Talking standards: part three of a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

22nd July 2015 at 09:46
Brighouse on exams
In the third instalment of our online conversation, Scottish educationalist David Cameron responds to the former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse's thoughts on exam reform.

Dear Tim,

I was fascinated by your response to my initial thoughts on standards and assessment. Your final question about the lack of progress that we have made in Scotland on a testing and examination regime really struck home.

You talk about the “model” that Scotland has in Curriculum for Excellence, but the worry is that a “model” is all that we have and the reality of a Curriculum for Excellence is more elusive. I have often argued with you that I see as much good practice in England as in Scotland despite the far more permissive national curriculum. This matches the contention of Michael Barber and others that initiatives and changes at national and regional level have limited impact on the experience of learners. It is what staff in schools, and other places of learning, do that makes a real difference and that is never completely conditioned by what politicians and administrators intend that they should do. Many teachers and their colleagues will do what they think is best for their students and will find ways to subvert the system to achieve that.

This tendency for national policy to be less than decisive is exacerbated in Scotland by the consistency of compromise. By Diverse Means, the report from the Commission on School Reform in March 2013 talks about educational reform in Scotland being ambitious, indeed, radical in concept but limited in implementation.

The reasons for this are interesting. One is the recurrent concern about workload, which has dogged efforts at improvement in our schools. It is not a concern of which I am dismissive. I see too much evidence of teachers being overworked and stressed for that, but we are too easily persuaded towards denying the best interests of learners in what appear to be those of teachers. We don’t do enough to identify economies of effort within innovation and talk too readily of additions in workload without sufficient focus on subtractions. I fear that we may never look sufficiently at the processes and interactions that come with externally driven change to be clear about the demands that they make.

Undoubtedly though, a second reason is the hegemony of external assessment. Many of the Scottish teachers with whom I work or talk, complain that the new national examinations constrain their efforts to make fundamental changes in their practice and, certainly, do nothing to promote them. I suppose that is exactly what will happen with high stakes testing. You can’t undermine confidence among employers, parents, the media or politicians by taking risks. The allegation that young people are being used as guinea pigs in some Frankensteinian experiment in examinations seems almost sufficient to derail even the most moderate of reforms.

This year has seen significant outcry in Scotland about exams, which were either too difficult or too unpredictable. It appears that the examinations dictate the syllabi that then become the curriculum and condition practice and the practice then makes changing the examination almost impossible. Cruelly, one could suggest that all that we are doing is preparing young people for challenge as long as we can defuse that challenge as far as possible.

That is why we need to get a much richer, braver and better-informed debate than we seem to have been capable of up to now. I worry that we don’t discuss the issues that you raise about unreliability and expense, because we value confidence in the system too much. It is as if we have entered into a conspiracy where we all agree to believe that the system works whether it does or not. The consequence being that we then find it much more difficult to make the case for changing it. This is particularly true if the practices that we have reinforce the existing order. I remember vividly my first markers’ meeting as preparation for a national examination where the principal examiner actually said that “as long as the clever bairns passed” we would have done our job. I suspect few other guardians of the system would be so direct, but that there will be many who would subscribe to the view.

I like your vision of change, but we need to think carefully about how we make that a reality. We may well need to lead with assessment and begin to pilot the sorts of assessment that would be worth teaching towards in terms of the skills that you have identified. We will certainly need to get commitment from Higher and Further Education and from employers. I did find a tremendous irony in your advocacy of an assessment model in universities which seem to me to have a very poor track record in encouraging similar practice in schools. Certainly in Scotland this has been a massive issue and has made some of the intended changes of Curriculum for Excellence much more difficult to achieve.

Finally, this discussion takes me back to another one that we have had and that is about the nature of educational reform in different parts of the United Kingdom. In England, we have seen very radical change implemented with remarkable speed. This seems partly to be driven by a fierce ideological certainty, but also by the continual raising of the spectre of crisis. As you know, I am more impressed by the pace than the direction of change, but there may still be lessons for Scotland to learn.

As ever I look forward to your thoughts,


David Cameron is a Scottish educationalist and campaigner. He has been a teacher, a school SLT member and a director of children's services



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