Holistic route to reform

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The Tomlinson report proposes some refreshing alternatives to the soul-destroying system of league tables and exams, writes Geoff Parks

One of the most horrifying consequences of the Government losing its nerve over the Tomlinson report - as many commentators suspect it will - would be the continued stifling of creative and imaginative classroom teaching in favour of the current obsession with league tables and exam results.

Education for the 14-19 age group is no longer fit for purpose. It fails to engage the less academic students: many disappear from the system at 14, while those who progress to GCSE and A-level face an eternal cycle of tests and assessments, but still are ill-prepared for university or the workplace.

The blame for this does not lie with the teachers (they are just as much victims as their students); it is the natural outcome of a system that now values education purely in terms of exam results.

Teachers are under enormous pressure to stick to the script: if you want your students to do well at GCSEASA-level, don't venture away from the curriculum, however relevant or interesting that diversion might be, and teach them how to pass their exams rather than to think.

The results have been disastrous. Earlier this year, a teacher told me that Oxbridge admissions interviews were unfair because "you ask the students to think for themselves and they've never had to do that before".

Unfortunately, this has become ever more apparent in recent years.

Teenagers have been taught to equate intelligence with knowing the answer.

Many are so petrified of being wrong that they cannot engage with the new ideas or open-ended problems they are presented with in a typical admissions interview. This makes it hard for them to display the thinking skills and thirst for knowledge we are looking for.

This all-consuming focus on exam results is detrimental to everyone. Bright kids disengage because the formulaic assessments don't stretch them and there's little scope for intellectual curiosity. The Confederation of British Industry complains of poor literacy and numeracy levels.

Universities bemoan the volume of, apparently identical, A-grade applicants. Teachers are strait-jacketed by the system and feel undervalued because they are constantly being dictated to.

So there is a real need for change, and Tomlinson's proposals have at least four enormous advantages over the current system.

First, they will reduce the burden of assessment, clearing the way for more focused study, more creative classroom teaching and the exploration of new ideas. Teachers deserve to be valued as professionals, with the skill and judgement to know how best to engage and inform their own students. Less external assessment will allow a deeper, more holistic study of a subject and give a much better preparation for university.

Second, they will provide students with a more rounded education, while also increasing the depth of study. This will be possible because of the emphasis on complementary learning: history courses could include the statistical analysis of historical data, for instance, while scientists might develop their critical thinking skills by debating the ethics of a particular research development.

Third, the reforms will keep bright kids engaged and teach them to think for themselves. Incorporating Advanced Extension Award-style questions that require students to synthesise their own solutions, instead of trotting out a well-rehearsed answer, will differentiate between the sloggers, the well-taught and the extremely able in a way the current system does not.

The research, analysis, presentation and thinking skills developed on the extended project will be highly valued by employers and universities alike.

Finally, the reforms will provide a framework for students to select the vocational andor academic qualifications that suit them best.

Vocational qualifications are not - and should not be seen as - second-best; indeed, many highly academic students would greatly benefit from doing them as part of their diploma. One reason Cambridge encourages deferred entry for engineering students is that it is extremely valuable to have some practical experience of the subject before embarking on a degree course. The same principle applies to many other academic degrees. Rather than forcing students to take gap years, how much better if this breadth of experience was gained at schoolcollege.

The existing 14-19 framework is failing young people, teachers, employers and universities, and something has to be done about it. The Tomlinson proposals offer a constructive way forward. Let's hope the Government does not lose its nerve.

Geoff Parks is the director of admissions for the Cambridge university colleges

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