Testing times in education

The comparative merits of GCSE, O level and CSE qualifications have become unexpectedly newsworthy this week.

It’s symptomatic of our times that so much of the media coverage has focused on tittle-tattle about relationships between politicians and their aspirations rather than on young people’s life chances (and the impact on adults studying for GCSEs). Educational analysis has focused on the measurement, rather than the substance, of learning and on the presumed needs of current employers. Little attention has been given to education’s role in preparing people for all aspects and stages of their lives.

Some pundits have used various statistics and anecdotes to argue for a return to the segregation of students for O level and CSE type assessments, describing GCSEs as ‘one size fits all’ exams. Others have reminded us that GCSEs are differentiated with higher tier exams leading to grades A* to D and a foundation tier with a grade limit of C-G. Students enter for different tiers in individual subjects based on their predicted grades. An unclassified grade means that there aren’t ‘prizes for all’.

We don’t know what skills will be needed for jobs in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time or how the world will have altered, but we need a more measured, forward-thinking and informed approach to public debate on educational policy instead of reducing it to a simplistic ‘either / or’ comparison of assessment options that have been tried already.

Spokespeople for some employers recognise that times are changing and that education needs to adapt. Some of them are stating publicly that learning to learn is more useful than learning to pass tests. John Cridland, Director General of the Confederation of British Industries, is on record as saying recently, “What is clear to the business family is that what was right for the 20th century, may not be right for the 21st century. There is something about this GCSE funnel that produces a prescribed form of learning which seems to be teaching for the test, which frustrates teachers because it stops them delivering that inspirational classroom experience and you see young people being switched off.” (http://www.cbi.org.uk/media-centre/news-articles/2012/05/gcses-not-up-to-the-job-bosses-say/) Keith Attwood, Chair of the CBI’s education committee, has also said that employers place greater value on hiring “rounded” individuals who are able to write reports and speak confidently.

Raising the age of compulsory participation in education in England to 17 in 2013 and then 18 in 2015 offers opportunities for more considered approaches to developing a rich and stimulating curriculum and encouraging the most inspiring teaching and learning. It also provides a chance to plan for students’ progression from a rounded general education to specialisation and expertise, regardless of their backgrounds or family income.

These issues shouldn’t be reduced to gimmicks, sound bites or point-scoring by any political party or the media. Set alongside controversial fee policies for further education, it is important to think about what kind of future awaits teenagers who don’t measure up in whatever exam system prevails. Even those who do achieve good grades aren’t guaranteed jobs.

What happens in schools will have a knock-on effect in adult and further education and on society in general.

What do you think?

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/1GI0QK1

6 Responses to Testing times in education

  1. Rob Hindle says:

    Ann –

    As the parent of a Y7 child (who would be in the first cohort of students starting the new ‘O Level’ qualifications if Michael Gove’s view prevails), I echo your hope that any progressive review should facilitate an inclusive approach to learning which offers a broad foundation and progression towards ‘specialisation and expertise’.

    By coincidence, attending his first parents’ evening the night before this story broke, I was heartened by the comments of his teachers, several of whom referred to the English Baccalaureate. As I understand it, the EB, though offering a more modest approach to the broad-to-focused progression than the International Baccaleaureate (UK governments clinging to the ‘gold standard’ A Level like ‘children lost in a wood’, to quote Auden), does ensure that students have a rounded education, including humanities and languages as well as the ‘core’ subjects. I’m pleased that Louis, whose strengths at this stage are clearly in science and maths, would also be studying history, Spanish and English to quite a high level.

    In terms of a review, there are two dangers, I think. The first stems from the conviction that Gove is seeking a return to an exclusive system. This is well-argued elsewhere. The second is the extent to which any move back to an exam-based structure would further restrict opportunities for creative learning experiences. I’ve posted some thoughts on creative writing and the curriculum in the light of this story at http://robhindle.wordpress.com/ More generally, the experience from adult education over the last twenty years makes it very clear that active learning – that which most effectively and sustainably develops people’s ability to overcome barriers to learning – occurs when we are given opportunities to value, and progress from, our own experience. To understand the stories of others, there is nothing like trying to write our own.

