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Why do we allow a limited suite of qualifications to dominate the way we think about education?

Rather like putting the cart before the horse, a severely restricted idea of education is driven by our obsession with GCSEs, writes a leading educationist

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Rather like putting the cart before the horse, a severely restricted idea of education is driven by our obsession with GCSEs, writes a leading educationist

In education, there are three elemental components – curriculum, pedagogy and assessment; in other words, the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘whether’ of teaching and learning. The product of these components can create the conditions for powerful learning; but when there is tension between them, or when one threatens to overpower the others, problems arise.

How about pedagogy, the actual day-to-day transactions of the classroom? Forests have been felled in the pursuit of what makes great teaching, but teaching is far from autonomous. It is affected by the demands of curriculum content, and by the imperatives of inspection criteria.

But the most insidious influence is assessment: exam specifications influence not just what is taught, but how it is taught. This ‘backwash’ effect of exams can be seen in the way that teaching for pen and paper tests is privileged over coursework; and the way testing of the isolated individual undervalues collaborative work. Good teachers don’t teach just to the test, but they do calibrate their planning and delivery to whether the assessment is modular or linear, short answer or free response.

With high-stakes testing it will always be thus. But some aspects of the exam environment are taken too readily for granted, somehow natural and not to be questioned.

Take the arguments about what should or shouldn’t be included in the English Baccalaureate  – seen by some as a measure of a broad and balanced education to age 16. Whether or not we think that RS should be included, the EBac concept rests on an assumption that most of us take for granted: that GCSE is the currency by which we measure learning, and that the currency’s denomination is fixed: GCSEs are of a fixed size (defined as ‘Guided Learning Hours’), so obviously a KS4 programme can only include a limited number of these units. Hence the need to make choices, and hence the debate about RS.

But why do we start with qualifications, and then carve up the curriculum according to how many of them will fit? What if we started by asking what a well-educated young person should have covered by the age of 16? If it turns out that they need to cover more subjects than currently possible, surely the answer is to change the amount of each subject?

Inadvertently, the exam reforms have flushed this out. By making Big Maths bigger than other GCSEs, they have given the lie to any assumption that GCSEs have a ‘natural’ size. Indeed, by effectively making all subjects bigger, teaching even the same number of subjects at Key Stage 4 will now be very difficult.

Exam boards have suggested that the solution is to teach more KS4 content in Year 9. But they would, wouldn’t they? Qualifications are a currency to most, but to the exam boards they are a revenue stream. We need to question why qualifications are taken as the starting point to education reform. Qualifications should be made to fit our educational objectives, not the other way around.

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