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Roll up, roll up. It’s the annual judge-a-child jamboree

Posted on August 15, 2022

Picture by Akshay Chauhan

With tiresome predictability, it’s exam season again. Not the sweat and tears of revising for them, sitting them and waiting nervously for the outcome. There’s no click-bait or squealing headline to be scratched from that sort of honest endeavour. Depending on who spins the line, the results will be solid proof that this year’s exams have been too soft and too easy. Or too hard. Or unfair and incomparable with those of previous years. Or something.

Stuck in the middle of this squealing mess are teenagers. I don’t know whether or not you’ve noticed, but they tend to find the world frustrating and confusing. That’s why they like to be angry and sulky, you know. Most are convinced that adults aren’t fit to be out on their own. But even though they won’t admit it to you – because that’s not the sort of thing they do – what they crave above all else is some certainty and consistency from the grown-ups. Every August, we provide proof positive that we’re not fit for this basic purpose.

We’ve judged, measured and tabulated them even before they were capable of holding a pencil.  We’ve told them that some things in school are VERY important and others are, well, you know, lovely and all that if you like that sort of thing, but not what we really need just now. Teachers and parents try to conceal anxiety about performing well in exams and tests, but usually make the grave, grave mistake of underestimating young people’s ability to easily see through that very fretfulness.

The upshot of all of this is that in their late teens, our young people find themselves in an unwanted spotlight. The culmination of their time in schools is to be captured in the outcomes from brief tests on a narrow range of subjects that haven’t changed much for the last century. Accordingly labelled and classified, they now have these numbers and grades with them through life to do with as they wish. If that’s really the best way of assessing young people’s capabilities and potential in the third decade of the twenty-first century, we need to set ourselves something of a stern examination.

I’ll stop the squealing before it starts. There is no suggestion here that children shouldn’t be taught to read, write and be numerate. Neither is this advocacy for free-spirited and anarchic classrooms – a rough estimate suggests that more than 6,000 former pupils would not recognise this as part of my teaching approach. What’s more, it is perfectly proper that schools and teachers should carefully monitor the progress and capabilities of young people. The crunch comes when we decide what we do with that information.

Let’s take as a starting point that the purpose of assessment is to find out what people know, understand and can do. No arguments there. Now let’s move on to say that once analysed, this assessment is used to decide what the next best steps are in this person’s development. So far, so good. Except that’s not what happens.

Current models of assessment are firmly hitched to achieving test results. If a child falls short of an externally devised standard, the outcome of which will undergo scrutiny in the public domain, then the exercise becomes one of training that child in ways to achieve that ‘standard’, even if it is at the expense of what is needed for his/her development and progress. As a consequence, a diet of rehearsal, coaching and prepping prevail over meeting individual need. And that’s before we even start thinking about the quirky or eccentric child, never mind the one who goes at a different pace.

Education in our schools, colleges and universities has, like everything else in public life, become a marketized, privatized and commodified product. Once we allowed that to happen, and a special badge of dishonour goes here to the Labour Party for its enthusiastic commitment to the introduction of academies, notions of ‘productivity’ and ‘value for money’ dominated our places of learning. The easiest, simplest way of demonstrating how these demands are met is through the ‘production’ of exam results. At the end of this particular sausage machine are our teenagers – who this year will have done better/worse (delete as political circumstances deem applicable) than somebody, somewhere, sometime.

In the days before school reports were generated by statement-banks, ‘could do better’ just about covered the bases. So how could we go about doing so?

It’s tricky. For over a decade now, Tory politicians have created their very own bogey man. If Trump can lay claim to the notion of fake news, successive Conservative politicians have manufactured their very own scapegoat – The Blob – as its fancied source of all evil. It’s as amorphous as it sounds, variously covering a range of experts, academics, economists and even Remainers and those who ‘plotted’ to remove a mendacious, idle Prime Minister.

Educationalists in The Blob have consistently called for the review of an increasingly narrow curriculum, a more nuanced approach to high-stakes testing using varying methods of assessment and for entrusting teachers with the professional autonomy to tailor what is taught to the needs of young people.  All of this should be underpinned by a collegiate and rigorous system of professional scrutiny, as opposed to the sledgehammer of Ofsted inspections renowned for their tin-eared brevity and tick-list approach to the complex business of teaching and learning.

‘We’ve had enough of experts,’ gushed the permanent bridesmaid, Michael Gove, during the Brexit ‘debate’. Recent events on the global and political stage might suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.  While young people wait anxiously to hear how they’ve been treated, valued and assessed, a dose of well informed, knowledgeable expertise is exactly what they and their successors are due.


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