High grades or the whole child: a false choice

Friday 13th December 2013

The responses to both the PISA statistics and the Chief Inspector’s report are depressingly familiar, with those who believe that more assessment will drive up achievement (usually on the policymaker side of the fence) cast against those (usually on the practitioner side) who claim our children are over-assessed and over-tested.

This false divide has pervaded the education debate since the 1960s.  Schooling has to be about more than just assessment and assessment has to be about more than SATs in primary schools and GCSEs in secondaries. But there is an important role for these forms of examination, partly because children and parents deserve feedback on progress, and partly because the exchequer needs to know whether substantial public investment brings a worthwhile return for children, young people, their parents and society as a whole; testing provides one means of measuring this.

We need to have the ‘great debate’ about the purpose of education that James Callaghan called for at Ruskin College back in 1976 and we need to decide on, as Professor Richard Pring argues, what qualities we want the educated young person, of any background or ability, to have by the close of statutory schooling.  As any successful leader in any sector will point out, we need to decide on purpose and objectives, then the means of achieving them.  In education, we endlessly tweak the means without having the courage to address the discussion about purpose and objectives.  How are we to achieve educational success without deciding first on what it looks like?

And what might it look like? That would be to pre-empt the debate, but let us decide that we can ‘have our cake and eat it’.  The best schools, state and independent, primary and secondary, are not afraid of formal, traditional assessment.  They embrace it but it has no more than its proper place; they do not allow it to become ‘high stakes’ for the young people in their care and they align it with projects that develop the whole child and the young person as an effective citizen; they put as much focus on the development of confidence and character, on sporting achievement, on having the confidence to speak out in public in an informed way, on the opportunity to benefit from work and community experience, and, of course, on the sciences, the arts, the humanities and creativity.

Critically, they do not make false choices between endless examinations or developing the whole child, between an academic and a vocational curriculum, between maximising attainment and building inclusion.  We should be informed by their example, not by spurious comparisons with completely different societies, some of which have their own educational challenges in spite (or because?) of their PISA success.  The headlines might suggest that Sir Michael Wilshaw sits squarely on one side of these divides.  His record as a Headteacher in Hackney and Newham suggests that he struck a better balance.  That is the demand we should make of our schools today.

A summary of this post was published as a Letter in the Evening Standard on Friday 13th December 2013

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Lessons From Lockdown
For too long, changes to the education system have been driven by political considerations, short -term difficulties and even, at times, nostalgia. Lessons From Lockdown sets out why this piecemeal approach to reform needs stop and provides an invaluable contribution to the debate that now must take place.
Rosemary Bennet
Former Education Editor, The Times