Eton’s headmaster is right: we must break out of exams straitjacket

John White

In an article for Radio Times this week, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, has called the examination system ‘archaic’. He sees it as “little changed from Victorian times”, a hindrance to collaborative working and to education for citizenship.

He is right on every count. As is now all too clear, the exam system does little to test deep understanding, blights the secondary school curriculum, causes students great anxiety, perverts the job of teaching, favours those families who can best manipulate school admission arrangements.

In Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes – to be published by IOE Press next month, I ask why it is that despite these patent defects, we still cling to an institution which may have been all the rage in the 1860s but has been under fire in every generation since then.

It is ironic, if no less welcome, that the person at the apex of private education should lead the latest sortie. For it was the privately educated new middle classes of Victorian England who championed examinations over the patronage system of the landed establishment as a surer route for their children to a university place and a comfortable life. Soon joined by the top public schools, Eton included, middle class schools from Repton and Clifton down to local grammar schools made the examination system their own preserve. When elementary school students in the 1890s began to see its advantages for themselves, the shutters came quickly down. After 1904, the elementary schools that catered for over 80% of the age group were deliberately made an exam-free zone. This approach outlasted the end of fee-paying secondary education after 1944, when the new tripartite system excluded secondary moderns from the examination stakes until 1965.

For nearly a century, then, secondary school exams were the prerogative of those who could afford school fees. In the age of official full democracy in which we now live, we take it as read they are for everybody. Some 75% of students now get good GCSEs. The age of equality has arrived.

Or has it? The coming of league tables in 1992 has enabled families to identify local schools – private as well as state – with the best exam pedigrees. The private ones do well here, as even those among the sleepiest thirty years ago have worked hard since then to attract custom by glittering exam results. Better-off people can also maximize their chances of acceptance at a ‘good’ state school by moving into its catchment area, or, if a church school, discovering new talents for choral singing or campanology.

Tony Little is right about this Victorian relic. It has survived so long because it has been able to reshape itself – at least for public gaze – as a taken-for-granted institution of a democratic society, while at the same time trying to satisfy the very natural desire of those who have done well in life not to see their children doing worse.

It is time to jettison it before it takes us into what countries in east and south Asia often call their ‘examination hell’. A Chinese colleague and I have recently set up a small group of ‘International Critics of Examinations’, drawn from eighteen countries and from every continent. We hear reports of thirteen-hour days worked by students, the toll on family life, suicide rates among examinees, endless rote-learning, the frenzy and corruption of the annual Chinese school-leaving examination. We also hear of the ways in which the rich can work the system by moving into good school districts and employing private tutors.

Exams came to Japan and India from the USA and the UK, in the heyday of the West’s own love-affair with the institution in the late nineteenth century. Leading lights in these and similar countries are now looking for more humane alternatives.

Tony Little is right again. As he says, “here is the irony: we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of.”

How I failed to meet the criteria for Blob membership

John White

We have known for some time that Michael Gove has taken up arms against ‘The Blob’. This is his name for an amorphous group of people opposed to his policies from the educational world, including teacher unions, local authority officials, and academics from university education departments. But only now, thanks to his ally Toby Young’s new Civitas pamphlet, do we have a definitive idea of ‘The Blob’ and what it stands for.

He tells us that “They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subjectknowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitatingfacts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating theteacher as an authority figure” (p2).

He later adds to these criteria of inclusion ‘the belief that children are essentially good’; a view of learning based on ‘as few facts as possible’; and an ‘epistemological relativism’ according to which ‘no one point of view is more valid than another’ (pp. 4-5).

I am one of the two Institute people identified in Young’s pamphlet and in the Telegraph as belonging to ‘The Blob’. Before I read the details of its membership requirements, I was delighted with my new badge of honour. But now, having absorbed them, I see regretfully that I am not in ‘The Blob’ after all.

I do not denigrate subject knowledge. I want students to learn plenty of good science, history and geography. True, I don’t think that constructing the curriculum should begin with taken-for-granted blocks of subjects rather than overall aims, but that’s another story – and one that my colleague Michael Reiss and I have recently told.

I am not opposed to ‘direct instruction’ where appropriate. I accept that some rote learning may be helpful on occasion. I am not in favour of indiscipline, or opposed to all routine. I do not think that children are naturally good, but would argue that they learn to be kind, fair, thoughtful and so on through habituation into these virtues. I have always been opposed to the idea that knowledge is relative. It is true that London is the capital of the UK and daffodils come out in spring. If someone thinks something else, it is false that their point of view is as valid as anyone else’s.

