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Joyful Scholarship

Our pupils are once again navigating the public and internal examination system with A Level and GCSE assessments in full swing, and summer exams for Years 8 to 10 either just completed or at the mid-point.

Last May, I wrote a blog post about anxiety in the context of examinations. This year I would like to reflect on why we need a new national assessment framework.

When you were looking for a school for your daughter, I am sure you came across a familiar message at admissions events – that the school was proud of its academic results, but that education is about so much more than examinations. I am sure you have listened to many Heads telling you how proud they were of the achievements of their pupils beyond the classroom.

The messages are so commonplace that they can lose their edge, but they point to an uncomfortable truth about our education system. That far too many school leaders are unhappy with the status quo of assessment in England. They find it narrow, restrictive, old-fashioned and, for some pupils, oppressive. In schools, we do not even make students sit assessments using the media of the 21st century. Exam boards are only just starting to run pilots of online examinations.

Every reform of assessment starts with good intentions. When I first started teaching in the early millennium, Curriculum 2000 introduced the AS Level to add a fourth subject to Sixth Form study, at least for Lower Sixth. Students sat modular AS examinations at the end of Lower Sixth. They could also do qualifications called AEAs or Advanced Extension Awards, which provided stretch at the top end of the ability profile. The good intentions behind the AS system were that of greater curriculum breadth, as well as a desire for students not to spend their Lower Sixth lolling around in the common room…

In 2015, as part of Michael Gove’s reforms during his tenure as Education Secretary, he reversed many of the decisions made 15 years previously. A Levels and GCSEs were based on ‘terminal’ assessment – for most subjects a full suite of written examinations at the end of a two-year course. Coursework was stripped back, January modules were removed, and syllabus content was increased. The good intentions behind the Govian reforms were greater intellectual rigour and stretch at the top end (witness also the introduction of the top Grade 9 at GCSE), as well as demanding academic syllabuses designed in collaboration with universities.

But the path to examination hell is paved with many good intentions and the cries for reform have grown louder in the wake of the pandemic. A wide-ranging national survey of different stakeholders (pupils, parents, teachers, employers) conducted by the HMC Working Group Reforming Assessment found that 97% of respondents wanted change. Depressingly, significant numbers felt that what schools did well was to prepare students for exams.

Those of us who support reform want to see more creative ways of assessing young people at the heart of the national assessment framework. We want assessments that better reflect the skills that young people will need in the workplace (unlikely to be the handwritten regurgitation of facts over compressed segments of time): digital portfolios, ‘viva voce’ assessments or presentations. Scientific research in today’s interconnected global world requires collaborative research skills. Why is it beyond us to design collaborative assessment tasks? We manage this in Drama. Is it beyond us to do this in Science or Geography or Economics? Why are we terrified of AI plagiarising assessment? We should instead be designing assessments that involve students interacting with AI.

The problem with all these ideas, of course, is that of objective measurement. You risk coming up with vanilla skills matrices that are highly subjective and open to challenge; in the eyes of bodies like Ofqual (the exams regulator) that simply will not do. But we have this issue anyway. As Dennis Sherwood, an expert on assessment and author of Missing the Mark, has demonstrated, up to half of grades awarded in some subjects could have been a different grade. They might be a B but they could equally well have been an A or a C depending on the examiner. This tends to be an issue in Humanities and Creative subjects where there is rarely one right answer. So, if the problem already exists, why do we persist in using whole suites of terminal written closed-book examinations on the grounds that they provide objective ‘proof’ of achievement? Our GCSE students may sit close to 30 written examinations – a veritable battery of assessments.

A tiny number of independent schools have jettisoned all but essential GCSEs and written their own courses instead. I could count them on one hand. It is a relatively untested strategy when your students come to apply to university, and university entry is competitive enough without taking gambles like this. You also need to ensure that you devote sufficient resource to curriculum design. Writing a new curriculum is months and months of work. In Sixth Form, for the main ‘bread and butter’ of your curriculum, you have to offer qualifications which are recognised by universities.

Assessment reform is going to take a long time to reach us. In many educational quarters, still reeling from the pandemic and now engaged in a battle with the Education Secretary, there is little time to start training teachers up to teach within a radically different assessment framework. So, what do we do in the meantime? That is one of the great opportunities of being a selective, independent school. We do not have to follow the National Curriculum in Years 7 to 9 and can select material we think will best inspire our pupils. We can teach a cohort that is capable enough to be taken off syllabus and not to need a ‘GCSE bitesize’ approach to teaching.

Our pupils can focus in on exam technique, but they can also zoom out to much more expansive and inspiring learning – joyful scholarship.

We can take them off timetable for trips or enrichment activities without everyone panicking that this will lead to a nosedive in academic results. We have more time (though not as much as we would like) to set ambitious creative and scholarly projects, though the GCSE years are especially tight for time due to the often huge syllabuses teachers have to deliver. But it would be amazing if one day we could say that the education we deliver is at least in part because of an inspiring national assessment framework and not in spite of it. Here’s hoping.

Blog post by Vicky Bingham, Headmistress from 2017 to 2023.  

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