Looking Beyond Grades

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but we really need to stop using the term “skills” when we’re in fact discussing “intelligences” that lie beyond mere academic ability. This terminology really matters.

Peter Wilby, whose articles usually deserve proper attention, has another good one in the Guardian today:

Gove is stuck in the past. We must look beyond grades

The left once debated bold reforms that valued skills over certificates. As the row over GCSE grades shows, they are needed now more than ever


So here’s that word “skills”, and this strapline ought to read “reforms that value different intelligences over certificates”.

Mr Wilby goes on to say,

Some qualifications entail knowledge and skills of direct relevance to the jobs that demand them. Most don’t. Their content is irrelevant. Their holders may (or may not) be more cultivated, reflective and wise after long periods of study. But there is scant evidence that they make better lawyers, accountants, bankers, managers and journalists. [3Di emphasis in bold]

The main effect of increasing access to A-levels and degrees is not, as originally intended, to ensure that elite jobs are open to talent from all backgrounds. On the contrary, longer periods of education and extended hurdles of certification favour the offspring of advantaged families, with their greater financial resources, greater reserves of cultural capital and greater access to elite institutions. By paying private school fees (or higher prices for houses close to favoured state schools) and supporting postgraduate study, today’s middle classes buy prestigious jobs for their children just as elite families once bought army commissions and civil service positions.

Forty years ago, when the left still had vigour and ambition and the deleterious effects of the qualification spiral were already evident, bold reforms were widely debated.

First, it was suggested, employers and professional bodies should be prohibited from setting entry barriers in terms of general educational qualifications, such as five higher grade GCSEs or upper second-class degrees. Discrimination against the uncertificated, it was argued, is as unjust as discrimination against black or disabled people. Job candidates should be selected on specific competencies, skills and knowledge.

Second, schools and universities, instead of acting as gatekeepers issuing passports for elite positions, should introduce “achievement reports” detailing what young people know, what skills they have acquired, their personal qualities, and so on. Grades or marks should be issued for specific parts of the syllabus, not for overall performance.

The arguments for such changes, restoring educational goals to primacy in schools and universities, are stronger than ever. But Gove moves in the opposite direction: making exams more traditional and ending a recent trend towards splitting them into discrete “modules” that could form the basis of achievement reports. He prefers fighting a losing battle against grade inflation to asking if grades are needed at all and creating a system fairer to young people and more valuable for employers.

If you’re a follower of 3D Eye you may already be aware that Finland, consistently one of the best-performing countries in the world in terms of its education for all pupils, has no national examinations AT ALL until pupils reach the age of eighteen. How do you argue with that? Haters of mainstream English education and its teachers argue that public tests and exams are useful for “measuring” how well SCHOOLS achieve – which is of course complete nonsense when you consider different intakes, high staff turnover and difficulty of recruiting the best teachers in some areas, and the high percentage of pupils receiving private tuition/personal cramming in some areas.

So let’s put this whole business into the language of multiple intelligences.

You can cram children and young people for academic tests and examinations, but you can’t cram them for personal intelligence, social intelligence, emotional literacy, spiritual intelligence, instinctual intelligence, physical intelligence, creativity, curiosity, integrity, human values, virtuous behaviour and original thinking.

Of course it’s difficult to get the most wealthy and most privileged parents to accept that tests and exams shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of the school system, since they generally believe they ought to be able to guarantee academic success for their offspring, and therefore entry to the best universities, careers and occupations.

It’s therefore nigh on impossible to achieve a national consensus on these issues, as Gove and others well know. So what price “progressive Conservatism”, and how much chance is there of a Labour party led by Ed Miliband leading the arguement for getting rid of exams at 16 and putting in place a system of education similar to Finland’s where all six human intelligences are understood, valued and developed in all pupils, who still achieve highly in academic tests?

This may sound to some like revolutionary thinking, rather than merely “progressive”, but the new education revolution waits for no-one, and those countries that have already shifted their approaches to teaching and learning towards those fit for the 21st Century will continue to move ahead whilst here in dear old England we continue under the blight of Goveism and his determination to turn the clock back to the 19th Century.

It may be of help to Ed Miliband and his political colleagues to realise that the Confederation of British Industry has already shifted ITS thinking towards the abolition of exams at 16, and a broader school curriculum that develops a wider range of “skills” and intelligences – see:


GCSEs encourage “teaching to the test” and may be past their sell-by date, according to Britain’s leading business organisation.

The Confederation of British Industry warns that the qualification is stopping teachers delivering an “inspirational classroom experience” and should be replaced as a measure in school league tables by the A-level.

Speaking at the launch of a CBI inquiry into education, John Cridland, the CBI director general, argued that abandoning GCSEs could help deliver a more rounded education.

