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‘Join the resistance! How school staff can subversively wrestle back influence over exams and put teaching above testing’

Out of sight, below the surface of school life, there are signs of a fight back against the all-powerful exams system, writes a director of innovation

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Teachers don’t expect the curriculum content we learned and teach now to be of much use in later life. After all, that’s not the point of liberal, general education. The things that stay with us should be the skills, attitudes and dispositions imbibed and honed in the classroom. There’s lots of discussion around these "transferable" qualities, and their importance over "mere" subject knowledge.

As teachers, we carry in our intellectual baggage a lot more of the content, and not just the skills, of our disciplines (although as a geographer my existential crisis came with the realisation that many of my teaching notes were in files headed with the names of countries and industries that no longer exist).

But there is something beyond skills and "stuff" that isn’t often talked about: call it conceptual frameworks or organising principles – the way we apprehend, process and make sense of information and experiences that bombard us later in life.

Teachers carry and convey conceptual frameworks that prove durable and surprisingly transferable. Some of the organising principles that I imbibed as a tyro geographer have, unexpectedly and unintentionally, remained useful.

A classic paper by Schumm and Lichty, on "Time, Space and Causality in Geomorphology", impressed at the time, but its ramifications only became apparent in another century.

Variables in complex systems like river channels can appear as either dependent or independent, according to time-scale. In the short run, bed and banks dictate the way the river behaves after a storm – the channel’s shape controls the amount of water that can be discharged without flooding.  But over the longer term, channel geometry is altered by erosion and deposition, and switches to being a dependent variable, ultimately controlled by the flow of water.

Factors that in one view are external and independent become, on another view, subject to change.

We tend to see the public exam system as an external factor over which we have very little influence. Just as an intense storm threatens to overwhelm a drainage channel, and climate change raises the stakes, so changes in exam "goal-posts" (grade boundaries shifting; exam reforms rewriting the rules) create top-down instability and a sense of helplessness.

But is the public exams industry really so impervious to the actions of teachers and schools? The move to IGCSE gave some schools a chance to control a little of the exam environment, and contributed to the crisis of GCSE itself. Many schools work hard to reduce the number of GCSEs to a core minimum, trying to wean parents and pupils off collecting qualifications like stamps.

Cambridge Pre-U’s alternative to A-levels, designed initially by and for teachers and schools, gained a following among those who wanted to wrest more control. It found the path back to linearity, and was quickly followed by A-level reform. The causal arrow flew for once in the opposite direction.

Reducing the undue influence of public exams, reshaping qualifications, putting teaching above testing – these are honourable acts of subversion by teachers and schools. Vive la résistance.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets at @KevinStannard1

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