It was the staircase that did for me on Thursday the 12th, the morning after the announcement that schools would close and the exams were cancelled. We had a mock GCSE Physics exam and proceeded as usual, corralled the youth into the dining room, instructed them about examiners’ wheezes and checked them for pens. Then we send them up to the sports hall in batches, a trip involving four sets of double doors, six sharp turns and two flights of stairs. Old folks position themselves on the stairs encouraging the youth to approach the exam hall in the zone, silently, thinking about physics or whatever tasty dish is on the menu.
I was on the half landing and frankly, unimpressed. I said to myself ‘This’ll have to improve before the real exams start’ until, as they say in the six counties, I caught myself on. This was it. There weren’t going to be any real exams. It was a miracle of muscle memory and instilled habits that they were walking quietly up the stairs at all. They’d never take Physics GCSE again. Or any other. What? How could that be? What vacuum were we about to enter (as the physicists say)?
For the record, I think the closing of schools and the necessary cancelling of exams was done well and briskly. It gave us just enough time to organise and to talk to year 11 and 13 in particular about their futures. It gave them the chance to see how adults have to mobilise rapidly and change quickly when crisis headbutts the door. At least, I hope that’s what they saw. We’d been doing Virus Q&A in assemblies and had y11 on Wednesday afternoon, two hours before the announcement. The first Q to Roberts was ‘What will happen about the exams?’. ‘Keep working!’ quoth I – ‘Exams will happen no matter what’. When I climbed onto a bench to address y11 the next day had to begin with ‘so you remember the question about the exams?’. They were kind enough to laugh.
Trusting in your skills, sir, to make sure the solution this year is fair and good, this break in the cycle could be a great opportunity to improve education. You’d probably welcome my advice. Are you sitting comfortably?
There are many things wrong with GCSE but the biggest is that it’s completely unnecessary. Until 1951 children who stayed at school past 14 got a School Certificate. That was replaced by GCEs in 1951 for those who stayed on until they were 16. The GCE pointed towards ‘matriculation’ or university entry. Indeed, the exam board AQA was, in my time, the Joint Matriculation Board of the northern redbrick universities. OCR was Oxford and Cambridge, Pearson the London Board. The blessed GCSE was born in 1988 of GCE O-levels and the CSE. They were both qualifications for further study or the job market at 16. A-levels remaining unchanged for nearly 70 years were designed to assess whether a tiny minority of young people were university-ready. We scaled them up but didn’t change their purpose.
May I pose three questions? The first is: why does everyone have to take an exam that is essentially a filter for university entry two years later, for a minority of students? The second is: If no one can leave school until they’re 18 why does everyone have to take an exam at 16? The third is about the forgotten third. What possible justification is there for an examination that a third of students have to fail?
You’ll be desperate to hear my solutions so here they are. First, we need to rethink what we want for young people and the nation. University is only one pathway and many, many (most?) jobs are better served by apprenticeships or on-the-job learning at 18. Not everything is examinable by examination. If we finally, formally decoupled most of our assessment system from its elitist past we might also put ourselves in a better position to seek the holy grail for English education, proper parity between academic and vocational strands. Second, we’d still need some kind of assessment because we swap a lot of students around at 16. This remains sensible because they’re old enough to make choices about their aims in life. They need a passport to the next stage. That should be a reliable, trustworthy and standardised set of grades with a particular focus on proficiency in English and maths. Third, that passport needs to be fair and to assess endeavour, not advantage. A child who works very hard but achieves proficiency slowly needs a qualification which tells the receiver what she can do, not what she can’t do.
The current system which officially uses the word ‘fail’ to describe the school careers of a third of children is not only wrong, but wicked. But my solution is rooted in something much, much bigger.
My passport at 16 would be assessed by teachers, the same teachers that taught the children. Why? Because they’re already there, thousands of skilled education assessors. How? Through assessment based on our current expertise, standardised through the National Reference Tests. These are maths and English tests that a selected sample of children take each year – Tallis did them in 2019. Teachers don’t see those tests or find out the results, but they’re designed to estimate the range of abilities present in a national year group. We have the data we need to do something completely different and much better.
It will require a leap of faith from some earthbound factions. Politicians and policy-makers will have to trust teachers. School leaders will have to trust teachers. Parents and students will have to trust teachers. All of them will have to understand that teachers have a particular skill in assessment that only fails when too much weight is put on it. That skill can easily bear the weight of a single child and it can stand firm under scrutiny, but it can’t be used to measure the success of a school. That needs to be done another way, by a properly funded expert inspectorate using serious longitudinal studies into what helps children learn and what doesn’t.
Teachers will be honest about assessment if school leaders let them, and if we all agree to lay down the petty rivalries that brought our system to its knees. We can hold each other to account using a nifty little tool that’s live in the system already, the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education. That requires school leaders to show selflessness, integrity, optimism, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It demands that we do it showing trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism. We could build a better system on a new level of professional trust.
Out of this terrible experience a better world might be born for our children. Future years might not equate education with exams and exams with failure. They might enjoy school a bit more and love learning for its own sake. We might train and keep more teachers. Keep an eye on this year, Mr Williamson and have the courage to think big. Sure, we’ll still need some exams at 18, but they’re big enough to walk up the stairs on their own then.
Yours ever, CR