“There’s something about this GCSE funnel which produces a prescribed form of learning which seems to be teaching for the test.

“It frustrates teachers because it stops them delivering that inspirational classroom experience, and you see young people being switched off.”

“It seems to me that we’ve raised the participation age to 18 and we’re left with an education system that focuses on 16,” said Cridland.

“We need to give school leaders more freedom to motivate, to recognise, to reward high performance, and deal with poor performance, and I would go further, we need to give teachers more freedom to teach. If you have an inspirational teacher why don’t we do what we do in business, back the guy or girl that you trust to deliver excellence rather than tell them how to do it.”

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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2 Responses to Looking Beyond Grades

  1. Response to a post on 3Di

    I agree there is more, much more than merely academic ability but try telling the academics that. They are, after all, in charge of the asylum we call education in the UK and are supported by their political offspring at every turn! This assumption may be wrong, but that does not matter, it the impact this collaboration is having that matters. I have no evidence other than that of 32 years of teaching and being a parent to suggest that some of the best minds do not make it through the current system. This is what matters, not who is pulling the strings, if there are better ways of examining/filtering or debating when this process should take place. Right now there are thousands of young people who have no option but to go to school, we have a made it a law to do so, yet what we offer them is not fit for purpose any more. Purpose being to use and have recognised individual abilities in a way that sets challenges and brings fulfilment as well as social integration and economic growth. Not much to ask of education surely, look at the tools we have available to us to do so.

    Saying what is wrong is easy, putting it right much harder. Under the bombardment of waking insight there are those that continue to build and maintain the network of tunnels that support and feed the outdated model we have. Until we have an body which is non-political, non partisan and independent responsible for holding to account those who seek to manage education in their own image, who meddle for self gain or political ideology all we will have is noise.

    If you wanted a simple test to apply to education to see if it is fit for purpose then I would suggest you answer one simple question. Is the education system capable of objectively reviewing, adapting and applying the most effective developments to itself in a way that always ensures it is able to make the most of every individual who must pass through it without political or self interest tainting the outcome? If education is indeed a right, let’s get it right. It certainly should not be a business or “for profit” organisation as it is becoming. How can a nation morally claim that it is right to make a profit from teaching their young? Surely it is a responsibility.

    The argument is not about standards. We can have the best standards in the wrong thing and still be failing our young people. The CBI are wrong to suggest GCSE’s encourage teaching to the test. All examinations will encourage teaching to the test if it is the test scores themselves that are more important than the content. Further, because something is easy to assess does not make it the right thing to assess, it only makes it easier to assess and has little real value. This conflict and argument over this year’s examination results demonstrates this well. Want further evidence of how little value grades are, how many successful people did not succeed at school but have succeeded in life? Academics have a phrase for them. ‘late developers’ and then they re claim their success by offering them honorary Doctorates or political titles. Subtle but effective!

    What is frustrating to me too is that most education reform has failed to even consider what it is to be a learner. To give time and focus to those who are embarking on this life changing journey is essential and of greater importance than whatever curriculum or assessment system we impose. Let me explain, for this is the fundamental reform in education we must have for it places the individual at its heart and can counter whatever education system we throw at them.

    The world is a complicated, quick changing environment, and like any environment survival within it and later mastery of it is what counts. In any environment you need certain skills and self knowledge to be able to survive. Survival brings with it creativity, problem solving, communication, understanding, an openness to the new and the flexibility to change. Without being able to demonstrate these attributes few would survive in hostile environments; we would not eat, have shelter or be able to protect ourselves never mind pass on what we have learnt.

    Schools are the learning environment we have created to educate our young, a training ground for the real world, but are they? I am reminded of the tale of the Sabre Tooth Tiger Curriculum, well worth a read. We now tell our young what they should learn and not how to learn it, a fundamental error for it is now impossible to learn ‘enough’ or the ‘right things’ to survive in today’s world. The call for ‘back to basics’ is irrelevant, a struggle to control the uncontrollable, and doomed before it starts. It is noise, much like ‘driving up standards’ is nothing more than a bugle call in a lost battle attempting to regroup the defeated army.

    Once we accept schools are learning environments then it becomes clear that we must include survival skills. So what is the educational environment survival intelligence we must apply in our schools and why have I referred to it as an intelligence and not a skill?

    Two questions I am more than willing to answer, but I have taken up enough of your time already so I leave the door open!

    Kevin Hewitson
    Director at Advocating Creativity


    • 3D Eye says:

      Many thanks for this, Kevin. We agree with all these points, and feel as passionately about them as you clearly do. Feel free to expand on your point about a survival intelligence, and why it needs to be seen as an intelligence and not a ‘skill’!

      3D Eye readers might like to check out your tweets (@4C3d) and your links to some very interesting articles and websites, including the Cambridge Primary Review http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/index.php


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