Failed your exam, minister? You should have listened to the teacher.

Posted on August 14, 2020


I suspect I’m not the only wizened old schoolteacher who has spent most of this week with my head in my hands. This most fearful of fiascos about exam results, with our young people buffeted about in the centre of it all, is the most shocking of indictments of the actions of our political leaders – and, my goodness, it’s not as if they haven’t got an already impressive playlist on display.

Indulge me while I tell you a story of times past: its intention is to illuminate, not to wallow in meaningless nostalgia.

As a schoolteacher, I always used to like results’ day – until the late 90s, anyway. That was a time before the elevation of a few test results to numerical information of national importance. I’d stroll into school – ‘look, Sir’s wearing shorts’ – where there’d be kids milling around comparing bits of paper and either smiling or shrugging. I’d congratulate or commiserate accordingly. I wasn’t usually surprised by the outcome, although there would always be an occasional shock one way or another. We’d maybe talk retakes, staying on at school or not, or possibly different sixth-form or career choices. But here’s the thing, and I want you to read this very, very carefully. In four decades’ worth of going into school on results’ day, I never witnessed one incident of a child’s life-chances being damaged beyond repair.

I saw plans change and sometimes I saw reality-checks being administered. I saw sympathetic, professional behaviour from colleagues and equally mature acceptance of disappointment from teenagers. What was never contemplated in any serious way until the turn of the century was the possibility of appeals or remarks. Understanding this cultural shift is central to understanding what went on this week, even given the most extraordinary and unwelcome circumstances in which this set of results has had to be concocted.

The introduction of school league tables, first by the Tories but developed with glee by new Labour, made test and exam results the most highly valued currency of education. These were the blunt instrument by which schools could be ranked, judged and, most importantly, funded. The tables were then backed up by a punitive inspection regime, Ofsted, that applied equally unrefined measures of assessment about a school’s worth. All of this information then went into the public domain so that those who could do so were able to make a choice about where they sent their kids to school. Want to guess who those people were? Here’s some clues: they weren’t black and they weren’t rich and they didn’t live in areas of social advantage.

Results have now become the driving force in schools. Standardised results of standardised tests sat by all children of a certain age at the same time. And that’s because, as all parents and teachers know, all children develop at exactly the same rate and in exactly the same ways ……

Over one hundred years’ worth of knowledge and research about how children learn and develop has been thrown out of the window so that the most revered of riches in the modern world – data – can be gleaned from our schools. The outcome? Teaching to the test in a reduced, narrow curriculum becomes the order of the day. Teachers’ knowledge about the subjects they love, the children they know and their potential for development, become secondary to the crude grades that now define the complex business of educating people.

I think I may be able to detect some wailing out there, so before you run away with the idea that people like me spent our entire teaching careers getting kids to weave their own yoghurt while finding their inner selves, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. In the weeks running up to exam time, we coached, cajoled and rehearsed so that students would squeeze every last mark out of every last question. But that all started in those few weeks in the final run-up – not on day one of the process. Prior to exam season, we took charge, proudly, of what went on the classroom and left tests to take care of themselves at the end of it. You’ll be unsurprised to know, I hope, that our grade predictions were usually pretty well spot-on. (And I’m not suggesting, incidentally, that there aren’t thousands of teachers still doing the same thing).

All of which is by way of asking why shouldn’t we trust teachers to give an accurate assessment of how a young person is getting on? Would it really be beyond our wit and wisdom in a world turned upside down, where the future remains cloudy and a touch foreboding, to be a bit quicker on our feet? We could scrap the league tables and data that so divert and corrupt the learning process and say to employers and universities – who aren’t exactly living in a land of certainty themselves – that in a troubled, difficult time, this is the best professional judgment we can offer of how well a young person is getting on.

Well, I’ll tell you why Gavin Williamson and his string-pullers won’t allow that. Because to do so would be to undermine the whole apparatus of scrutiny, judgement and datafication of schools on which their meagre, measly view of the purpose of education is founded. What’s more, it would hand genuine power and responsibility to the people charged, on a daily basis, with fostering teaching and learning. If we’ve learnt one thing from this collection of dimwits and incompetents, trusting people who know stuff is the last thing they think of doing. There’s a lesson there for someone.


Regular readers will know that I’ve been diverted in the last few weeks. I’ve been promoting my latest book about football and writing another! So – if you’re interested in football (or maybe even if you’re not) follow the links to have a look.

2 responses to “Failed your exam, minister? You should have listened to the teacher.”

  1. Christine says:

    Once upon a time – but not more than 10 years ago – we had an exam system that included teacher assessed (and moderated) coursework, modular exams and oral contributions. All of these enabled students to accrue a proportion of the final result over the course of the subject under study, so that the final grade did not depend solely on a final exam. Can you remind me who it was who swept all of this away and then got left trying to solve what they should do in these covid dominated times?

  2. Geoff Lavers says:

    You wouldn’t want Williamson in charge of a class of 5 year old’s let alone in charge of the whole show. ‘This is the worst cabinet we’ve had since the end of the war.’ Who said so? Sir Christopher Soames, grandson of Boris’ hero, Churchill.

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