during his tenure as Education Secretary, were reported numerically in English and Maths.  This marks the start of a transition, which will phase in over the next three years, replacing the A* to G grades.  The new system of 9 to 1 grades are supposed to give greater differentiation, particularly at the top end of the ability range, with the grade of 9 extending attainment beyond that of A*. 

Sadly, there was the usual cynical commentary around pass rates, grade boundaries and obsession with marginal deference on previous years.  This debate was heightened because of the grading changes and will doubtless continue over the next couple of years until the new assessment paradigm has been fully established.  And then what?  What will we be left with and what will it mean for the next generation of pupils being measured by a yard stick, not of their design but of politicians and Whitehall bureaucrats.  Because an exam day reports outcomes it obscures the key elements of any young person's educational experience: that of the richness, challenge and joy of learning during their time at school.  And so as the dust settles on the summer’s exams and we hunker down to a new academic year, perhaps we should ask the question 'Who owns learning?'  Surely not politicians, nor even teachers or parents, but pupils - the end users and primary beneficiaries of their days at school.

So how then will the new assessment serve the pupils of today and tomorrow?  Much was talked about increased levels of content.  Great - pupils need to acquire knowledge and be able to apply it.  There was an emphasis placed on rigour.  Yes, happy with that as it gives credibility and substance to outcomes.  However, even on the day of its birth, the Department for Education described passes in the new system as 'standard' (grade 4) and 'strong' (grade 5).  What, on earth, does this mean?  Applying such descriptors only serves to obfuscate and confuse.  In an attempt to bring clarity to the marking system, we have found ourselves back in the realms of pejorative semantics.  How will this help parents and employers understand the level of pass achieved and, more importantly, how will these terms support the confidence and self-esteem of our young people? 

The magic and mystery of education takes place in the classroom; where the process of learning is nurturing, collaborative and organic.  I'm an English teacher and should be excused for seeing education in poetic terms.  But it is, isn't it?  Einstein said the 'Education is what is left once we have forgotten everything we learned at school'.  It is the transmission of knowledge and skills; but equally the development of character, a sense of self and the values and attributes necessary for a fulfilled and fulfilling life beyond school.  The tragedy of the new system is that it reduces this process to 'standard' and 'strong'.  Not to mention grade 9, which few pupils are supposed to be able to achieve, yet will wreak havoc with the mental health and well-being of those children, parents and teachers being seduced into reaching its unattainable heights.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the new GCSE specifications are their reversion to exam only assessment.  Gone is coursework, exploratory learning, collaboration and space to experiment and yes, make mistakes.  How does this prepare our young people for the work place they will be going into after they complete their formal education?  How often do you spend at work in a room with others sitting in silence regurgitating material you had memorised the night before, which you then forget as soon as you leave the office at the end of the day? 

I'm certainly not advocating an end to exams, as they will continue to have a place in a mature and finessed assessment regime.  However, they are not to be seen as the only way of assessing.  Because the unintended consequence of this is that teachers will teach to the test and not the subject.  Evidence of this can all too clearly be seen in the primary phase in SATS.  We cannot resign our young people to a lifetime of pressurised, largely meaningless testing, just so that we can produce endless statistics and graphs showing various trends.

Our young people own the learning and deserve better than the blunt instrument being rolled out over the next few years.  If we want a generation who can cope with the complex and complicated world we live in: are agile, flexible and confident in their learning, creative in their thinking and prepared to take risks, we need an examination system that embraces and encourages these principles.  Sorry Mr Gove, I don't think your reforms have come anyway near achieving grade 9.  I fear they may not even deliver a standard pass for our young people.  My advice to your successors at the DfE is 'must try harder'.  See me after class!