Opinion: The need for positive engagement on the school exam system

The media are premature in supposing that the Liberal Democrats will divide the Coalition by blocking changes to the school exam system. I hope that Conference will provide the opportunity for discussion of the exam system and that positive engagement will produce something far better than Gove’s initial outline proposals suggest.

Liberal Democrats should welcome the proposal for a reduction in the number of exam boards and call for them to be independent of commercial organisations such as text book publishers. We should call for a better balance of experienced teachers, educationalists and subject specialists, from universities or industry, on subject boards.

On the exams themselves, Nick Clegg said “I’m not in favour of anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrapheap. What you want is an exam system which is fit for the future”. What he did not say was that the present system was not in need of reform. Nor did he say that that the Lib Dems would not want the help shape reform.

Michael Gove has highlighted some of the problems with the current examination system and made an attempt at addressing them. Few would disagree with the diagnosis, but the crudely expressed initial ideas for reform show little understanding of the complexities of designing a system which allows all to develop their potential. Much needs to be done to turn the proposals into a system which meets the challenges. I doubt if even Michael Gove thinks he already has the solution, in quite the way the media suggest.

The media should encourage positive engagement to produce a system that is fit for purpose, rather than trying to build it up as an issue to split the Coalition.

Gove said “We want a curriculum that prepares all children for success at 16 and beyond, by broadening what is taught in our schools and in improving how it is assessed”. Providing differently for different aptitudes is essential.

Those in the media should be helping us get away from the idea that all qualifications have to be dressed up as academic qualifications to make them of value, rather than reinforcing the assumption that non-academic courses are inferior.

We should welcome the replacement of an examination system which gives low grade scores to those whose aptitudes are not academic, with one which gives positive acknowledgement to non-academic skills.

Lib Dems should resist the call for more rote learning in academic subjects and insist on examinations which encourage an understanding of the basic language and principles of each subject.

* Steve Bolter is a parish councillor and retired further education teacher. He is a former district councillor and PPC.

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13 Comments

  • I wasn’t aware of any suggestion from Gove or elsewhere to reduce the number of exam boards?

  • Helen Tedcastle 25th Jun '12 - 5:51pm

    @ Steve Bolter: ‘Those in the media should be helping us get away from the idea that all qualifications have to be dressed up as academic qualifications to make them of value, rather than reinforcing the assumption that non-academic courses are inferior. ‘

    A very thoughtful piece which calls, in essence, for a dialogical engagement on education reform rather than a confrontational one. I welcome that approach and it is one that Liberal Democrats have called on for decades.

    I too favour reform not revolution or a blood-curdling call to arms.

    On the first statement quoted above.: Are you sure it is the media that should be helping us get away from the idea that an academic qualifications are the be all and end all? I rather get the strong impression that this assumption lies behind much of Gove’s thinking – he has not disabused the media of this ‘hare’ but set it running.

    ‘We should welcome the replacement of an examination system which gives low grade scores to those whose aptitudes are not academic, with one which gives positive acknowledgement to non-academic skills. ‘

    To ensure real parity of esteem, we should put our own policies on education to Gove – a General Diploma to be received by every child not dependent upon achievement of an academic EBacc but by various routes. High status can be achieved by various means, while ensuring rigour and high standards.

    ‘Lib Dems should resist the call for more rote learning in academic subjects and insist on examinations which encourage an understanding of the basic language and principles of each subject.’

    I totally agree. To insist on rote-learning is unnecessarily prescriptive. To insist on a certain prescribed suite of subjects to be taken in addition to the absolute core of scaffold subjects (maths, English, Science, a modern language) is, I maintain, arbitrary, partial and prescriptive; and should be resisted by Liberal Democrats in Government. It is not part of a balanced scorecard.

  • Alan Muhammed Alan Muhammed 25th Jun '12 - 8:15pm

    Steve. You used to live next door! How are you?!

