Head’s Blog –
‘The Terror’ of exam-driven assessment

1st October 20

Robert Lobatto Head Shot 2019

As part of the Rethinking Assessment group, our Head, Robert, is helping to drive conversations around GCSE reform.

Rethinking Assessment is a group of state, independent and special schools, business people, academics and stakeholders, united in the desire to create something fairer and more fit for purpose than the current exam-driven system. Robert’s latest blog appears on their website alongside many other interesting and thoughtful pieces looking at different aspects of the exam system and ways it could be updated.

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

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

She had a good teacher (ironically to whom I taught A level history many years ago), 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, and 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 due to comparisons with others via league tables and the emphasis in Inspections (at least until very recently) on exam outcomes. Teachers need to produce the grades due to 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 running courses that had dubious educational value but ‘counted’, every ounce of effort was expended to get the grades. Coming to terms with the fact 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 almost as subject to these drivers as where I had come from.

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 a 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. It is unarguable that they have a role but their limitations need to be far better 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 so often judged by these narrow and often unreliable indicators. It is far worse that individual young people often end up defining their self-worth the moment they open their envelope on results day.

The need for structural change

Like others, we know that although we are reasonably effective at mitigating the worst impacts of the system, structural change is needed to create a more authentic educational experience. We are therefore starting by transforming our curriculum in year 6 to 8 so that it is not some ante-chamber for GCSEs but is fully led by student needs and renewed 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 takes many forms including learning journals, self, peer and teacher checkpoints, and public exhibitions presented to expert audiences. Accountability is primarily to our students, our parents and ourselves – with all knowing what we are aiming to achieve and are all driven in different ways to make it the best possible experience.

But what should then happen between Year 9 and 11? These are by far the most constrained years of schooling and where the ‘mutant system’ exerts its stranglehold most powerfully. Do we follow the path that schools such as Bedales have taken of introducing, alongside GCSEs in core subjects, new courses that integrate different areas of knowledge, encourage collaborative working, and which are assessed creatively? Or, do we go further as some others are proposing by recognising that in today’s world qualifications at 16 have a minimal role, and start from scratch with a new curriculum which prepares our students for the World they will inherit and where 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 introduced since 2015.

The pandemic has given everyone pause for thought. There is an opportunity to get our system back on track for our 14 to 16 year olds 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 than my daughter when it is their turn to study the French Revolution.

To read other blogs on this subject visit the Rethinking Assessment website.

Where Next?