January often has a surreal feel, and on the day of Bowie’s death we were thinking about the drains. Head of History turned up apologetically in spotted wellies after forgetting to put shoes in her bag: the best dressed amongst us, as it happened. To mark the man we played a few hits over the tannoy at lesson changes on Monday. Fair to say that more staff sang along than students but lots of parents got to talk about their youth under the guise of explaining the man’s artistry, creativity, independence.
I was never an obsessive, but you can’t avoid memories. Standing at the bus stop in 1973 we talked to an older girl who someone else knew, with a painting of Ziggy Stardust on her rucksack lid.
The distance between my school days and how schools think now is like infinite space. In the 70s most of us looked on exams and assessment as a god-awful small affair, hoping that a bit of work at the end, aptitude, native wit and a winning smile would see us into adult life. I was pretty vague about revision. We got our O level results by post and I can still see the envelope as it wetly arrived on a campsite in Wales containing what could be charitably described as mixed news.
We had an envelope day this week. Year 11 mock results given out a bit like the real thing, in the hall. Tears for fears, praise and blame, now let’s go and talk about what it means. Some want teachers to open the envelope for them. I overheard a friend offering advice ‘You’ll have done more work than that in the summer, though, won’t you?’ The cheesy staging of the event has an effect.
Yet the exams that we practice are more like the 70s now than people realize. We use the supporting structures that we’ve developed over recent years when we were clear about assessment and grade boundaries, and what examiners are looking for, when we make predictions and divide up our young people according to the help they need. The trouble is that the goalposts have moved and are set to move every year until 2019 when proposed national benchmark tests bear fruit. GCSE results are a zero-sum game now where a school can only improve if another declines. The old numbers mean nothing. Grades are changing, the papers are harder and schools must plot in the new territory. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but we never have a year when we don’t have young people taking the things so we can’t experiment in the lab before it really matters to someone.
Talking with Professor Michael Young of the Institute this week we chewed this over. Having booted the knowledge debate into the centre of the park in 2009 he argues that instruments of accountability (results) don’t define the educational goals of a school and that ‘satisfying efficiency criteria’ is not an end in itself.
At its worst, this leads a school to focus on being efficient in terms of outcome criteria but neglecting the educational purposes that such outcomes should assume.
It’s hard to argue but hard to agree: if I say that the results are not the whole story I’m accused of low aspirations. If I say that results define the school I’m accused of neglecting the whole child. If I enforce the EBacc do I rob children of valuable creative experiences? If I don’t, do I leave them ill equipped to compete in an unfair and poorly-defined future?
The EBacc ‘consultation’ ends this month. The GCSE reforms will take another three years. Nearly a thousand young people will have passed through our year 11 alone in that time and we’ll be advising them on the hoof. None of them is remotely interested in the sailors fighting on the dance floor of the House of Commons: every single one of them wants only to be an adult and make his or her own contribution to the world.
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their world
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.