Many snakes, no ladders

18th November 2011 at 00:00

So, the age of innocence really has gone. It struck me forcibly on a stay with Year 11 at the Golant Youth Hostel in Cornwall. We entered through the oak doorway of the imposing, 18th-century building and just inside, instead of a list of rules and the lights-out times, was a large bar. There were spirits, lager and even a specially brewed ale called Hosteller.

The last time I stayed in a youth hostel it was a teetotal night of cold showers, bed by 9pm and communal chores to be done before departure in the morning.

There was also a time when we took groups of kids to youth hostels to go hiking, paddle in rock pools and sit out under the stars thinking of the meaning of life. No longer. We were there for a maths revision course.

Forget the healthiness of mind and body, the expanding of horizons and development of character that used to be the guiding spirit of all those last-century trips. Now we bow to the God of Gove, the pursuit of five A*-Cs including English and maths at all costs, and if that means taking them off for a last, mad, intravenous maths boost before the final module, then that's what we will do.

Amid all the talk of giving independence to schools, ministers hold extraordinary power through their designation of benchmark measures. Watch the instantaneous jettisoning of vocational qualifications now that they are to be worth, at best, just one GCSE equivalent. If Govey decreed that schools were to be judged on the percentage of Year 11 pupils who can eat three cream crackers in a minute, then shares in Jacob's would soar overnight.

All measures are well-intentioned (who would not want children to be literate and numerate?), yet all have unintended and perverse consequences. So governments and schools end up playing a bizarre game of snakes and ladders. We play every trick to climb up the ladder.

We bribe kids to attend revision classes over half-term. We warp the curriculum so that as soon as kids get maths they drop English and vice versa. Govey knows what we are up to and sends us slithering down a snake by introducing the EBac, and on down another snake by slashing the value of easy vocational qualifications. And heads collude with exam boards in seedy bars, plotting how to subvert his aims and climb back up the ladder again.

In the bygone days of the teetotal youth hostel, teachers could be trusted with an English syllabus that was 100 per cent coursework, marked and moderated by teachers themselves. Imagine! So the government sneaked ahead by insisting on exams as well as coursework. The naughty teachers wrote the coursework for the students, so the government retaliated by replacing coursework with controlled assessments. That'll sort them, they naively thought.

Our English teachers are playing the new regime strictly by the book. They have been shocked to look in the folders of pupils transferring to us mid-year and find clear evidence of teachers up to their old tricks, not just bending but ignoring the new rules. Controlled assessments? These teachers have been working with students to draft and re-draft pieces that are then simply copied out under the so-called controlled conditions.

The game of snakes and ladders is too intense, the accountability too vicious, the innocence too long gone. Stick 'em in an exam hall with a single, terminal exam and have done with it.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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