The creeping rise of follow my leader

21st September 2012 at 01:00
The exams fiasco demonstrates how many in education sacrifice initiative to blind obedience, says Tom Finn-Kelcey

You don't need me to remind you that this summer saw the first decline in performance in GCSE exams for more than 24 years. The drop across the board was small - about 0.4 per cent in total - but in English literature A*-C grades it was a great deal more significant. A fall of more than 2 percentage points in one year is substantial.

The fall overall is long overdue, as grade inflation since the inception of GCSEs has been a real problem. However, the specific case of the English exam is different. It is alleged that exam boards, feeling political pressure to ensure that they did not hand out too many high grades, arbitrarily upped the grade boundaries midway through the course. A raft of inquiries into this problem will no doubt soon be underway, from Westminster to the Welsh Assembly, many of which will look for evidence that education secretary Michael Gove applied pressure to raise grade boundaries.

One of the interesting aspects of this scandal is what it tells us about how educational change occurs in the UK. To me, the question of whether Gove instructed the exam boards to raise the grade boundaries is not important. I suspect we will find no evidence of improper conduct on behalf of the education secretary, no smoking gun. What, however, I suspect happened is that exam boards, finding a shift in government thinking on the exam system, second-guessed Gove's wishes and changed the boundaries unilaterally.

This, I would argue, tells us much about wider problems in education. At every level, too many educational leaders substitute their own judgement and experience for the latest trend in thinking, propagated by whoever is above them. Many in the profession are so reliant on the state and its array of educational bodies to tell them what to do that they are prepared to set aside their own principles and inherent sense of what actions they should be undertaking. The English exam fiasco is simply one example of this lack of individual sense of responsibility for creating good education.

A significant proportion of school leaders' time is taken up with doing exactly what the exam boards appear to have done: trying to second-guess the people above them and initiate the kinds of changes they think those people would like to see. Since Ofsted brought in its new-style inspections in January, the focus within many schools has been exactly this: what do we think we need to be showing them at the next inspection? I'm sure most teachers will be heading back to work this autumn to a number of changes to school policies and practices designed to pander to Ofsted's latest whims, many of which may be direct reversals of the previous approach.

This problem filters down to the head of department and the classroom teacher; the message is that we should mould our practice to fit the wishes of those who currently hold sway over us. This is leading far too many in the profession to become automatons, lacking conviction, principles and any sense of continuity in our practice. The way I marked my work or taught my lesson last year did not become a bad way of marking or teaching just because the policy changed. The same is true of the exam boards. They should feel some sense of moral responsibility for the integrity of their work, not just change boundaries to please government.

Set an example

I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of teachers being accountable to those in authority for upholding standards, and the increase in this since 1988 has been a good thing. However, there is a difference between accountability for performance and the kind of top-down, initiative-led tinkering that is a far too regular feature of the profession. The first approach is proactive and encourages the individual to take initiative. The second is reactive, constantly changing focus and lacking ownership over actions. And because we as teachers all know that the profession is often reactive, most school initiatives are merely paid lip service, and we occupy our time by collecting dubious evidence for nondescript targets, almost never finished or even revisited, while the real issues remain untouched.

If ever children needed to see teachers set an example by being characters full of integrity and conviction, and leading instead of simply following, it is now. Many of my colleagues in the profession do this: inspirational people who solve problems and rise to challenges in their own innovative ways. But too often there are people at the higher levels of education who lack the imagination or conviction to lead, and are content to unquestioningly push the agenda of the person above them.

The case of the exam boards illustrates what happens when people fail to maintain their own standards and simply push political agendas. Those happy to inflate grades to please New Labour and those prepared to arbitrarily raise boundaries to please the coalition government are equally as guilty. No one involved in the education of children should ever be allowed to raise the defence of "I was simply following orders".

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent.

The message is that we should mould our practice to fit the wishes of those who currently hold sway over us.

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