The great halls of Eton College are not necessarily the first place you would think of looking for a quiet revolution, though there are many who have been educated in this place who have had a considerable impact on the governance and culture of this country. Old Etonians include people like Guy Burgess and George Orwell as well as our current and several former Prime Ministers.
The late, great, Humphrey Lyttelton attended school here, as did Labour’s Tam Dalyell. So did Jonathon Porritt and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – all would-be radicals or revolutionaries in their way.
It was a real pleasure to attend a discussion at Eton College yesterday on the future of GCSEs, organised by the National Education Trust (NET). Walking through the Porter’s Lodge and seeing some truly beautiful buildings around the courtyard was inspiring, as is the sight of a church in the style of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Within the courtyard you have a sense of the immense history of the place, and the influence that its alumni have had on so many lives.
Within these walls there live and work some inspiring people who are dedicated to ensuring that young people receive the type of education which they’re entitled to, i.e. a holistic education that develops all of the intelligences and not simply the intellect.
The meeting opened with a tribute to the late Mike Baker, a wonderful, quietly-spoken man who was a strong and powerful voice for educationalists in this country. As Roy Blatchford, Director of the NET, pointed out, Mike Baker was not one for ranting and raving, and yet the government’s proposals for 16+ examinations in this country drove even this gentle man to anger and remonstration against the proposals that Mr Gove was putting forward.
On the potential reintroduction of O-levels and a two-tiered system, Mike used words like “crazy”, “dangerous”, “nonsense” and “alarming”. He said that the previous Labour government “made a bit of a hash” of Mike Tomlinson’s recommendations to replace GCSEs and A-Levels with a 14-19 diploma in education, and he said that there “have been signs for some time that Michael Gove has been itching to go his own radical way on education reform . . . . He’s showed no sign of wanting to listen to alternative views or even to the experienced counsel of his own civil servants”.
Strong words indeed, heralding what might well become a quiet revolution.
Four head teachers spoke about their views on the future of the 16+ examination.
Tony Little, the Head Master at Eton, is clearly an enlightened and wise individual who has spent years considering the direction he would like education to go in. He posed the key question – what is the point of exams at 16?
He said, “The excessive, remorseless drive to measure things feels like a straitjacket”, and went on to say we have atomised learning into bite-size pieces that are aimed at ‘hitting’ a particular target rather than working towards real learning and enabling pupils to see the connections between things. He said that GCSEs have locked us in to a methodology of teaching to the test, and said that we should trust teachers to teach, to assess, to do both formative and summative assessment, and to understand the needs of the young people with whom they are working.
He said we have “cabined, cribbed and confined” children through our examination system and we should consider our role and responsibility to educate the whole child, quoting John Milton’s call for a “generous education” where a young person has wide experiences, a holistic education and a means to develop a generosity of spirit and an openness of mind.
“I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of peace and of war.”
Mr Little concluded by saying that tests, exams and league tables undermine relationships and ‘destroy the expansiveness of education’. We must educate the whole person, in order to give the best life chances. There is no status or merit in achieving particular prescribed things in certain prescribed ways. We need a system that enables students to build up portfolios of experience and achievement – that show students’ ability to apply information, for example. We need to move away from the “limited and pernicious” system of formal, time-limited examinations.
Sally Coates, principal of Burlington Danes Academy, offered an alternative view, stating that she believed that there had to be reform of the 16+ examination, but felt that an exam at this age was still needed. She advocated specialist teaching in Primary schools to prepare children for a rigorous curriculum in secondary schools with high expectations for all. She felt that this was the only way to tackle social inequality and narrow the current gaps in society.
The head of another Academy expressed concern about the possible loss of 16+ exams, especially for schools that don’t have post-16 departments. She raised concerns about the loss of external validation for “a generation of pupils”, as well as a loss of “validation” for her own school.
Peter Hyman, Head of School 21 – a Free School in Stratford, London, put forward his belief that the GCSE is a broken system, failing at both what it examines and how it examines. He said it tests only a narrow range of skills, using 2 hour exams in which students basically regurgitate information. He praised the skills of Early Years and Primary teachers who observe and assess children’s progress continuously and accurately. He advocates a pedagogy based on project-style learning, and a possible e-portfolio of learning for all pupils. He mentioned High Tech High School in California which teaches its entire curriculum through project work. He said he wants to see learning become much deeper. [And ‘slower’?] He also wants assessment to be based on records of achievement and pupil portfolios. He did, however, raise concerns about how to assess pupils mid-schooling, and suggested a continued external system of testing at 14 rather than 16, to determine a pathway for them for the remainder of their schooling.
A discussion in groups then ensued, followed by a general debate.
This event took place on the same day that the National Wellbeing Report was published, and the day after the Confederation of British Industry reported its findings on school reform.
So should these two documents influence the debate?
The National Wellbeing Report states that the single most significant impact on adult wellbeing is emotional health in childhood. Tony Little had included in his remarks his feelings of concern about his daughter spending so much time and energy studying for her GCSEs, “bereft of creativity and enjoyment”.
