'We can't let exams smother great teaching'

Teaching should be challenging and adventurous – it can't be shackled by accountability, writes Kevin Stannard

Exams, exam stress, pupils, secondary, GCSEs

Teachers are hemmed in by performance measures that focus on short-term, snapshot, easily measured outcomes. Impressive test results are not incompatible with great teaching, but they can be achieved by more mechanical means. How then to encourage great teaching, which, almost in passing, ticks the performance and assessment boxes?

High-stakes assessment casts a long shadow, being used to hold everyone to account. Teaching to tests becomes structured and formulaic, leaving learning limping along, passive, dependent and fragmented. Governments and regulators understand the insidious impact of exams on education, but choose to use them as a policy lever to effect change in education without spending substantial amounts on resources, or having to wait around for years to see results.

Given the stranglehold of testing over teaching, it’s tempting to conclude that there is little room for manoeuvre. But the sense of powerlessness is as much mental as material, as much self-imposed as externally mandated; bringing to mind William Blake’s evocation of “mind-forg’d manacles”.

'Put exams back in their box'

Under the prevailing accountability regime, teachers might understandably feel exposed and isolated. There is wiggle room within that regime, but it needs school leaders to grasp the opportunity to put exams back in their box.

The sixth-form offer must be more than three or four discrete A-level subjects stuck like Lego bricks on top of each other. Yet even using A levels, it is possible to construct a whole greater than the sum of its parts, as is the case with Singapore’s junior college curriculum. The challenge is to give the additional school-defined elements (enhancement, enrichment, co-curricular) core rather than bolt-on status. School leaders also make choices about the number of A levels students take, the time allocation per subject, the make-up and importance of enrichment programmes, and the status of EPQ. The school could even set an expectation that a certain proportion of subject teaching time should be spent off-specification.

At key stage 4, the pragmatic response (indeed the advice of the architects of the national curriculum review) to the greater content of GCSE is to start in Year 9, making it a three-year slog. This cannot be the answer. There is, to be sure, little wiggle room here, although choice does exist in the number of GCSEs to which pupils are subjected. Not everything that counts needs to be counted on a scale of 1 to 9.

So much for creating curricular space. What about day-to-day teaching? Where teaching is inspiring, challenging, and supportive learning becomes autonomous, active and adventurous. But teachers need school leaders to underwrite this by calibrating performance appraisal, setting the agenda for learning walks and lesson observations, and promoting team teaching and principles of shared accountability. The main charge to teachers of exam courses is to act as shock absorbers, but teachers, in turn, should be supported by a serviceable whole-school suspension system.

A hundred years ago, Ernest Starling asked how progress is possible “if every new spirit in teaching is smothered at its birth by the prevailing system of examination and tests”. Difficult, but not impossible. Ralph Townsend, as head of Winchester College, uttered a cri de coeur that should become a creed: “We continue to believe that a spacious formation of young minds and hearts, and an examination structure which supports it, offers the best future for our students and for the society in which they will take their place.”

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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