  2. I am not an educational expert, but I am passionate about facilitating growth in others, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat, teach a man to fish and he will never go hungry”. I returned to college this last winter to undertake a City and Guilds level 4 in Preparing to teach in the lifelong learning sector and it was an incredible experience and great to see how education had moved on from the education I had undertaken in my youth of pure chalk, talk and write down as quickly as possible, the new learning I undertook is all about learning and comprehension and not just passing the tests, rather than the lecturer standing and talking for hours and hours, the sessions are very interactive and thought provoking. The assessments covered the length and breadth of the learning process and I am more than happy to share my work with those that are interested. One particular piece is about the embedding of fundamental skills into regular skills learning, the theory proven by results, is that if you were studying a vocation, rather than pure subjects, you would be very interested and interconnected with the learning as you know it would potentially lead to gainful employment. Embedding functional skills has been proven to engage learners significantly due to it’s interaction with the particular vocation being studied – if someone was studying Hair Dressing and had to spend an hour a week in pure maths sessions they would quickly turn off, whereas if the required maths for the vocation were to be embedded into the vocational learning it would feel quite natural, examples for this vocation being front of house work managing money for customers or dealing with time, measures with colourants etc. Another strong example would be a vocational plastering course, again send the trainee plasterer to maths session and you loose them, embed the maths into the vocation and you keep them interested i.e. The wall is x metres by y metres and we want a plaster depth of x millimetres, also potentially linking this into the plaster mix of various volumes of raw materials and wastage – tying this into lost revenue, cost of raw materials, costing the job, profitability etc, all alot more exciting that a pure maths session.

    An area that is of concern, that is a challenge to myself currently, is that of qualifications for qualifications sake, many colleagues in the past have ensured that they always had the latest qualifications and technical boot-camps to attain such quals i.e. MCSE’s , CISCO certs etc are very popular and very profitable, but alot of people that have such rapidly attained certification don’t know one end of the technology from another. Personally I can field strip and repair most things and am not technically adverse, but as I managed many staff that were highly qualified, I ensured that they were suitably qualified and now find that I am very highly skilled and experienced, but do not have many of the qualifications that employers are stating in their recruitment specifications ! I believe that work experience and apprenticeships are absolutely invaluable and would personally employ someone that can work their way out of a paperbag rather than someone that has lots of paperwork, that shows that they can cram for a test, again finals for my degree were intense exams that were very stressfully as a few hours was used to calibrate 4 years of learning, where as the real takeaway from university was the learning and research processes that you learn.

    I am not conversant with school learning, but it would be a hoped that in the 21st century focus could be given to business related activities that would assist learners in the future,

    Hope I didn’t wander to far off tack, but always good to express an opinion 😀

  3. Sarah Moore says:

    I read your blog with interest, as the parent of a year 8 girl who may be in the final cohort of students who undertake GCSE’s, I wonder how she will feel when her qualifications are outdated so quickly, and before she even leaves compulsory education!

    I understand the concerns relating to returning to a two tier system but don’t we have this anyway, as you have described the separation of learners into streams that allow them to achieve A-D or C-G is surely equally divisive. My local secondary school offer a range of vocational qualifications and diploma’s but have limited options and opportunities for (A-D grade) GCSE, I have chosen to send my daughter to a school 10 miles away where the options for her I hope are more suited to her skills and capabilities, I am lucky that I can afford (barely!) the bus fare for her to do this. For many this is not an option at all.

    My overriding concern with the current system is the modular format and the endless resits that appear to be allowed or even encouraged. My nephew has just completed his GCSEs and recently resat one of the maths modules to improve his grade, he originally achieved an ‘A’ and has now gained an A* so mission accomplished but why was an A not deemed good enough? However I am not sure that returning to ‘O’ levels will resolve all, if any of the issues. I would love to see all children leaving compulsory education literate and numerate and with a hunger for knowledge, this needs to start at primary level. If we cannot get the building blocks right in the primary education then the discussion around ‘improvements’ to the secondary education is limited. Apologies if you are a SfL/FS tutor as in my utopia we would not need you! 🙂

  4. melanie evans says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Sarah. Outside WEA I work with small groups of young people who haven’t achieved at school, all of them intelligent, all of them capable of learning. However there is still too much chalk and talk in secondary schools and students on the dyslexic spectrum (whether or not identified) simply do not “get it”, label themselves as stupid and give up. When encouraged to use active methods and participate in creating understanding they get the point very quickly and are able to move on. These students would be capable of a C at GCSE if these methods were used from year 7, so why aren’t they? See the work of Malcolm Swan in maths.

  5. Pass says:

    I just wanted to say that I am impressed by the initial post and the follow up conversation. I couldn’t agree more…Definitely, worths to be red by young children parents… thanks for the nice insight.

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