I can give Toby plenty of evidence, if he wants it, to back up the claims I’ve just made about my beliefs: I know he’s a stickler for knowledge. Mind you, he can have his lapses. He says, for instance, that I think that knowing the names of the Kings and Queens of England is a middle class perspective. I don’t know where he got that from.

As I said, I have to conclude from all this that, although in all sorts of ways I’m opposed to Gove’s policies, I’m not a member of ‘The Blob’. More alarmingly, I don’t think I know anyone who is. Perhaps if you are reading this and feel you meet the criteria laid down, you will say so. In this way we could begin to draw up some kind of membership list.

Meanwhile, I’m beginning to wonder whether anyone belongs to ‘The Blob’. Has Toby’s imagination made the whole thing up?

Imagine there’s no GCSEs… It’s easy if you try

John White

This month’s OECD report has linked the poor literacy and numeracy skills of our 16-24 olds, compared with those in other countries, with a lower level of social mobility. One factor in holding back social mobility has been the way in which the more affluent have used school examinations to entrench their dominance in higher education and in professional jobs.

A way of countering this dominance would be to remove its instruments: school exams themselves. These may have made sense when they first became popular around the 1850s, but do they in 2013?

They made sense then for the rising middle classes who wanted their sons to have interesting careers. Before that, patronage had been the norm. Exams were held to provide a fairer and more objective alternative.

Are they worth retaining now? Social unfairnesses apart, we know what an obstacle they are to a worthwhile education for students in their last years at school. We know about the anxiety they cause, the overwork, the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the training in question-spotting, examiner-bluffing and other morally dubious habits.

What do schools get out of examinations? Universities and employers are the beneficiaries. Schools are their handmaidens, relieving them of work and expense. Apart from kudos for some in the league tables, schools get mainly grief.

Imagine a world without GCSEs and A levels. How much broader and richer education could become! The school could come back to its proper task of creating in every school leaver a passion for learning – rather than hacked-off attitudes among its exam failures and instrumental attitudes to learning among its successes.

Would anything be lost in an exam-free régime? What about selecting candidates for higher or further education and employment?  We need to probe imaginative alternatives. Colleges and employers should take the lead on devising their own filtering devices, as long as these do not disadvantage less privileged applicants. But schools can also play a part.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the growth of records of achievement, or student profiles. These enabled schools to provide ongoing accounts of progress in different areas. They were not tied to the framework of discrete subjects within which examinations tend to be conducted. They recorded progress on non-academic fronts, including practical and out-of-class activities, within the school and outside.

In those days profiling existed alongside conventional examinations. It could now replace them. It could give every school leaver a record of his or her all-round attainments, presentable both to other educational establishments and to employers. Our new digital age has opened wider horizons, with children and parents as well as teachers contributing to web-based records, not only with text but also with still and moving images. This already happens in enlightened schools.

I know all this is anathema to those who will tell us what a subjective, corruption-prone system profiling is. Examinations are so much fairer, so much more accurate in their assessments. This is why colleges and employers trust them – and why they have for over a century provided a ladder for young people from all social classes to reach the top.

We should not accept this. Examining something is submitting it to thorough investigation. Do the minutes an examiner allots, say, to a paper on Europe since 1815 really add up to an examination? Digital cumulative records can give a much fuller picture; and of the student not only as a lone learner, but also as a co-worker – and not only in this area or that, but also as a whole person. And who is to say that there are no ways of coping with teacher bias – or, indeed, other problems around profiling?

The ladder argument raises another point. The more affluent have long accepted examinations as their route to university and professional jobs. They have been happy, at the same time, with some poorer but bright youngsters joining them. The ladder is said to provide equality of opportunity.

But the story says nothing about equipping everyone for a decent life. The ladder for the lucky ones, too, has always been propped up against a smart building with escalators inside to take the affluent up to the upper storeys. Michael Gove’s policy on examinations has upgraded the escalators and made the ladder more rickety.

Examinations are an excellent device for keeping a hierarchical social order more or less intact. If we are more interested in introducing every young person to the delights and rewards of learning, we have to look elsewhere.

Can well-being be measured?

