Exam passes are not the same as education. League tables which evolved in the 1990s and the ‘results’ culture they engendered have a lot to answer for. But I detect a welcome whiff of change in the wind. In January of this year Amanda Spielman was appointed Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Services and Schools (snappy job title) to replace Michael Wilshaw.
By June she was firmly telling a conference in Berkshire that Ofsted would in future be looking very critically as schools whose ‘badges and stickers’ approach turns them into ‘exam factories’ rather than providers of a well rounded education. “We should be ashamed that we have let such behaviour persist for so long,” she declared.
Revolutionary stuff! If schools are, at last going to be judged more on Real Education than by counting Grade 9s or A*s then Ms Spielman gets three very loud cheers of approval from me.
Of course, we want our children to pass their exams – usually a stepping stone to the next stage of their chosen path. But the exam should simply be a full stop at the end of an interesting course. If the material has been taught and learned with enthusiasm then the exam, apart from a practice paper or two in the final run up to it, should take care of itself.
At present we have Year 10 students being presented with a list of ‘assessment objectives’ on day one and being shown how to tick the boxes to meet them. That’s cramming, not teaching. Where’s the infectious passion for the subject?
Then there’s the unhealthy obsession with grades. A journalist colleague told me the other day that her daughter cried, yes cried, because she ‘only’ got five As and five A*s in her GCSEs. The pernicious atmosphere in which these young people are force fed to produce exam results like Dordogne geese destined for foie gras, is causing many mental health problems.
It’s OK to fail – or at least to scrape in with a grade C or a 4. That’s life. And in a year or two it won’t matter in the least what your grades were. Contrary to what your exam factory might tell you when you’re 16, nobody in adult life will care whether your GCSE maths was a 9 or a 5 as long as they can see that you can do the job.
As a teacher, latterly in a very high performing school, I often counselled distressed students who hadn’t achieved the mark they hoped for. “Have you done your best?” I would ask. If the answer was yes I’d then say: “Well in that case, neither I, the school or your parents can ask any more of you. And you can live with yourself.”
If on the other hand the student admitted that she could have done more, then I’d advise her to rethink her work so that she wouldn’t look back regretfully in the future. And meanwhile keep singing in the choir and playing hockey because there’s more to all this than exams.
I think Ms Spielman and I would get on rather well. And she is in a position to make a real difference. Please assert your authority, Chief Inspector.