As for the CBI, they are stating categorically that there is no point in a 16+ examination, especially when it is now compulsory to remain in school until the age of 18. Furthermore, they reiterated, our current schooling is not providing businesses with young people who are skilled for the jobs they are entering. The CBI, like many of us, want a different approach to teaching and learning for our children and young people. They are looking for young people who can think for themselves, who can collaborate, who can use their initiative and be innovative. They want people who are literate and are able to express themselves well through speaking and in writing. They want children and young people who are ‘team members’ and also capable of working independently. They suggest that none of these skills are being developed properly (if at all) thanks to the current system of teaching to the 16+ exams.
At the Eton meeting we said that we are also of the opinion that the current system is disabling learning for the majority of pupils, and that as advocates of quality education we should stand up for the rights of children to have an empowering education which enables powerful , deep learning and a love of learning in the here and now, as well as equipping them with the skills that businesses say they are crying out for. We referred to countries such as Finland, where children are formally examined only once in their school lives, at the age of eighteen, and Singapore, whose “Teach Less, Learn More” revolution in education aims to diminish the prevalence of high-stakes tests and exams. Both these countries are consistently at the top of the OECD tables of attainment, and it can’t be a coincidence that their curricula are heavily focused on skills development and the application of knowledge, balanced carefully with an appropriate amount of factual learning.
The consensus at the end of the meeting was that not only are GCSEs broken but that 16+ examinations are now an anachronism. Sirrku Nikamaa-Linder, a Finnish educator and consultant, reiterated the fact that a parallel system of vocational and academic is viable and is working effectively in Finland, whereby the vocationally inclined continue with language and mathematics throughout their schooling, and the academically inclined have the freedom and the encouragement to pursue creative studies in conjunction with a more formal education.
She also reiterated the point that the teaching profession is well-respected in Finland and that this level of trust enables the teaching profession to conduct formative and summative assessment that is recognised and valued by Finnish universities and businesses alike.
This is what we need in our country: a trust in the educationalists who are working in our schools, and a substantial investment in their professional development to ensure that their assessment of need and learning is stringent and respected by all. As Mike Grenier, housemaster of Wotton House, Eton, said – just think of the money that can be saved through the abolition of 16+ examinations. We say – look at how that money could be invested in teacher training and continuing professional development.
It’s a sorry indictment of our profession that we are reliant on the CBI to stir the debate about what constitutes quality education, when so many of us have been silenced by the testing regime and directives from politicians and bureaucrats which directly contravene what we know constitutes quality education.
Our teachers are capable of being teachers of English in every lesson. Our teachers need to embrace personal and social development outcomes in all lessons, and not just delegate them to a PSHE lesson or tutor time. Our teachers need to be trusted to know their pupils and know how to lift them to the next level of their learning.
Our children need to be free to learn and to have a voice of their own regarding the content of their learning. None of this will happen if we are stuck with a heavily prescribed curriculum that actually prevents teachers from teaching in the way that they know is right, and prevents children from learning in the way that is most rewarding and appealing to them.
Yesterday was Universal Children’s Day; the day when, in 1959 and 1989 respectively, the Declaration and Convention on the Rights of the Child was agreed.
Article 13 states,
“The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”
Is this really what we are providing for our children in the UK?
One of the headteachers who spoke at yesterday’s meeting was convinced that employers would resist the abolition of examinations at 16+. She was unaware that the CBI had put out a statement earlier this year making a very strong plea for the abolition of 16+ exams to enable teachers to teach more imaginatively and pupils to learn more creatively.
One of the Academy headteachers at yesterday’s meeting said, “Teaching to the test is all right as long as the test is all right”. We have to say to her, NO it isn’t. Teaching to tests can never be right. Even our government ministers say that teaching to tests is wrong. It’s just plain wrong.
The good news is that there were several people at yesterday’s meeting who had never before even contemplated the abolition of 16+ exams, and yet who left the meeting saying they were now on the side of what appeared to be a quiet revolution. A revolution they felt ‘relaxed’ and ‘comfortable’ about.
One suggestion at the meeting was that we should consider testing students when they are ready for the test rather than at a prescribed time, as we do currently with music examinations. This is an interesting idea, and it made me consider something from my own learning. I passed Grade 8 piano at the age of 17. I am a Grade 8 pianist, according to a certificate and a plaque of “attainment” that I received having achieved an Honours for this exam, and the highest mark in the West Midlands region of Trinity College of Music. This does not, however, make me a pianist. I can’t improvise effectively despite the fact that I can still play my Grade Eight pieces, almost note-perfect with a bit of practice. I am now struggling to find my ‘voice’ as a keyboard player, having being taught in a structured way that didn’t enable my self-expression.
A further footnote:
Those children taking their GCSEs this year have been tested at every stage of their schooling. A child tested at 5 on a baseline assessment was then tested at 7 for KS1 SATs and again at 11 for KS2 SATs. Within their Primary life, they were also tested for reading and writing in Year 5, as well as a series of NFER tests in every year of their primary schooling, should the school be so inclined. These children are about to take an examination that is seemingly meaningless to many, exacerbated by the debacle of the English examination in the summer of 2012. By the time they take their A-Levels, these exams too may be meaningless due to the possible changes in 18+ examinations.
A plea from a parent of such a child – please let’s sort this out now; let’s not do this to yet another generation of children who are so eager to find their own learning pathways.