  • Toby MacDonnell 25th Jun '12 - 8:30pm

    I concur wholeheartedly with “encourag(ing) an understanding of the basic language and principles of each subject”.

    But as a muse, I’d like to point out the a liberal education used to be derived from the education of a free man: a man versed in the fundemental subjects of citizenship, who could then go on to whatever profession he liked

    I say that core qualifcations should be the arts, sciences and humanties, and that we should get rid of “vocational” qualifcations altogether in favour of greater partnerships between schools and local trades and professions so that children can genuinely pursue a vocation rather than be forced into a pigeon hole.

    The tools of citizenship provide everyone with the cultural capital required to persue their goal in life, be that bricklaying, accountancy, or theatre: that means knowledge of the structures of civic life and the range of ideas surrounding them. Professional skills come from a whole other kind of education built around aprenticeship, practice, and networking which cannot be taught over formalised classrooms or graded by over-formalised exams.

  • Correction to editing of my profile. I have been County Council candidate not a PCC.

    To Helen Yes Gove’s view is that non-academic subjects are inferior, which is why we should be getting the media to support us, rather than follow Gove’s lead

    To Toby I agree that there is much that there is much that cannot be taught in over-formalised classrooms and much that cannot be graded by examination. However were we to educate engineers and doctors solely by non classroom methods, it would take a very long time.

    To both I am pleased to receive such positive engagement. At a meeting on Monday evening, there was hostility toany reform of GCSE.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jun '12 - 2:57pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    ‘Lib Dems should resist the call for more rote learning in academic subjects and insist on examinations which encourage an understanding of the basic language and principles of each subject.’

    Yes, as a university teacher my experience is that one of the biggest barriers to learning is confusing it with memorisation. The worst thing is coming across so many students who have come so far on this basis, but when they get to us they are stuck. Suddenly they find the techniques that served them so well in the past don’t work. Worst still, they don’t know any other way to work. I really can confirm this – every year I mark large numbers of undergraduate exam papers where the students have clearly memorised big chunks of the notes without understanding them, reproduce them tied up with waffle, and then fail badly. During term I say it until I think the students must be bored with it “Don’t memorise , instead understand – it’s easier in the long run to understand, as well as the only way to get decent marks”. Yet still at the end of term I will get students who point to examples which were given to illustrate principles and say “Are we supposed to memorise that?”. It’s got to the point where sometimes I have to say “I’m really sorry about the British education system you’ve gone through, but please, just forget those exam techniques they taught you, they won’t work now”. I mean this – when I mark students down for waffle and ask them why on earth they wrote that, they tell me “That’s what we were taught to do in schools, answer exam questions by writing any old stuff so long as it includes enough keywords”. I suppose that worked when assessment was “count the number of keywords in the answer and give a mark for each”.

    That is why I am so against much of what was called “vocational qualifications” because the reality is that too much of their assessment was based on just this sort of thing – memorising definitions of keywords. Sadly, too many politicians and educators who ought to have known better didn’t see through this, and because the words and definitions memorised looked awfully impressive and oh-so-modern (actually I have seen ICT curriculum which includes material that was considered outdated when I took my Computer Science degree over 30 years ago), supposed it must all be very clever stuff.

  • Toby MacDonnell 26th Jun '12 - 7:15pm

    Hear hear, Matthew.

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th Jun '12 - 8:40pm

    Matthew Huntbach:

    ‘…every year I mark large numbers of undergraduate exam papers where the students have clearly memorised big chunks of the notes without understanding them, reproduce them tied up with waffle, and then fail badly.’

    Matthew – are you describing first year undergraduates or third year ones? If they are first year undergraduates, surely it is not too unusual to assume that these students will not be be the finished article?

    The assumption behind your response seems to be, that by the time they have done a year at university, students still rely on their A level techniques. I am a little surprised, seeing as , to give an ancient example from the 1980s, in the very first term at my university, we were given a booklet on expectations and essay-writing – it was made very clear what was expected.

