School leaders booing the Education Secretary is hardly headline news. But applause? That’s a different matter.
When Damian Hinds promised head teachers this weekend there would be no further changes to exams or the curriculum during this Parliament, his words were warmly received. Teachers, he said, are leaving the profession because they feel overworked. Racing to keep up with top-down reforms contributes to that.
But, speaking as a former teacher and a student of educational leadership, I found his speech to the Association of School and College Leaders utterly uninspiring. Is this really the best leadership we can hope for: doing nothing? Standing still and hoping for the best?
The way we do national assessment needs a radical re-think. But if I could make only one change, I would abolish GCSEs.
The case against GCSEs is pretty simple: they were designed for a time when roughly half of students left education at 16. Clearly, students exiting the system need some certification. But now that most students stay on to 18, and spend at least two years preparing for their GCSEs, more than half of their secondary schooling is spent preparing for exams.
Our education system is still geared towards university as a ‘natural’ endpoint, however unsuitable that is for large numbers of students. A levels are (or are supposed to be) the first year of university. But what is the point of GCSEs?
As Peter Mortimore explains in his case for radical reform Education Under Siege, GCSEs are blunt tools for dividing young people into ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic.’ Fine, you might say; people do fall into those categories. There is a case for compulsory testing earlier in secondary education. But 16 is too late to be labelling someone ‘non-academic’ when (a) their education up to that point has prioritised academic success above all else, and (b) the alternative — vocational education — is an incoherent mush of practical and academic elements.
This affects what teachers teach — and what they don’t teach. Teaching to the test is endemic and does long-term damage to students’ attitude to learning at sixth form and beyond. I have seen students cling to basic learning strategies of rote and recall throughout sixth form, and who thus fail to replicate their GCSE success at A level.
When figures like the head of the CBI say that ‘rote learning’ doesn’t prepare students for ‘future learning’ — the ability to reflect critically on how they learn — this is what they mean. We teach young people how to pass exams but we don’t teach them how to learn.
When I interviewed teachers and school leaders in inner-London schools for academic research (Contemporary Educational Leadership, forthcoming), they reported feeling drained by the joyless atmosphere inculcated by exam stress. It reminded me that the crisis of teacher recruitment and retention is not about the amount of change or work per se. It’s about whether or not teachers feel that the effort they put in will make any difference. With real-terms school budget cuts and an exams system that writes off many vulnerable young people every year, that kind of optimism is getting harder to sustain.
Pausing with ill-advised reforms is of course welcome. But let’s not oppose any further changes to exams on the basis that change is disruptive. There’s much that needs changing to improve young people’s life chances — scrapping GCSEs would be a good start.