A few years ago, a chain of Israeli nurseries, tired of parents arriving late to pick up their children, decided to charge a small fee for lateness, hoping such a sensible and modest measure would encourage them to be more punctual. In fact, it did the opposite – late collections soared.
On investigation, the management discovered why. As parents were being charged, the guilt associated with being late disappeared because they felt they had paid for the privilege. Unfortunately, when the nurseries later scrapped the fees, unpunctuality remained at its new high – because the social stigma previously associated with being late had gone for good.
Education is replete with examples of policies like this, advanced for perfectly sound reasons, that end up subject to the "law" of unintended consequences.
Some of the most significant in England flow from our high stakes accountability system. To drive up standards, and embed reform agendas, successive governments have ratcheted up the importance attached to exam results. School reputations rest on teachers being able to deliver a raft of ever more rigorous exams at suitably impressive grades.
As a result, exams are now as much about measuring school performance as they are about assessing student attainment – perhaps even more so. As the repercussions of failing to meet expected outcomes can be severe, teachers feel they have little choice but to resort to interventions that they hope will help them avoid that fate. Typical tactics include squeezing the curriculum to focus on a limited band of subjects, starting children on GCSE flight paths at ever younger ages, and employing assessments to interrogate children for their subject knowledge rather than using them to build up a broad picture of themselves as learners. Unintended consequences all.
We know that these consequences are unintended because the Department for Education has told us so. Late last year, GL Assessment commissioned a YouGov survey that found overwhelming concern among teachers and parents that the curriculum was being squeezed to satisfy the obsession with exams.
In response, the DfE had this to say: “All pupils should receive a broad and balanced curriculum and Ofsted inspects schools on this basis.” Indeed, next week Ofsted is due to unveil its new framework, which it has developed partly in response to fears that children are being drilled to prepare for exams years before they need to.
My particular concern, as you would expect from the head of an assessment organisation, is the unintended consequences that result from the misuse of assessment, specifically at key stage 3. Increasingly, I hear reports that schools are using GCSE-style questions and gradings as children begin secondary school.
What, however, is the point of finding out if a student can do 5 per cent of a GCSE paper in Year 7? Is there anything more demoralising for a child than to face a test they cannot hope to pass? All it does is show them how high the mountain is they have to climb without preparing them in any way for the ascent. It destroys interest. It ignores incremental gains. It avoids the careful development necessary for eventual success and makes a travesty of what a broad and balanced curriculum should be.
It’s hard to blame schools for such practices given the accountability stakes and the consequences of failing. But even so, shouldn’t we step back and ask ourselves what KS3 should be for and what role assessment should play in it?
KS3 is more than an early extension of – and poor relation to – GCSE. It should be about grounding student knowledge and skills, getting the basics of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving right, and encouraging children to think in the round. Consequently, assessment at this time should have one overriding aim: to lay solid foundations for learning.
It is about discovering their ability to problem solve or comprehend or communicate, or maybe their difficulties in doing these things because they have hidden barriers to learning. It is about assessing students judiciously but infrequently. It shouldn’t be about assessment overload. And it certainly shouldn’t be about watching Year 7s quail as they’re asked for their opinions on Jane Eyre.
Ironically, the final unintended consequence of frogmarching children onto a GCSE obstacle course early is that it doesn’t work. There is no evidence that starting such a narrow syllabus several years prematurely improves academic performance.
Indeed, a Sutton Trust study found the opposite – that students enrolled on a broad curriculum at secondary school were more likely to achieve higher grades. Nor of course does it do anything for student wellbeing or indeed teacher satisfaction – our survey found that more than four-fifths of them think teaching an exam-driven curriculum makes their job less enjoyable. The law of unintended consequences never ceases to surprise.