Examination, examination, examination

Forget this endless exam reform - bring back education.

Jennie Bristow

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‘The time for reform has come’, said Mike Tomlinson, leader of the government-commissioned working party on the future of England’s schools examinations system, as he produced his interim report on 14-19 education.

What, again? Over the past few years England’s exams have undergone more reform than the pupils sitting them have had hot dinners. Each one has had the effect of diminishing the standard of work expected from young people, as a challenging curriculum and demanding tests have given way to content and assessment designed to put children under less pressure. It’s not yet more exam reform that is needed, but higher educational standards – and an end to the obsession with qualifications altogether.

Mike Tomlinson has announced that the present system of GCSEs and A-levels will undergo a ‘thorough overhaul’ and ‘system-wide change’, to be replaced with four-stage diplomas covering everything from ‘core skills’ in maths, communication and ICT, to higher-level academic and vocational qualifications. The aim is to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ qualification towards a more flexible method of assessment, which will judge pupils on their strengths, and at the time when they are best capable of taking the qualification (1).

These proposals have been met with some well-deserved criticism. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, branded the proposals ‘horrendously complicated’ and ‘deeply confusing’ (2). Indeed, if you find today’s mishmash of SATs, GCSEs, AS-levels, A-levels and many different types of vocational qualification bewildering enough, try getting your head around a four-part interlocking structure in which pupils participate at varying times from 14 to 19, taking any combination of vocational and academic subjects, for which they are assessed in a variety of means from ‘personal challenges’ to their involvement in voluntary work. This may not be a ‘one size fits all’ qualification, simply because no two children will get the same qualification.

Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail columnist and author of the powerful critique All Must Have Prizes (3), complains that Tomlinson’s desire to replace ‘the very idea of measuring achievement – the essence of an exam – by measuring a pupil’s progress instead’ betrays a preoccupation with ‘being sensitive to the feelings of “learners” and avoiding exposing them to anything too onerous, let alone the possibility of failure’ (4). One of Tomlinson’s big ideas is that, instead of having assessments that pupils sit at fixed ages and points during their schooling, progression through the four levels of diplomas is ‘ability related’. Pupils will be assessed according to what they can do when they can do it.

There are major problems with this approach, in terms of what it says about our low expectations of children. In order to mean anything at all, assessment needs to indicate that a certain group standard is expected of pupils, which some will meet, some will surpass and some will fail to meet. Tomlinson’s ‘ladder of progression’, by contrast, assumes that assessment should be an individual tracking device, which ticks off particular skills that people are able to do without making judgements about the speed at which they can do them, or the number of things they are able to do at any one time. By taking the assessment of children outside any peer-group or other social context, Tomlinson’s proposals render it meaningless – except as a sop to individuals’ self-esteem, in a climate where nobody is supposed to fail.

But while there are many criticisms to be made of the particular ways in which Tomlinson wants to tinker with the exam system, the deeper problem is the fact that this continuous tinkering goes on at all. Whatever your gripes about the current GCSE or A-level, or alternative qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate, the problems with these modes of assessment only reflect the current crisis in secondary education. Assessment methods have become such a fraught issue because the government and schools alike have lost sight of what they are supposed to be assessing children on, and why. And the less clear they become about this, the more they become obsessed with assessment.

The justifications put forward for Tomlinson’s reforms fly in the face of what education should be about. The insistence on core skills – ‘communications’, ‘functional maths’ and ICT – will make children suitable for employment. Since when was that the sole purpose of a grounding in English and mathematics? Boiling these subjects down to banal employment skills destroys the very notion of giving children an education. The idea of a qualification that children can take at their own pace has been justified in terms of challenging high-achievers, as well as bringing low-achievers (eventually) up to speed. But what does that tell children, or anybody else, about their abilities – or the worth of what they have learned?

Implicit in Tomlinson’s proposals is the notion that education is defined by the type of qualification one receives at the end of it, and that the best type of qualification is measured according to the wishes of employers and the innate abilities of pupils. This turns the relationship between education and assessment upside down.

Education should not be about ensuring that every individual can plod through an officially approved list of tasks, for the sake of multiple bits of paper. It should be about many things, including expanding horizons, abstract thought and competition amongst peers. Assessment, both on a national level and a continuous, in-school basis, plays an important role in this – but it is only one role.

Ultimately, what people know, how they think and the kind of person they are is far more important than the qualification they have. But in attempting to ensure that everybody has the right kind of qualification, tailored to where individuals are now rather than a group standard they are expected to reach, Tomlinson’s proposals underplay all these other, fundamental aspects of education. The content of education is redefined as the way it is assessed: a dull list of can-do skills, can-spell words and can-use sums. And pupils are expected to sit through this for 19 years!

Underneath the obsession with assessment is the notion that, if it’s not measured, it doesn’t exist. This is a sentiment we have become familiar with in our target-obsessed, bean-counting government. So, too, is the sentiment that reform is always needed – even when the likely outcome of proposed reforms is to make things worse and worse. If the UK government really were committed to dealing with the crisis in secondary education, it would take its hands off the exam system, sit down quietly, and ask itself: ‘What is education for?’ Then it might just decide that educators make better teachers than ministers, and that there is far more to be said for high academic standards than for patronising, low-grade, tick-box pats on everybody’s equally-but-differently-qualified back.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Radical exams overhaul proposed, BBC News, 17 February 2004; New school diplomas, BBC News, 17 February 2004

(2) Daily Mail, 18 February 2004

(3) All Must Have Prizes, Melanie Phillips, Time Warner Paperbacks, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK))

(4) Daily Mail, 18 February 2004

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