Exam hall of mirrors skews our reflection

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
I love a treat
I love a treat. So it was a pleasure to attend a dinner staged by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) to celebrate the achievements of schools that gained high value-added scores at GCSE. The guest speaker was Lord Puttnam.

If ever you need someone to run you a bath of champagne, Puttnam's your man. He can, like the late Ted Wragg, speak with total sincerity about the importance of education, and make teachers feel appreciated for doing such a vital job. He should run training sessions for ministers.

So we left the hall feeling warm and cuddled, when several of us slipped on something large and smelly. We suddenly became aware of an elephant in the room that no one was mentioning. We were celebrating something that deep down we did not really believe in.

There is not a teacher in the land who enjoys playing the five A*-C game, and not one who believes Sats are the best thing in education since Socrates. You disagree? Step forward, Sir or Madam, and collect your certificate of certified madness.

The exam industry holds up a distorting mirror to schools, turning them into leering parodies. We are an average sized comprehensive. We spend pound;12,000 a year on invigilators, pound;20,000 on exams officers, and pound;104,000 on entry fees to ensure that exam boards can employ staff trained not to answer our queries and still make good profits.

The school is in session for 190 days a year; our hall is full of exam desks for 62 days, the gym for 26. It's wonderful. For a whole third of the year, we do not have to worry about what to do for assembly, or fuss about drama groups who only leave the place in a mess and blow the light bulbs. Just lovely neat rows of desks that cause no trouble at all.

We have tried to keep to the mantra that good teaching will lead to good exam results, but it's only part of the truth: you have to teach to pass the exam. The worse your results, the harder it is to hold the high pedagogical and moral ground. Our key stage 3 results have been looking shaky, and I have no desire to be dragged into the boardroom for a Sir Alan grilling next time Ofsted calls. So this year it's been mock Sats, days off timetable for extra core lessons and practice papers. Until the kids are screaming for mercy.

There are some great scams out there: the piece of coursework that is marked and "redrafted" 49 times until it's perfect; the independent schools that make their weaker students enter as private candidates so they do not show up on their statistics; the revision notes flashed up on the screen in the hall just before the exam starts. I talked to heads at the SSAT dinner who entered all their students for GCSE maths and English at the end of Year 10; get a grade C in one and you drop it to spend double time in Year 11 on the other. It's called personalised learning.

They say you do not make a pig fatter by weighing it. Actually, you do: if you did not know the pig's weight, you wouldn't know whether you were giving it enough food. The eight national curriculum levels are increasingly broken down into three sub-levels by schools. Add them to the eight GCSE, five AS and five A2 grades and we have a grand total of 42 levels. That's too much weighing and too little feeding.

It's horribly obvious to point out the difference between educating children and teaching them to pass exams. But if it's so obvious, why have ministers still not understood the point?

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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