‘Asking exam boards what they think of exams is like asking Bernard Matthews about the ideal Christmas dinner’

14th November 2015 at 15:04
Exam boards voting for xmas
Schools should welcome news that employers might be preparing to break with the national consensus over testing, writes a leading educationalist

There was a telling spat between two exam boards last week that you may have missed.

The disagreement was between two of the big names of assessment – Tim Oates, director at Cambridge Assessment, and Rod Bristow, president at Pearson – at a joint seminar of the Business, Innovation and Skills and the Education select committees, in Westminster last week.

Oates attacked "absurd" attempts by the CBI to influence education towards more "work-ready" content. Bristow challenged this, asserting that employers don’t just want functional skills, but "soft" skills as well.

The tiff became an exchange about whether employers really know what they want from general education. But looked at another way, it tells us a lot about the balance of power between those who seek to assert influence on schools.

The disagreement was about employers’ needs, and the kind of influence these should have on the aims and content of education. Yet the protagonists in this debate both work for assessment organisations; their revenue comes from selling qualifications (and the products that support them) in the schools market. They are bound up in what has become a public examinations industry.

Like it or not, our curriculum and pedagogy are to some extent the products of the resolution of external forces operating independently of each other: besides the end users (employers, but also very importantly the universities), there is the government, the inspection framework, and assessment bodies.

These forces are quite often in conflict – witness Tim Oates’ comments about employers. But if attempts by employers to influence curriculum are "absurd", how should we describe the influence of the public exam industry on how education works?

That influence is both direct and indirect. In a system dominated by high-stakes testing, it is inevitable (if undesirable) that backwash comes into effect – teachers have to take note of the content of the tests, so curricula are constrained. And teaching sometimes takes second place to test prep when so much hangs on the results.

But there’s more to it than that. Hidden in plain sight is the fact that those who sell the tests are heavily involved in influencing the shape of our education and assessment system, through sponsorship of conferences, lobbying of politicians, and even leadership of major strategic initiatives – such as the national curriculum review.

To be blunt, asking exam boards whether it’s a good idea to maintain a battery of high-stakes tests at, say, age 16, is like asking Lockheed Martin whether we should renew Trident; or putting Bernard Matthews in charge of making recommendations on the ideal Christmas dinner.

Exam boards can be pretty confident that governments will continue to back tests with enthusiasm. But employers keep threatening to break ranks: we’ve heard recently about top employers increasingly looking to bypass academic credentials, and use other techniques for selecting applicants.

This should worry exam boards more than it worries schools, which have always been in the business of teaching towards what David Brooks calls eulogy virtues (the qualities and achievements that we’d really like to be remembered for), and not just résumé credentials like exam results.

Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust

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