If the world spins differently, a few exam passes are sort of irrelevant – aren’t they?
Posted on December 31, 2020
Put aside for one moment the ridiculous reality that someone put Gavin Williamson in charge of education. We are, as the modern cliché goes, where we are. And let’s be gracious: his job is not an easy one. He’s also not helped by the fact that he is saddled with a set of ideas about the purpose of school that become more demonstrably useless with every passing day.
Now that he’s been allowed out to speak to us – having been given the simplest of briefs to avoid saying something stupid – there’s one idea he trots out as a ‘common sense’ life-saver at every opportunity: young people who are preparing for exams must return to school as soon as possible. And he’s not alone. Headteachers appear on news bulletins to reiterate this incontrovertible truth. Parents call in to talk shows to tell of their heart-breaking concern about their children’s miserable anxiety. Because, we are told with shrieking certainty, these exams are important and will determine their life chances.
At this point, I am obliged to wheel out a pre-emptive disclaimer that regular readers will have heard before. Children should be assessed from time to time so that we can find out what they know, understand and can do. It is then our job as educators to push them on to the next thing of which they could be capable. It is also up to educators to acknowledge that not all young people are good at the same things and that the golden key to is to find those areas where individuals can flourish and encourage them to pursue these further. What our knowledge of pedagogy and human development tells us is that people are more likely to develop ways of learning – and discover further interests – on the back of these successes. (I appreciate that Gavin might already be struggling with some of this).
This is a very different model from the one that stamps itself on schools, teachers and students. From a narrow range of subjects which have not changed significantly for a century, an even narrower range of topics and ideas are centrally chosen. This meagre selection is then formulated and packaged in a way that makes assessment of them relatively uniform and straightforward and, hey presto, a child comes out of the other end stamped, categorised and ready for the next part of the process. Whether or not anyone has ever actually, genuinely learned anything is a luxurious irrelevance. It’s the data that counts.
An increasingly narrow curriculum and an absurd hierarchy of subject importance – maths good, drama bad – is disappointing enough. What makes matters worse is the way in which schools have been forced to define themselves and their success by this sole criterion. Slice it however you like, how well children and their teachers do in this narrow band of inflexible, often outdated set of formulaic tests and exams is the toxic fuel that drives what happens in our schools. If you convince yourself that this is a tolerable state of affairs, you end up howling into the wind that a 16-year-old sitting a test is important while the world around that child is changing, irrevocably, with every passing hour.
And before you jump to any daft conclusions – no, I’m not advocating free-spirited yoghurt weaving as an alternative. Unlike Gavin, I’ve been at this education lark for well over forty years and these things I know as incontrovertible truths: young people like their adults to be knowledgeable, firm, consistent and reliable. They want their teachers to exude purposefulness in everything they do. With some dishonourable exceptions, this characterises pretty well all the teachers I have known. Which leads us to the crunch question. If, grudgingly, Gavin and his chums have had to acknowledge the central importance of teachers and what they do, why not trust them to assess what their pupils know, understand and can do?
The answer is because in this aspect of their professional behaviour, as far as politicians are concerned, teachers are not to be trusted. They’d inflate the grades; they’d be soft on their own pupils; they’d over-coach them and let them see questions beforehand. Let’s leave aside the inconvenient truth that during a fleeting period in the 1980s and 90s teachers had brief, overall control of some GCSE exams and none of this happened and look at the question from a different angle. If we stripped away the notion of competition between schools in terms of results, and if we removed a regulatory regime that inspected and categorised schools on the basis of these results, what incentive would there be to engage in any such malpractice? In whose interests would any skulduggery be?
For Gavin, his Tory chums and their New Labour predecessors, there would be an even more disturbing problem. Dismantle the high-stakes, punitive scrutiny that rests on notions of delivery and production and we are left with only one alternative. Schools run by headteachers, teachers and professionally informed bodies that decide what’s good for particular children at particular times and in particular circumstances. Who devise a range of ways of assessing where children are at present, what they need to address next -and who can be trusted to report on this to parents and outside bodies in a professional and dispassionate way.
Or we can carry on behaving in the same way, pretending that all around us has not changed. When introducing new teachers to the profession, I use a brief clip from the original 1930 film, All Quiet on the Western Front. In it, a young soldier, just a few months out of school, complains to his grizzled senior officer that nothing he learned there has prepared him for what he now faces. ‘They didn’t even teach us how to light a cigarette in the wind,’ he grumbles. From there, we discuss the choices we make about the purpose of education and, in particular how it might, theoretically, prepare young people for an unknown world. It’s a discussion we should all be having right now – and there’s nothing remotely theoretical about it.