One might hope the biggest reform of assessment in English education in over two decades would be based on a set of clear principles, evidence of what’s effective and consultation with everyone with a stake in the education system – young people, teachers, parents, and employers.
Sadly, the announcement yesterday about replacing GCSEs with a new EBacc showed the extent to which coalition politics is becoming about ill-founded ideology rather than responsible governance.
Of course 14-19 education and assessment is in need of reform – the existing system is a remnant of a time when most young people left school at 16 and there was a two-tier system of grammar and secondary modern education. Reform to date has been a case of building on top of what already existed rather than the more fundamental change now needed.
But the EBacc is riddled with many more problems than what it is replacing. Rather than moving us forwards by assessing the skills that young people need to succeed in the modern world, it’s moving us back to the 1980s where a three-hour written exam of the sort taken in Oxbridge finals was considered the pinnacle of a young person’s academic achievement.
Gove says he wants to end ‘teaching to the test’. Yet it is impossible to prevent coaching for success in any kind of assessment or test, including of course the EBacc. Indeed, given assessments have never before been so high stakes for schools, with underperformers at risk of being forcibly converted into academies, they would be barmy not to do it. So any assessment had better be designed to test the range of skills we want young people to develop. The government seems to think that is being able to sit a three-hour written exam.
For those young people whose skillset means that is never going to be a feasible option, Gove’s alternative is a ‘record of achievement’ produced by schools themselves. It’s hard to think of a system more two-tiered than the old O-level/CSE divide than one in which the alternative has no element of external assessment.
Exams by themselves are also a notoriously unreliable way of assessing an individual pupil’s progress. Experts at the Institute for Education estimated that Key Stage 2 and 3 tests misclassify around 30-40 per cent of pupils – and that to reduce that to 10 per cent, key stage tests would have to be over thirty hours long. So it would be impossible to design a single three-hour paper that is can function as an accurate record of an individual’s achievement for pupils of all ability.
No surprise then that virtually nobody seems to be supporting these reforms – not businesses, teachers nor educational experts. Wheeling out a single head is no substitute for generating the type of consensus responsible governments should always seek to secure for significant reform.
What should Labour’s response be? Stephen Twigg was right to robustly oppose the reforms as he did yesterday. But if the coalition can’t rise above playing politics with our young people’s future, Labour must show it can. It must seek to build a wide-ranging consensus between the teaching profession, educationalists and business for its own 14-19 reforms as part of its policy review. Much work has been done in the past, so there is a rich back catalogue. But any reform should pay heed to some basic principles. First, both our academic and vocational qualifications must be fit for purpose – this must mean reform and consolidation of the current alphabet soup of vocational qualifications into a vocational ‘gold standard’ that can sit beside its A Level equivalent. Second, there should be robust functional qualifications in core skills like maths and writing that young people must do as a minimum before they leave full-time education in 18, regardless of the path they choose. Third, young people should be able to make a meaningful choice about what type of path they follow from an age younger than 16, but it should never be an irreversible one.
Sonia Sodha is head of policy and strategy at Dartington Social Research Unit, Dartington and tweets @soniasodha
Photo: Comedy Nose
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