The Exam ScandalDecember 13, 2011
In case you’ve missed it, the extent to which the exam system has been “gamed” by schools has recently been exposed by an investigation in the Telegraph. In particular, the extent to which exam boards and examiners offer training which tips off schools about the likely content of exams, and boast about the easiness of their exams has been exposed through filming with a hidden camera.
For most teachers this is less than shocking. We all know that schools play the system, and this is no different to all the other practices schools use to inflate results, such as putting kids in for worthless vocational qualifications, focussing resources on “borderline” students or the cycle of retakes used to pass modular exams. Combined with removal of material from the curriculum, and low pass marks, almost all exams have become a much devalued currency, although it hasn’t stopped denialists claiming that actually it’s just that kids are much smarter and better taught these days .
Most of the comment I’ve seen from all parts of the political spectrum has concluded a couple of very obvious things:
1) The examination system is not very good.
2) Exam boards should not be competing for business.
I haven’t yet seen any dissent from this. It’s too obvious for words and so I’m not going to add to it.
However, I have seen a few other rather annoying opinions that I think are worth highlighting.
Firstly, it would be too much to hope that a lack of academic rigour in the exam system would be seen by everyone as grounds for increasing the rigour of exams. It didn’t take long for people to suggest that the problem was not that the exams weren’t testing academic knowledge properly, but the very idea that academic knowledge is the point of schooling. One Guardian journalist who presumably hasn’t been inside a classroom in a comprehensive school for 40 years declared that the real problem was that schools don’t teach “the value of motivation, persistence and self-belief“. A blog by (you guessed it) a consultant seemed to suggest that the focus on exams was a distraction from students being “fully engaged in their subject study as part of a much wider and more engaging whole curriculum, and through being resilient, adaptable, motivated and happy independent learners”. Both appear to think that the answer to a exam system which lacks academic rigour is a school system that does too. Worse, there is simply no acknowledgment that all of the above has been rammed down teachers’ throats continually for decades. The answer to manifest collapses in education standards is always more of the same type of thinking that lowered standards in the first place.
Another issue raised by the scandal is one mentioned several times in this Guardian article: pressure on schools from league tables. Now whereas the above arguments for making education less academic were nonsense from start to finish, this one is more of a matter of degree. Examinations, accountability and competition between schools can be excessive. Anyone who doubts this should look at some of the horror stories Diane Ravitch has reported from America in her recent book. However, by comparison the fear of accountability in the English school system reflects little more than the dread of being found out. We know this because where schools are known to be good, which unfortunately is too often only in the private schools, they do not care about league tables. It was common for top independent schools to come bottom of the league tables by not doing GCSEs. (Have a look at the two bottom schools in Warwickshire in 2009, who’d want to go to them?) Even OFSTED was not aenough of a threat to ensure compliance from prestigious parts of the private sector. Any number of top schools were damned by OFSTED under its mad tickbox assessments. I don’t want to suggest that just because top private schools are confident enough in their reputation to ignore crazy forms of accountability then everyone can, but it does suggest that you can have a reputation for academic standards without league table confirmation and OFSTED approval by … wait for it… having academic standards. We probably do need to review the way schools are held to account, and I am glad to see that changes in the direction of academic rigour are underway, but we should not forget that if school managers are more scared of a middling league table position than of failing their pupils then that suggests a problem with their attitude and their values as much as it does a problem with the system.