We used to set exams so that we could see whether young people had learned things. It was simple enough. Teachers would teach. Students would revise. They’d sit the tests, and then, more often than not, they would get the grades they deserved.
How quaint that now seems.
This week demonstrates the murky complexities of linking the way we judge students to the way the government judges schools.
First we had the education secretary’s announcement on GCSE gradings. Students gaining a new grade 4 will no longer have to face resits in English and Maths, she said. This is good news.
But then we learned that a grade 4 won’t be deemed sufficient when it comes to measuring schools’ success in the leagues tables.
Grade 4 apparently isn’t "strong" enough to count. So even though teachers will celebrate the achievements of students gaining grade 4, schools will be penalised if not enough students gain a 5.
It’s an attitude to success which is as mean-spirited as it is confusing.
Then thousands of schools received an email telling them that the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) qualification has been hastily pulled from next year’s performance tables – even though teachers and students in classrooms across the UK are working towards the qualification.
Thus we see a government which uses league tables to shape the behaviour of schools (for example, incentivising English Baccalaureate subjects) and then penalises schools without warning for a qualification that isn’t in favour.
It simply isn’t not good enough.
None of it would matter so much if this wasn’t about real students and real teachers in real schools and colleges.
In our high-stakes accountability system, schools and colleges yet again find themselves victims of more shifting expectations, retrospective announcements and that familiar sense of people making things up as they go along.
Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Suffolk, and general secretary-designate of the Association of School and College Leaders