Halting the reform rollercoaster

Widespread reforms are being proposed so rapidly that we may well be losing sight of what really matters in our education system says Brian Lightman.

Education reforms are being proposed thick and fastThroughout the last year, our examination system has been under more intense scrutiny than at any time I can remember. Every single aspect has been subject to radical proposals for reform, many of which have been announced incrementally and with a highly challenging timetable for implementation. But is this focus on examinations the right one? I would argue that the time and energy being expended on this work is actually distracting us from the real task in hand, namely that of ensuring that our education service is fit to meet the global, economic and social challenges we are facing.

That is not to deny that there is a legitimate case for reviewing the effectiveness of our examination system and trying to improve it further. Many of the arguments for change are based on the perceived need for increased rigour and normally focus on the top end of achievement. Thus, a case is put forward to make GCSE more stretching for the most able and at A-level to increase the amount of content which prepares students directly for university study. All of these are valid points which could relatively easily be incorporated into the current system.

But the real problem is this: changes have been proposed to our examination system before a clear policy had been established about the curriculum and the outcomes we need young people to achieve.

There is still great uncertainty and controversy over the outcome of the current consultation about the National Curriculum proposals. As we do not know what will replace achievement levels, which are apparently going to be abolished, there are enormous questions about how progress will be assessed. And, as some 50 per cent of secondary schools are now academies and will therefore be exempt from the National Curriculum, the only constant in the curriculum will be the qualifications system and the choice of performance indicators the government chooses to focus upon.

I feel like shouting ‘stop!’ Instead of this frenetic activity, professionals, stakeholders and policymakers need to sit down together and set out what the outcomes of compulsory education should be.

 Here are some suggestions to frame that discussion:

  • If there is general agreement that there should be a basic entitlement for every learner, then it must apply to all schools and it must be agreed and clearly defined. We should not be trying to drive the curriculum by means of our examination system. Rather, exams should be left well alone until the national curriculum review and ensuing consultation have been completed.
  • Employers should be actively engaged in the discussion, along with schools and colleges, about employers’ needs and how they can be met. The CBI report ‘First Steps’ has made a seminal contribution to this debate setting out a strong case for the ‘development of a clear, widely-owned and stable statement of the outcome that all schools are asked to deliver’. We must get away from the polarised debate about skills versus knowledge and recognise the full range of employability skills that need to be at the heart of the learning process for all young people.  That report goes a long way towards defining those and gives a timely warning about the damaging effects of a hyperaccountability regime which drives curriculum content.
  • We need to build robust, valid and reliable assessment into the teaching process. Britain, more than almost any other country, has traditionally relied on external assessment and put far less effort into training teachers to develop high order skills in this area.
  • We need to create versatile learners who can apply a wide range of transferable skills combined with a solitary knowledge base in order to address complex problems with confidence.

In a profoundly relevant paper, Michael Fullan wrote about the risks of focusing on the wrong drivers for whole system reform. He argued that exaggerated use of accountability levers like test results and teacher performance to reward or punish schools, rather than capacity building and systemic solutions, actually undermines efforts to improve our education system and fails to address the cultural issues that are the true key to reform. As long as we continue to let the examinations tail wag the curriculum dog, I fear we will not achieve the world-class education system that we all desire.

Brian Lightman is General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

  1. Fullan, M. (2011). Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform, Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria. Seminar series paper no 204, April 2011.  Retrieved 26 February 2013.

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