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Inspectors leave their calling card

Pressure over exam grades is the main reason why schools feel obliged to teach to the test, says Henry Maitles

I admit to thoroughly enjoying those few minutes early in the morning between sleeping and waking as the radio clicks on. Sometimes you're not sure if the Today programme is telling you something or you're dreaming it. One day recently, it was telling us that a report on mathematics teaching from the English schools inspectorate Ofsted was complaining that students were being taught to the exam rather than being taught the essential transferable skills of maths.

Unsure whether I had heard it, I went on to the Ofsted site and there in black and white we have it: "Although the majority of teaching seen was at least satisfactory in preparing students for examinations, it did not always provide them with enough understanding of the subject to use the mathematics independently. Inspectors found evidence of 'teaching to the test' with students being taught how to obtain the answers but not what their answers meant."

So, after years of parading testing, league tables and narrow attainment as the be-all and end-all, teachers are now being chastised for taking that all on board and teaching to the test. Inspectors come into the school and condemn it as "failing", based primarily on exam results, and then tell teachers that the school may be closed if they don't do something about it.

It is hardly surprising that teachers decide that the best thing is to get students through the exam by whatever means.

The inspectorate, both in England and in Scotland, has created this kind of culture. I well remember HMI conferences in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen looking at improving modern studies teaching at 5-14. Exasperated principal teachers said that if they were given the tests and the teaching materials at the top end of 5-14 (level F), they would ensure that pupils passed them.

Researchers in England claim that this attainment agenda affects every aspect of school life. The agenda set out by league tables leads to Gillborn and Youdell describing a "triage" system operating in schools to prioritise those who need urgent or immediate attention, as opposed to those whose case is not urgent or, indeed, those who are beyond meaningful help. In schools, it can lead to a situation of concentrating on those underachievers with whom some effort can lead to improved grades.

The "safe" and those "without hope" can be left with little attention - effectively their education is rationed as schools become desperate to get pupils into the "good" grades. Gillborn and Youdell show that, throughout their study, the importance of GCSE grades A-C has continually surfaced.

They are seen as the key performance indicators for schools, subject departments, individual teachers and pupils so that:

* The proportion of final-year pupils attaining five or more good passes remains largely unchallenged as the central criterion of success or failure.

* An A-C economy has developed, such that good passes have become the supreme driving force at the school level.

* Secondary schools are increasingly geared to maximising their performance in relation to the "bottom line", whatever the cost elsewhere.

"In the A-C economy, the needs of the school, so far as the league tables are concerned, have come to define the needs of the pupils," Gillborn and Youdell state.

The concentration on exam targets also affects virtually any attempt to develop better rounded people who are tolerant and understanding with a respect for the underdog which, according to Tony Blair, is a key task of our schools. Thus, initiatives such as education for citizenship are often couched in terms of their impact on school targets. Often arguments are heard that these initiatives are a waste of time as they do not help the school, or the teachers, make their targets.

In case studies, schools have responded by interrogating virtually every aspect of school life for the possible contribution to the all-consuming need to improve the proportion of pupils reaching the benchmark level of acceptable passes. And here's where the two link up. Over-emphasis on attainment leads to a culture where deeply undemocratic, rote learning schools with "good" exam passes can be gauged as effective, as the measure of success is usually passes in maths, language and science. Pupils and teachers know this.

It is noticeable, although not as yet taken on board by policy-makers, that surveys over many years of pupil opinion identify exams and testing as being part of the problem of "bad" schooling. Young people seem to understand how an over-concentration on exams can lead to shallow learning.

If the inspectors are finally grasping it, then good. But don't expect to see anything other than a cynical U-turn; the proof of the pudding will be in the inspections.

Henry Maitles is head of the department of curricular studies in Strathclyde University's education faculty.

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