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

In the second part of an ongoing online conversation, the former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse (right) responds to an open letter from Scottish educationalist David Cameron (left)

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In the second part of an ongoing online conversation, the former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse (right) responds to an open letter from Scottish educationalist David Cameron (left)

Dear David

We have spoken about this often so you will not be surprised to learn I agree with the thrust of your argument about school standardised testing and exams.

I would add two points. First, there is an unacceptably high error rate: reliable witnesses put it at between 10 and 30 per cent. Second, the cost is enormous for what are increasingly stretched school budgets: the three GCSE boards make a profit of upwards of £90 million. When something is both unreliable and expensive, it is surely time for change.

So what should we do?

We should model our test and exam system on the Russell Group of universities – after all, they are world renowned and respected for their quality and how they manage that elusive concept of "standards". Their exams are internally set and internally marked with some random double marking: they are then externally moderated and validated.

The existing system of externally set and externally marked tests at 11 and GCSEs at 16 should be replaced by one with the following features:

  • Tests and exams would be set externally and nationally.
  • Such tests and exams would be taken by pupils/students at a prescribed time.
  • The pupils’ efforts would be internally marked according to an external set of common guidance.
  • The marking would be externally moderated both by sample scrutiny and randomly sampled double marking.

Such arrangements imply the following further changes:

  • The discontinuation of the existing boards’ duties to set and mark GCSEs.
  • The expansion of the duties of exams watchdog Ofqual – even though it is acquiring a reputation for unreliability to rival that of the inspectorate Ofsted – to include the setting of the exams and tests and the supervision, scrutiny and validation of arrangements for their administration and marking.
  • Each school – or group of schools – to have a licensed "chartered assessor", trained to oversee the internal validity of the exam and testing operation and to secure adequate training for staff involved in assessment. A school’s licence to assess could be suspended if Ofqual's scrutiny revealed a failure to secure the prescribed high standards (in those circumstances the school’s test and marking would be overseen by another school).

As you rightly point out, however, the existing test and exam system doesn’t begin to address a whole set of other issues.

Particularly at the secondary level, external pressures suggest that society now puts greater emphasis on the following:

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Entrepreneurialism
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Communication
  • Technological literacy
  • Handling information easily and with discernment

Some of these – and the list is illustrative rather than exhaustive – are cross-curricular and therefore cannot be handled entirely within subjects.

Of course, if we settled for the model suggested (each school having a licence to assess and chartered assessors), it would be possible for partnerships of schools to devise ways of assessing these desirable – some, employers for example, would say vital – skills and abilities.

Unless we do something like this I shall be haunted by the thought that our schools are engaged in preparing our young people for a world that no longer exists.

In Scotland you have such a better model with your Curriculum for Excellence that I wonder why you don’t make progress on a better test and exam system?

Tim Brighouse 

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