‘The Terror’ of exam-driven assessment

How my daughter’s silence woke me up to the need for educational reform

My children have always hated asking me for help with schoolwork, so I was delighted when my daughter came to me with her assignment on the French Revolution. Treading carefully, I asked her about her question on ‘The Terror’. She proceeded to describe in impressive detail the difference between the criteria for two particular grades. I gently asked her again to tell me about ‘The Terror’ itself. I was met with bewildered silence.

She had a good teacher, went to a good school, and was on track for ‘success’. But her education had come to be defined disproportionately by the acquisition of grades. It was at this moment that I knew that our system had lost its way.

The reasons for this in both State and Independent sectors are well-rehearsed. Heads and governing bodies need to produce the grades for league tables and the emphasis in inspections on exam outcomes. Teachers need to produce the grades for performance-related pay, concerns about parent backlash, and fear of capability procedures. Students need to produce the grades to keep up with everyone else. The system is well-intentioned to ‘lever up’ standards but ends up placing school before student interests and hollows out the educational experience.

As the head of a ‘successful’ inner-city London school, I was a fully signed up member of this system. Watching other local schools cycle through low results, poor Ofsted grades, declining numbers and takeover by Academy chains, I knew our survival depended on exam outcomes. Whilst never countenancing practices such as off-rolling or courses that had dubious educational value, every ounce of effort was focused on grades. Realising that I was part of a system at odds with my own principles, I finally found kindred spirits in an independent school committed to holistic education – only to find the sector as a whole was subject to virtually the same drivers.

Reconnecting with the true purpose of education

So how can we now return our education system to its true purpose?

First, we have to have the courage to ask what education is for. What do we as a society want for young people at the end of 13 years of schooling?

Second, we have to design a curriculum that embodies this purpose, and put together an assessment regime that supports this. The role of assessment is both to judge standards and support future learning. It should be the servant of the learning process but it has become its master. It cannot remain the tail that wags the educational dog.

Third, we need everybody to value education beyond exam grades. They have a role but their limitations need to be understood. Politicians and parents, teachers and students, Inspectors and Heads need the courage and imagination to recognise a much greater range of qualities, attributes, skills, knowledge and understanding. It is wrong that schools are judged by these narrow and unreliable indicators. It is worse that young people define their self-worth by their envelope on results day.

The need for structural change

We know that we are reasonably effective at mitigating the worst impacts of the system, but structural change is needed for a more authentic educational experience. We are starting by transforming our curriculum in year 6 to 8 so that it is not an ante-chamber for GCSEs but is led by student needs and educational purpose. The curriculum draws on best practices from around the world, rigorously developing core skills within a creative inter-disciplinary framework in projects such as creating musical instruments, game design and environmental advocacy.  Assessment includes learning journals, self, peer, and teacher checkpoints, and public exhibitions presented to expert audiences.  Accountability is primarily to our students, our parents and ourselves.

But what should happen between Year 9 and 11? These are the most constrained years of schooling where the ‘mutant system’ exerts its stranglehold. Do we follow the path of Bedales and introduce new courses alongside core GCSEs which integrate disciplines, encourage collaboration, and which are assessed creatively? Or do we start from scratch with a new curriculum which prepares our students for a world in which assessment is via on-line portfolios and US-style transcripts? What we do know is that our pupils graduating into year nine are going to need something more stimulating, stretching and empowering than the current set of sterile GCSEs.

The pandemic has given everyone pause for thought. There is an opportunity to get our system back on track by ditching the unnecessarily stressful, highly flawed GCSE merry-go-round that has (perhaps) unintentionally evolved over the last decade. And if we can seize this moment, then I am optimistic that future generations will learn so much more when it is their turn to study the French Revolution.

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