Education for Children not Government

“Politicians are terrified of U-turns. They look indecisive” I wrote two months ago.

The sound of screeching tyres accompanied last week’s handbrake turn. Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson were adamant that Ofqual’s algorithm was “robust”. Until they suddenly declared it was all Ofqual’s fault. I wonder what grade our school leavers, parents and teachers would give this indecisive government.

This fiasco started in March. Ministers gave an explicit instruction that the number one priority was to avoid “grade inflation”. That’s why the algorithm worked the way it did.

The result? Kids from state schools in poor areas were downgraded. Not one pupil from Eton had their results downgraded. Because BAME communities are disproportionately poor, Ofqual’s model hammered black pupils’ results. This is not abstract. If you’re from a poor background, downgraded results can tank your future. These kids don’t have the connections and financial support to find an alternative way onto the career ladder. You don’t see kids from poor areas taking unpaid internships. So much for levelling up.

There is more to this than simple incompetence. The government’s policy-making is based on an exam system designed for the wrong purpose.

Many educators now refer to the “tyranny of testing”. A culture of relentless exams, spurious league tables and artificial competition between schools. Schools pressured to become exam-factories. The typical English child undergoes more than 70 tests in a school career. Way more than the rest of the industrial world.

When I ask employers how do they choose one young person over another, the answers are always the same. A youngster who can make eye contact in an interview. Who comes across as confident. Who demonstrates independent thought.

So why have exams at all? The medieval Chinese civil service introduced them to separate nepotism from competence. The British Empire needed a cohort of educated chaps to administer everywhere from Canada to India. Standardised handwriting and quick mental arithmetic were essential. It even allowed for a degree of social mobility. As long as you knew the LBW rule.

Standardised testing, then, is not a form of education. It is a form of selection. So we can rank young people, and say who is more worthy of advancement. Is it really that far from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where alphas have a different life trajectory from deltas?

Exams do have a benefit when they are diagnostic. They’re fast and efficient ways of telling a teacher what the gaps are in a student’s knowledge. Like any diagnosis, it must be followed up with treatment. Researcher John Hattie found that exams at the start of a course produce much better education than testing students at the end. By then it’s too late to do anything about it. Check out his Ted Talk on YouTube: Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful?

Education should focus on raising ability, not ranking kids and schools against each other. Competitive education misses the point. How many jobs in a workplace are competitive? Sharing your work with your colleagues good practice. What use is a footballer who can’t pass the ball to a teammate?

John Hattie did a massive study of different education polices. The policy that made the most difference to educational outcomes? Supporting teachers to work together collaboratively. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Skilled professionals, working together, is the bedrock of all progress. This is the foundation of the North of Tyne Joint School Improvement strategy.

Our Education Challenge is going through the Department for Education right now. We’re seeking £10 million a year to improve our kids’ education. We want to raise professional standards by supporting teachers and schools, not pitting them against each other. We’ll be able to put resources into supporting families to get kids “school ready”. We’ll look after their mental wellbeing throughout their school years, giving everyone immediate access to counselling.

Teachers want to do more than “teach to the test”. It’s about time education served the needs of our children, not our government.

First published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 24th Aug 2020.