A level of trust could be more important

12th October 2007 at 01:00
Brian Lightman is head of St Cyres School in Penarth and president of the Association of School and College Leaders.

As fish and chips are wrapped in headlines of falling standards in education, the after-effects of this summer's exam results, we would do well to look to Germany where examinations are viewed in a different light.

I was intrigued to hear a heated debate in the German media about their equivalent to the A-level the Abitur. This is the final exam young adults (aged 18 to 20) take at the end of their secondary education, usually after 12 or 13 years of schooling.

A proposal has been put forward to introduce a national examination. Yes, that is correct they do not have one.

At present, students are assessed using tests prepared, administered and marked by their teachers to a standard moderated by the education department in that state.

Those in favour of national tests argued that a centralised system would ensure comparability between the states, ensuring that learners throughout Germany are taught to the same standards.

Opponents saw the idea of setting one examination on the same day as a huge problem that would have far-reaching implications for the timing of school holidays and herald a reduction in the autonomy of teachers and state education departments.

This debate would, of course, be quite inconceivable in the UK where pound;610 million is spent each year on the administration of our external examination system, which certainly dictates the annual calendar during term time as well as the timing of holidays. The idea that teachers should even write their own assessments at A-level would be politically unacceptable, especially at a time when coursework elements have been drastically reduced and tightly controlled where they still remain.

Even in Wales, where key stage 3 tests have been abolished, an extremely regulatedrigid system of external moderation and verification has been introduced to replace them. Contrast that with Germany where the responsibility for establishing and meeting standards rests squarely on the teachers.

I wonder if the German proponents of a national exam are fully aware of the Pandora's box in which they come. As I drove off the ferry into England, I heard on the radio that KS3 results had plummeted. A series of commentators were expressing enormous concern about the fall in standards and the implications this might have in terms of skills levels of school-leavers. It really sounded worrying.

Back home I looked at the figures to see what had gone wrong, only to discover a tiny 1 per cent fall in the test results on the back of an impressive and genuinely significant trend of improvement over recent years. The "national standard" had been mis-read in a way that would make any statistician baulk.

Thankfully, this year the public denigration of the achievements of our post 16 students was far more restrained than in previous years. A-level and Welsh Baccalaureate results were a success story. There is no doubt that students' efforts, and the excellent teaching they are receiving, are bringing real dividends.

As term starts, leading professionals will now begin to analyse and evaluate the results of our students carefully. This is undoubtedly one of our most important leadership tasks. This work goes far beyond looking at raw percentages and requires the work, skill levels and previous attainment of each individual student to be analysed. We will celebrate achievement at all levels, root out underachievement wherever we find it and continue to seek ways of improving standards even further.

At the same time, policy-makers need to ask some fundamental questions about the fitness for purpose of our inflated and costly systems of external assessment and how a restoration of a degree of trust in the profession could be established in the interests of our learners.

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