Minsters and their behaviour adviser should listen to Izzy

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

The Department for Education’s behaviour adviser, Tom Bennett OBE, took to Twitter recently to rebuke a member of the Youth Parliament about a speech she made in the House of Commons.

He tweeted: “Oh God this is terrible. I applaud the speaker’s moxie, but this is the Biff & Chip guide to progressive instrumentalism.”

What – you may wonder – had the speaker, Izzy Garbutt, said to warrant Mr Bennett’s scorn? 

You can judge for yourself here. But, from where I sit, her speech seems a heartfelt and pretty reasonable appraisal of the government’s efforts to turn the education system into an exam factory. What’s more, it is a speech based on her direct experience of that system, so that in itself surely deserves to be taken seriously. 

She says: “The pressure students are under to perform is excessive, with the 2015 reforms in particular seeing an increase in content and more emphasis on examinations. Memorising has become a synonym for learning and mental health has suffered as a consequence. Wellbeing must become a priority and nurturing the development of young people as individuals should be the aim of education, not exam results.”

Many leaders and teachers have similar concerns. 

Back in 2017, ASCL carried out analysis about reformed GCSEs which found that a pupil taking a typical set of these qualifications faced spending over eight extra hours sitting exams compared to the old system. In total, this amounted to 22 exams over a total length of 33 hours.

Who does this approach help? Certainly not the students taking them judging from the number of young people whose mental health and wellbeing is affected. Nor does it appear to be popular with employers who constantly talk about the need for more emphasis on skills that equip young people for work and careers.

Izzy makes this exact point: “We are pleading for more emphasis on employability, communication skills and personal wellbeing. Isn’t the foundation of education creating well-rounded, well-informed young people ready for the future?”

And she speaks eloquently also about the crude reductionism of grades. 

Young people are more than just letters or numbers that they see on a piece of paper in mid-August. We are not a percentage of A*s to Cs, we are not evidence in an Ofsted report, and we are not a pass or a fail,” she says.

Indeed. The system she highlights is at its most pernicious – as we have pointed out on many occasions – in respect of the ‘forgotten third’.

This is the proportion of young people who do not achieve at least a Grade 4 pass in GCSE English and maths (in normal non-pandemic years) largely because this is baked into the exam system by the mechanics for deciding how many pupils receive the respective grades. 

In other words, around a third of young people are always likely to miss out on qualifications which are a gateway to further study and careers. 

There is a mechanism to enable grades to rise as overall standards improve – the National Reference Test – but this is little comfort to students who feel, as so many of them have told us, that they have to fail in order for others to succeed. 

It doesn’t have to be like this. ASCL has put forward a series of proposals in our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System which would make assessment more proportionate.

For example, it recommends: “A reduction in the burden of assessment at 16. This could include the reintroduction of more ongoing assessment over the course of a qualification, and potentially a ‘stage not age’ approach for some subjects, as advocated by the ‘Forgotten Third’ commission. 

It should also include a much greater use of technology, particularly adaptive approaches, to make assessment more targeted, reduce bureaucracy and costs, increase the accuracy of grading, and enable more young people to demonstrate and be recognised for what they can do.”

We have nothing against exams in principle, and are mindful of research which shows that basing high-stakes judgments on teacher assessment can lead to greater inequality. What concerns us is the extent to which preparation for exams now dominates education, and the detrimental impact this can have on both curriculum breadth and depth, and on students’ wellbeing. 

The current government does not, thus far, agree with this, preferring to insist that all young people should sit a large set of 1950s-style academic exams in the name of rigour.

Perhaps ministers – and their behaviour adviser – should listen to young people like Izzy. After all, it is these young people who are the end-users, the consumers, of our education system. They should be entitled to be taken seriously.

Because if some of our pupils and students feel that education isn’t working well for them, they might just have a point.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 02/12/2022 12:03:11