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The Examination Debate

May 14, 2012

There is a large can of worms opening up around educational assessment and examinations in this country with a variety of competing pressures vying for attention. We have just had the latest figures on the amount schools spend annually on examinations and assessment, and now we have Pearson, or rather ExExcel, looking to cash in on the debate over standards as if they are the safety net not the problem!

It all starts with Michael Gove and the notion, shared by his cronies, grandparents, Daily Mail and Telegraph readers, Toby Young, Melanie Phillips and the heir to the throne that examinations have somehow ‘got easier’ than they were in their day and are testing silly things which lack the obvious applicability of, say, Ancient Greek. It’s a good argument to put forward in the pub, the golf club or, unfortunately, in the Cabinet room as it makes the proponent look clever and, of course, everyone can be an expert in education and assessment because they went through it sometime and somewhere.

Although these arguments – wherever they take place – go around in circles, there are two key elements which constantly resurface. The first is that examinations must be easier because more students succeed at them. The second is that you can now sit examinations in insufficiently academic subjects and be rewarded with spurious academic qualifications.

The first argument is easy to counter. Unless education is a complete waste of money, we must, as a society, be getting cleverer. People must be more literate and numerate than they were one or two generations ago and more knowledgeable. Examination passes, in a commonsense way, show this to be true. More people take examinations, more people succeed at them but that doesn’t mean that the examinations are easier. Golf club man, or even Cabinet table man, will think that norm referenced assessment worked in his day although he won’t state it like that. He probably cannot see the absurdity in any endeavour of doing more to increase success while limiting it to the same percentage of the population. He cannot tell the difference between a prize for being top and an accreditation for recognising achievement. However, he thinks he can tell what grade creep is and remains surprised that standards are rising as he thought a standard was always static. There is some wobbly language here because it is the standard of performance which is, of course, rising not some peculiar gold standard which is being overthrown.

Another complication which the he forgets is that the whole notion of school improvement supported by external inspection is predicated on rising standards of performance. OFSTED, if it has any worthwhile quality at all, must be committed to school improvement and that is dependent on improvements at school level examination in performance. If there was no grade creep or performance advance – choose your words – the OFSTED endeavour would be a waste of time as would the national investment in education.

Incidentally, if you are teacher you can identify clear evidence of raised standards simply by reading the absence notes sent in by the parents of the pupils in your class. With the odd exception, the overall trend will be to note that your pupils are better at expressing themselves than their parents. Do a project involving the grandparents, and the differences are even starker. Of course, this won’t be apparent if Daddy read classics at Cambridge after being flogged at Harrow but over our society as a whole the evidence is clear.

That observation helps to pinpoint the real anxiety behind this argument and that is the concern that the educational elite (to which the supporters of this argument inevitably belong) is being threatened by the inexorable rise of the oik. It was bad enough when oiks were let into secondary schools and started getting GCSEs but now they get A Levels, go to university to do sociology and business stuff, read chicklit on the tube, prefer rock music to opera, monopolise television and don’t wear ties to work – choose your own bugbear!

Once it is understood that this is the bedrock of the arguments about standards it is easy to see how that connects to the other obsession about vocational education. The logic of the argument that education prepares you for life and employment and therefore you should learn and be assessed in areas related to life and employment is self-evident. And, to be fair, in the 19th century a good grounding in Greek and Latin was going to be helpful if you aspired to be a country curate, a botanist or a diplomat. However, things have changed in the 21st-century and the idea that schools should not teach people about technologies, media, other cultures and languages as well as the skills associated with major sectors of employment and aspects of business and manufacturing is simply indefensible. There is simply not some higher knowledge which, once acquired, allows you to dip into any lower status knowledge you need. If you think that, you will constantly be out-googled by everyone.

That hasn’t stopped the educational elite from doing its best to sabotage the vocational curriculum in all of its forms over the past fifty years. In the 1960s, it was the CSE in Motor Vehicle Technology and in the 1970s it was GNVQ. More recently, it has been the diploma programme. Essentially, all the attempts to broaden subject areas and to include practical or work-related activities have been shafted and the English EBacc with its assumption that all you need to get by is English, mathematics, a science and a language is another manifestation of the trend. What is feared is not the study of non-academic subjects but the notion that they should have parity with what Cabinet table man did when he was at school or that their introduction might lead to a more egalitarian society.

Luckily, other pressures away from schools and education are leading to the democratisation of knowledge. As our access to information and knowledge has increased exponentially so we are beginning to understand better that what we know as a society – and perhaps even as a world – is partial and constantly in a state of flux. Even in atomic physics it is evident that there is no absolute knowledge and many of the facts we learned in school in history, science and geography lessons now turn out to be assertions and suppositions or even temporary fashions. The current wrestling over what the school curriculum should look like reflects this societal uncertainty over knowledge and the elite concern that commodified knowledge – possessed and defended by that same elite – is under threat from the wisdom of the crowd.

Of course, it is easier to bury your head in the Daily Mail or to slap each other on the back in the bar than to engage too deeply with these arguments so, at an individual level, it is possible to merely splutter with indignation. The problem is that this spluttering leads to government intervention in education and a froth of sea changes in public examinations. And, funnily enough, these are not as bad for Pearson and the other national awarding bodies as they sometimes seem to suggest.

The fact is that over the past twenty years they have been enabled – and often encouraged – to make examinations and assessment increasingly convoluted, detailed and expensive. Occasionally, they have been thrown into reverse as was the case with vocational qualifications, key skills and examination overload at A Level (GCE). They have dumped coursework, then introduced modularity and then seen that come and go. Chasing the tale of a government which fundamentally doesn’t want more people to succeed in education is a challenge.

However, the chaotic flux based on the chaotic arguments outlined above allows them both to say that they are responding to the requirements of government and the concerns of the public while consistently increasing the reach and cost of assessment. When schools spend more on examinations than on books and on providing students with information then there is something wrong but these diversions tend to obscure the simpler facts.

Things are not going to get better. Haphazard and prejudiced interference where ever it surfaces is not going to improve education and when, or whenever, we have a new national curriculum you can be sure that it is going to require another new series of examinations and more changes, and, of course, a further modest price increase in the examination fees to cover it.

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