24 November 2021

Spare us ‘progressive’ private schools trying to scrap GCSEs

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One odd side effect of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb’s traditionalist revolution in education has been the private schools sector becoming the bastion of ‘progressive’ thinking. Last week the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), an organisation which represents top public schools, launched an attack on GCSEs, and the curriculum which supports them. It follows a chorus of complaints about the exam system from other establishment figures, like former education secretary Lord Baker and Sir John Major.

HMC complain that education is about ‘much more than the acquisition of knowledge and learning skills’, it should also be about ‘the development of a wide range of attitudes…and values’. This sounds reasonable but we can’t assess attitudes and values, nor do we know how to teach them (and whose values anyway?). We can reliably assess what students know and what concrete skills they’ve acquired, and that’s it. Curricula can include more than just that which is assessed, but those bits will always get the most focus. If curricula get bogged down in complex descriptions of subjective attributes like creativity and tolerance, they will fail. We have seen this north of the border where Scotland’s ‘curriculum for excellence’ has led not to more rounded pupils, but ones who know less maths and English than previous cohorts.

The report is worth engaging with because the calls to scrap, or dramatically reform, exams are superficially attractive. After all, as the paper sets out, written tests seem awfully out of date in our technological world, and seem to ignore the importance of critical thinking and ethical values in a complex modern society. Moreover, a system fixated on sorting children into successes and failures can hardly help the mental health of young people.

Yet while these argument seem intuitive, they fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of assessment, and, thus, the risks of reform.

There are three core reasons to have formal exams. First to certificate young people’s achievements, which allows them to get jobs. Second, to set them on different pathways with provision suited to their interests and abilities. Third, to provide a benchmark of school quality. Each of these purposes requires that assessment be as reliable as possible. Grading that is overly subjective or discriminatory will harm students, especially those with parents who are not able to intervene on their behalf. From the schools perspective, erratic grading could mean the difference between the perception of success or failure.

You may argue, and HMC do, that these purposes of assessment are short-sighted and insufficient. As they put it, ‘Exams are more successful in serving the purposes of university selection and employers than in encouraging learner development or in motivating engagement in education’. But that’s their job! If we place too much importance on exams it’s not because of how they’re designed but because we have a labour market that prioritises educational qualifications, especially for the most desirable and high status roles.

Of course private schools know this full well, which is why most HMC members are highly academically selective themselves. It seems a touch hypocritical to raise concerns about the mental health impacts of GCSEs when you are putting much younger children through considerably harder high stakes tests. If they really are, as they claim, worried about the motivational impact of missing out on good GCSE grades, they should probably stop rejecting young people from their own institutions on the basis of academic performance.

Moreover, the top tier of private schools market themselves heavily as a route to accessing the best universities. This works because their parents correctly understand the importance of those qualifications for their own children. If the problem with our education system is that its overly focused on creating hierarchies of students, a view I have some sympathy for, then they should probably stop contributing to it by emphasising the value of that hierarchy at every opportunity.

Because if we take up their suggestions for reform while retaining our current labour market, and wider social obsession with qualifications, then we’d be looking at a social justice disaster. For instance, they propose ‘more flexible models of assessment that encourage and measure different attributes and skills. These might include… course work, presentations, reports, and research projects.’ These are all highly unreliable methods of assessment. But, as importantly, they are also very reliant on teacher assessment, which is extremely prone to stereotype biases that benefit those who fit conventional models of success. We have clear recent evidence of this. A group of LSE researchers found that young people with graduate parents were more likely to be upgraded by teachers during the Covid affected exam season of 2020, versus the algorithmic grade assigned by exam boards.

It may be overly cynical to note that private schools would, of course, benefit from this, as they did from the disappearance of GCSEs over the past two years. Standardised tests are, well, irritatingly standardised and harder to manipulate in the interests of your paying customers. But even if one takes the kinder view that these proposals, and other similar ones, are well meant it is still important to ask: who would these changes serve? Would society be fairer or more unjust without them? Who benefits?

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Sam Freedman is a Senior Adviser at Ark Schools and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.