Will this bold knight rid us of our exam chaos?

9th April 2010 at 01:00

First, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove suggests that the national curriculum is slimmed down to consist of memorising the kings and queens of England and reciting Tennyson. Then the report he commissioned from Sir Richard Sykes recommends dropping not just the five A*-C benchmark, but league tables altogether. Perhaps Gove, and not Matt Smith, should have been the new Doctor Who, zipping between centuries to collect his education policies at a most alarming rate.

Like other secondaries, we are in full exam countdown mode. Whatever state of alert is declared when Osama bin Laden knocks on your door with a bazooka in his hand, we are at it. We pore over our half-termly Successtracker data. We meet with the heads of department. We investigate why predicted GCSE scores in French have dropped by 0.1 per cent. We offer the subject leader a revolver and invite her to do the decent thing.

Our historical data shows that students who get English and maths also get the other three. So we have invented an ingenious device for those heads of department. It consists of a steel cable running from their department office to their classroom. They are attached to it with a padlocked karabiner.

They can monitor and exhort their staff in the office, then glide along to the classroom to teach their lessons, run catch-up sessions at lunchtime, after-school coursework club and booster classes at weekends. Lest you think I am too harsh, I gave them a holiday at Easter. Just Good Friday, mind you.

It's not much better from the kids' point of view. On the CD borderline? Bad luck. No more PE for you because you need extra maths lessons. Technology may be your favourite subject, and you may well be halfway through your project making a racing car, but you're only predicted an E. Extra-extra maths for you, chum.

Life is no better for the high-flyers. We recently contacted Edinburgh University to find out why a bright sixth-former had been turned down for English Literature. They told us they get 31 applicants for every place, and now want not just three As at A2, and AS, but all A* at GCSE, too. So if you're a mark under A* in the first GCSE module, then it's retake for you. Our hall is now set out with exam desks for 60 days a year. It's not hard for drama, dance and PE to teach a third of their lessons each year in the playground. It's all in a good cause.

So hooray and huzzah for Sir Richard's proposal to sweep the whole lot into the mortar board of history. The question is, then, what to put in its place? He has some interesting ideas, such as judging schools on the destination data of their students, and American-style Sats for university entrance. It is also worth considering what is good about the present system because we want its replacement to retain those features.

To start with the bleedin' obvious, there has to be accountability. I taught English for six years in my first job, and no one ever talked about my exam results with me. I looked each September to see which grades my students had achieved, but never totalled them up or compared them with those achieved by other groups.

Moreover, no one ever compared what they achieved in my lessons with their potential or what they achieved in other subjects. There were consequently plenty of hiding places for the idle and the ineffectual, whether staff or student, and plenty of underachievement by both.

There are other benefits. I do not believe it is either sensible or possible to give equivalent value to a GCSE in physics and a BTEC in work skills. Yet at least the attempt to do this means that there are far more vocational options in the curriculum than would otherwise be the case, and more students are engaged and experiencing success as a result.

Our need to chase every percentage point also means that we track and monitor individuals better than ever before. We no longer view a school as a series of classes. We are much more aware when a student is underachieving, and have a rich armoury of support to offer: pastoral non-teaching staff, teaching assistants, one-to-one extra-teaching and so on.

Ultimately, an exam-based culture narrows teaching to focus only on exam criteria and is deadeningly obsessed with outcomes over process. So it is worth remembering the constant ability of kids to surprise us.

I am mentoring a Year 11 boy, Tom. I sat him in my office late one afternoon to see how things were going. "My tech's great," he said, "look at the design for my project." I looked at the square lines. "What is it, Tom?" I asked. "A ferret box," he replied. "You've got a ferret?" "Yeah, I catch rabbits." "Well," I said, "I love rabbit. Can I buy one from you sometime?" Tom bent over and undid his school bag. "You can have this one," he said, pulling out a large rabbit by its ears.

It's what makes the job worthwhile.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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