    Can you really blame schools for something which goes on a full academic year or more at university level?

    Another point – in the Humanities – my area – our A level students were not taught by key words alone, although for literacy reasons, these would be flagged up. More importantly, was the ability to compose a sustained piece of writing, essay technique, knowledge, understanding and evaluation. Perhaps in your subject, (which seems to have more in common with Mathematics), there is an issue with essay technique but I think it would be unfair to draw wider conclusions about all sixth form teaching from this.

    I don’t think fostering or fuelling a blame culture is helpful in the issue of educational reform.

    We should leave that to the Tories – they do it masterfully.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jun '12 - 10:38am

    Helen Tedcastle

    Matthew – are you describing first year undergraduates or third year ones? If they are first year undergraduates, surely it is not too unusual to assume that these students will not be be the finished article?

    Actually my recent undergraduate teaching has all been to second years, although I also teach Masters students and I see it there as well.

    I’m not blaming teachers here – when you are under so much league table pressure, with well known Liberal Democrats also supporting the idea of sacking any teacher on the basis of crude exam performance metrics, of course you are going to seek the easy way out and push your students down the “exam techniques” route.

    Essay technique is a big problem when we have to recruit students from a humanities background due to there being insufficient with Maths/Science A-levels and also a government which is pushing even harder the league table idea that means you are forced to accept the students with the highest number of UCAS points regardless of suitability and subject (the AAB thing is a DISASTER since I know full well a student with a C in A-level Maths will perform much better than a student with AAB in ICT/Business Studies/Media Studies, but now we forced thanks to the new funding regime to take the latter rather than the former). Essentially, I don’t WANT essay technique, I want short precise technical answers.

    Now actually, of course essays are appropriate in their place, so I don’t really mean to condemn all humanities education. My ideal student when I was the admissions tutor was always someone who had Maths, a Science and a good strong traditional humanities A-level. What I want is an understanding of appropriate types of writing for appropriate domains. There does seem to be a gap somewhere where students fail to learn good technical writing skills and so use styles of writing which they are taught to use in humanities subjects inappropriately in technical situations.

    The point I am trying to make is that if students have spent their entire school career being taught memorisation-based “exam techniques”, it’s very hard to shake them out of that. Also, there seems to be a very strong cultural assumption that exams, at university level as much as school level, are memory tests. Look at things like “Guide to University Life” stuff the papers print in later summer. See how this sort of thing almost always goes on and on about essay writing and exams as memory tests, and hardly mentions the idea that some students will be spending their time in labs rather than writing essays, and NEVER gives hints and techniques for dealing with mathematics exams or similar. You will generally find the “Guide to University Life” supplements the posh papers carry are written on the basis that all students are doing humanities subjects, and the example students they feature barely feature anyone doing scientific, engineering or mathematical subjects. This is to a large extent down to the fact that there are almost no journalists who come from a science/engineering/maths background.

  • Toby MacDonnell 27th Jun '12 - 2:47pm

    Matthew: What do you make of the IB Diploma? Do you have a preference besides A Levels?

  • As an FE lecturer, some of my classes comprised mainly students doing a repeat year, having failed to obtain good enough grades at at school.
    Early in each year many students were alarmed that I was not using the rote learning methods that had been used at school, even though those methods had failed them. However the majority soon accepted how much easier learning for understanding approach made things. The change enabled some who had been considered dim at school to prove themselves to be really bright.

    An exam that can passed by rote learning without understanding is not fit for the purpose of measuring suitability for real world roles. I believe such exams needs to be overhauled.

    One great problem is that chief examiners at GCSE and A level are more concerned about consistency of marking between examiners, than accuracy of marking as a reflection of ability. Hence mark schemes which give marks for keywords, regardless of whether they are used in a way that answers the question. Giving marks for good physics that did not contains keywords and not giving marks for complete nonsense even if it contained keywords, makes assistant examiners unpopular with chief examiners.

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