Terry Pratchett once said that “the difficulty with people who rely on systems is that they begin to believe that nearly everything is in some way a system and therefore, sooner or later, they become bureaucrats”.
It is fair to say our education system has become more and more systematic in its approach to delivery, content and assessment. System overload is a symptom of the status afforded these days to the exam. Its power and allure dwarfs that of anything and everything else. And we have so many exams, it’s staggering.
We are now, according to Andrew Thompson, head of the history faculty at the University of Cambridge, the most examined country in Europe. In many other European states, they might rely purely on teacher assessment at 16 or 18: a presentation performed in front of a board of teachers, but with judgments already formed by the class teacher over a long period of time.
With this unmitigated focus on exam outcomes here, the framework with which we teach subjects is at odds with what we say we want to achieve. We say we want a deeply enriching and diverse curriculum, with teachers delivering it in a pragmatic style with professional autonomy, field trips and wonderfully enlightening creative approaches. We say we want to inspire a passion for genuine learning in schools. We say we want freedom of choice and expression in our educational institutions.
However, by the same token, we tell teachers and learners that you will live and die not on the intricacies of an intellectual journey that dives unexpectedly from one discovery to another, but a prescribed, tick-box amalgamation of exam factories producing more clones than diamonds, wrapped up in an accountability matrix that punishes anyone who dares challenge the status quo. This reality has led to the recent resignation of a headteacher who deplored the fact that her students were being “factory farmed”: funnelled along a conveyor belt of superficial reference points.
It’s also led to the Institute of Directors voicing concerns that the current exam system is turning our schools into exam factories, squeezing out creativity and joy of learning at a time when these very attributes are becoming increasingly important. They also said students were not being “imbued with curiosity, open-mindedness and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information”.
This is reflected in the latest pronouncements around Cambridge admissions. They are looking for students with a contextual knowledge and understanding. Students who can make a link between one peripheral event and another. Students who haven’t peddled down the beaten track. Students who have taken initiative. Speaking at the OCR history forum, a Cambridge admissions tutor spoke of a student from a grammar school who had submitted a research project on the US presidents of the 1950s and 1960s, using primary sources downloaded directly from the Library of Congress. This student was admitted. He spoke of others who had spoken eloquently for 25 minutes in an interview but weren't able to analyse pictorial sources in an imaginative way by making conceptual links. They were not admitted. Many with A*s across the board are not. The process is very much nuanced and not, as some would suggest, based on the type of school one has been to. This says a lot about what an exam can measure and what it can’t. GCSE results, in particular, have become the be-all and end-all of everything, but not to elite universities like Cambridge.
In the same way that some see God and the Church as one and the same, some can’t distinguish between educating children and examining them. The acronym “GCSE” has come to represent so much more than what it is: a few hours in an exam hall. Ofsted defines schools, teachers and pupils through the data it generates. This definition has carried so much gravity that it has come to sum up the life’s work of so many.
Teachers have found it increasingly difficult to argue against an inspector or government agent presenting a series of numbers, using something equally tangible to justify their own work. “I inspired students to think outside the box” simply doesn't cut it. “My students love my subject”, teachers say. “Who cares?” they respond. “Prove it,” they demand. “Oh, and speaking to students is lovely but it won't impact on the grading, I’m afraid. We only care about these results, in these eight subjects. Thanks.”
At that point, the “requires improvement” stamp is bludgeoned over every document, Google search or announcement related to that school. Some teachers and students have taken the emperor’s thumb-down to mean just that and have cracked or hit the wall. Meanwhile, many with "good" or "outstanding" judgements are strangely quiet. Rather than saying, “We know that you guys have been doing the same job we have, we know you have been working as hard as we have and we know that there are always mitigating circumstances,” there is sometimes a silent wall of smug segregation, veiled behind sweet and treacly offers of collaborative support. Rather than saying, “It’s OK – we know the whole system is defunct,” they splash “outstanding” across every letter head, social media account and press release. I'm sorry to tell you but, in the annals of time, the success that a particular school has had with teaching to a mark scheme might not be remembered.
Hitting the panic switch
Those schools left in the lurch have hit the panic switch and followed the leaders. They say, “What’s the point in having a full key stage 3 programme – let’s scrap Year 9 and use the extra time to hammer home the same content we have already taught, again and again – the kids won’t do it at home.”
They have responded by halting any form of pedagogical experimentation as soon as key stage 4 kicks in. They have chosen GCSE specifications that may not be the most interesting or culturally important in favour of an easier road towards exam-result glory. They have responded by implementing strict “you must embed this much exam practice in lessons, this much assessment and this much tracking” rules.
The students have become more stressed and many have just got completely turned off education as a concept. They have developed, purely through the fault of the system and not the well-meaning teacher, a misguided and skewered view of what education is. Many have written themselves off as failures in Year 6. Many have stopped dreaming.
So here’s my controversial suggestion: let’s just strip everything back and start again. Let’s get simple. Let’s get back to enjoying learning for what it is and then see what the results are. Let’s forget about trying to measure and judge and measure. Let’s just do and enjoy doing. Let’s talk up what teaching should be, not what it currently is. Let’s be critical but forward-thinking.
You never know: perhaps a side effect of students and teachers enjoying the way they are working might be the inadvertent production of exactly the skill and knowledge surge that the country needs.