Just Great Teaching: Exams and Selection

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Exams and Selection


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How can we reshape examination and assessment post-2020?

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, every country faces the challenge of ‘what to do with their pupils’ who were due to sit summer examinations this academic year…

Teacher assessment is back in vogue

In England, Ofqual, The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation announced that schools are instructed to provide a grade for each pupil which reflects a “fair, reasonable and carefully considered judgement” of their most likely grade had they “sat their exams this summer and completed any non-exam assessment.”

Why have we waited until now to improve the accuracy of predicted grades?

This is a great question posed by Dr. Gill Wyness for UCL. The UK’s system of university applications has the peculiar feature that students apply to university on the basis of predicted rather than actual exam grades. They then sit their examinations… Moreover, teachers may be using predictions as an incentive, a target for students to try and meet, rather than as a true picture of their ability.

Wyness goes on to write: “We might actually end up with a fairer system than the one we have been using for the last 50 years. Which begs the question: Why have we waited until now to improve the accuracy of predicted grades?”

Most people I speak to working in British schools just want stability. They’ve had enough of curriculum changes, new accountability, funding cuts and a general sense of moving goalposts on a skewed playing field. The bad news is that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.

There are big pressures for change within the system. The demographic bulge coming through from primary into secondary schools puts increasing pressure on the need to recruit more teachers, especially in subjects like maths and physics. Schools with no specialists in those key areas are starting to become more common. Can we continue with the obsession with academic subject siloes without the teachers to deliver them?

Pupil and teacher mental health

The pressures on teacher workload are widely acknowledged. Recent surveying for the OECD TALIS report suggests the working hours of teachers in England are the worst in Europe and not because of long hours in the classroom. Teachers are not the only ones feeling the pressure. Young people are finding childhood increasingly difficult with significant rises in mental health problems as a result. This is for many complex reasons, but schools are the one universal children’s service and need to be able to respond.

Qualifications as a proxy for skills

These internal pressures for change are being matched by some huge consequences from outside education. With acute talent shortages and a need for more diversity of thinking, employers are using analytic tools to improve their recruitment. These tools allow them to see what people can do more directly than a certificate. They are therefore devaluing qualifications as a proxy for skills and moving on from using CVs to sift candidates.

This trend has consequences for universities. Student finance in England means graduates leaving with effective rates of taxation at 48 per cent. Students want change and if their qualifications are increasingly devalued in the jobs market then they will opt for apprenticeships instead. Earning whilst learning has an attractive ring to it.

Selection is deep-rooted within education

Schools have been assisting universities with selection for years. Our qualifications are designed to help admissions tutors and prepare students for onward study. Our curriculum reflects the qualifications and our pedagogy reflects the curriculum. If ambitious students cease to value the university experience, they will cease to value their school experience too.

The school systems in the UK are not sustainable and must change.

The curriculum changes in Scotland are a good start and the Welsh changes look even more promising, but I am yet to see evidence of any British jurisdiction with a wholesale vision for a new paradigm for whole-life education. In amongst these dynamic forces, teachers need to be able to connect with their vocation and continue to help children realise their talents to lead fulfilling lives.

Coronavirus gives the UK a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how we do everything in education. We’d be foolish not to take this opportunity to rethink exams, work-life balance and accountability to benefit our parents, our pupils and the hard work of our teachers…

The above is an extract by Lord Jim Knight, from my new book, Just Great Teaching.

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