Dr Andy Howes, of the Manchester Institute of Education at The University of Manchester, discusses possible changes to the exam system, as discussed at an Education Select Committee meeting earlier this month.
The select committee is arguably a high point of democratic accountability within the Westminster system. The Education Select Committee earlier this month was prepared for their meeting with the Secretary of State for Education. They had sought advice and commentary from those representing teachers, subjects, employers, parents, schools and groups of schools, even young people, on a matter of some significance: the examination system 15-19. They had identified some key findings, not least on the issue of decoupling AS-levels from A-levels. This meets with pretty unanimous disapproval, they had discovered. Thus prepared, the committee gathered to question the Secretary of State for Education. The stage was set. The cameras were rolling.
But it is all too late. The direction of travel was established several years ago. If exam standards are the ‘best in the world’, then young people will be the ‘best in the world’. There are matters of detail which may be changed, but no arguments are going to shift the position of this government on the basic premise: as with the economy, the education system was broken when they came to office, and they are in power to fix it, through a change in assessment practice.
This particular element of the governments’ argument is perfectly in line with the cumulative wisdom of decades of educational research: high-stakes assessment practice is a very powerful determinant of the curricular experience of young people. What gets measured gets done, rather than vice versa, when schools are held to account for that measure. This is New Public Management, and it is no longer new. Witness the effects of PISA, and the university Research Excellence Framework, on activity in their respective domains. And it does not have to be like this.
To take this effect seriously is to reimagine the assessment system in much bolder terms. To enable this, we would arguably require a system in which the management of curriculum change is led by independent curriculum bodies, accountable to the government but mandated to design and plan for change based on evidence on a timescale that reaches beyond the short term political cycle. This was the position taken in the recent Royal Society ‘Vision for Science and Maths Education’ to which the Manchester Institute of Education contributed, a vision extending well beyond STEM education. The report proposes a reduction in the stakes associated with external examination results: ‘Trust teachers with an increased role in assessing student achievement, and ensure exams are not the only measure of a school’s performance’.
By contrast, the argument advanced by this government, repeated in this Select Committee session, amounts to changing the system with no evidence as to the likely effects. The brief is to end modular tests, and replace them with terminal examinations. Rather than constantly preparing for exams, it is argued, young people will then have time to develop deep understanding and knowledge, and the opportunity to demonstrate it. The Secretary of State is a believer: it is her belief that this will have the desired outcomes. Employers will stop complaining about the lack of preparedness of young people for the world of work, and universities will be happy with the knowledge and understanding that young people arrive with as they embark on degrees. With uninterrupted study for two years, we will arrive back at the land of lost content.
But the context has changed enormously since the grammar school days of the previous Secretary of State for Education. Most notably, studying and passing A-levels in 6th form is no longer a minority sport. In 1954, under 6% of the cohort passed one A-level or more. In 2004, nearly 40% passed two or more A-levels. Staying on rates to 6th form are nearly 90%. This is not simply more of the same young people – it is marked by massively increased diversity of socio-economic context. This difference in context means that the effects of returning to a previous system cannot be known in advance.
Evidence-informed decision making
The Secretary of State also believes in teachers, and listens to them. She repeats this many times. Teachers have the capacity to work with young people to take these new opportunities to the full, she believes, and we need many more such capable teachers. However, the capabilities of teachers and others working in the education system do not apparently extend to their professional judgement about the possible effects of the policy, and so while the government listens, it makes no response. It is the listening of an ear detached from the brain. AS-levels will remain decoupled from A-levels, despite representations from across the sector as to the likelihood of damaging consequences. In a rare rhetorical flourish at the climax of this select committee session, the urbane Graham Stuart is moved to exclaim from the chair: “Cambridge University could not be more vocal, or more cross, or more frequently in my office…!” The displeasure of this elite institution probably relates to the inconvenience of losing intermediate AS-level results as a basis on which to judge applications from English schools, while these results are still available to Scottish and Welsh pupils. But the point is much broader than this.
The point is, can we not design a system informed by evidence rather than contentious argument? Is education really so difficult to understand that we have to organise it with recourse to myth and anecdote? How do you know that these changes will have the effects you desire and believe? Rather than hoping that such questions might get a hearing from a busy secretary of state, I would argue that we need to get behind proposals for decoupling educational policy from party political process. The select committee system has been good at forcing ministers to learn from a crisis, but on this evidence, our high point of democratic accountability is insufficient to insist on evidence-informed decision making.