Testing times in education
June 24, 2012 6 Comments
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?