John White

Well-being has shot up the Institute’s research agenda in recent years. It has figured in work on health policy and childhood, as well as the workplace, the aims of education, music education and the lives of older people.

While – as a participant myself – I welcome this, I do have one unresolved question.

How far is well-being measurable? You can understand why policy makers would like it to be. If national data can show that people’s well-being has been increasing or decreasing in this respect or that, it can be used to justify government policies or to call for improvements. Richard Layard built his 2005 book Happiness around the now well-known claim that ‘as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier’ (p3).

We have good reason to be wary of measurability claims about personal qualities. Look at intelligence. Human beings, like some other animals, but in language-dependent ways, have the ability flexibly to adjust the ways they go about pursuing their goals according to changing conditions and beliefs. It is a quality we rely on in all our activities, academic, practical, personal. What has been measured in traditional intelligence tests is something far less central to our existence: the scores we get in answers to various largely logical and linguistic questions.

It is doubtful whether the notion of measuring the deeper sense of intelligence makes sense. How could we put a whole population on a scale, given the complexity of human goals and variations in circumstances and beliefs? Yet it has suited some policy-makers in the past – those looking for a rationale for selective education – to simplify reality by redefining the inner attribute in terms of something that can easily produce a rank order.

There are also problems with measuring another inner quality: understanding. Our former IoE colleague Ray Elliott has written wonderfully about the virtues it comprises, about how it has at its best to be ‘true, comprehensive, profound, synoptic, sensitive, fertile, critical, firm and justly appreciative’ [1]. ‘A’ level and other exam boards claim to be able to rank candidates’ understanding in different areas. But, especially outside the exact disciplines, how can they deal with such apparently incommensurable qualities? The temptation is, once again, to resort to simplifications – methods designed to increase consensus among examiners, extending in some cases even to the use of multiple choice questions. Again, it suits politicians and others to rely on perversions of the real thing – often, again, for purposes of selection, but also as a sign of how well their policies are working or need changing.

Like intelligence and understanding, well-being is now in danger of measurement blight. It may indeed be possible to measure some of its necessary conditions –adequate shelter, food and drink, income etc – that is, what social scientists working in the area call ‘objective well-being’. But problems multiply when you go beyond this to well-being as such. What counts as a flourishing life has exercised philosophers since before Plato. Is it an endless succession of pleasurable feelings? If so, would this mean that a doctor working in stressful conditions cannot be leading a flourishing life? Is it, as some economists claim, a life in which you broadly succeed in reaching the goals you’ve set for yourself? But what if you reach them and are bitterly disappointed? And would it matter if your main goal were to get blinding drunk twice a day? And can I lead a flourishing life if I my goals are immoral?

In a fuller treatment, I try to answer these questions, and argue that to lead a flourishing life, at least in a society like our own, you need to be wholeheartedly involved in self-chosen pursuits of a worthwhile sort – from loving, intimate relationships to activities like teaching, gardening, reading poetry, or ethical banking [2]. Wellbeing is a notion full of complexity, touching the deepest layers of our lives. Its components give every impression of being incommensurable.

Psychologists and social scientists claim to have quantified what they call ‘subjective well-being’ (to supplement the ‘objective’ variety described above). They do this by rating people’s reports of how satisfied they are with their lives, or of how happy or distressing their experience has been over a period. But is satisfaction or feeling happy necessarily a sign of well-being? The questions raised two paragraphs back come back in full force. And is a slave (or a wage slave) living a life of well-being if she has been manipulated to believe her life could not be happier?

I am not claiming that there could never be any value in work on subjective well-being. If Layard is right that increased wealth does not go with an increase in self-reports of feeling happy, this calls for empirical explanation. But I am concerned that politicians and other policy makers might use the data to argue, for instance, that people are leading more flourishing lives under their régime or worse ones under others. We have been misled enough over the years by intelligence testers, and examination boards claiming insight into the quality of students’ understanding. We don’t want to go down the same road with well-being.

References

[1] In Brown, S.C. (ed) (1975) Philosophers Discuss Education London: Macmillan pp. 47-8

[2] White, J. (2011) Exploring Well-being in Schools London: Routledge, Chapter 11

John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education.

Do teachers need to understand what they are doing?

John White

Do teachers need to understand what they are doing? Most of us, I presume, would think this a silly question. It stands to reason that teachers, like doctors or politicians, must have a good understanding of the purpose of their role.

Yet, in the last twenty-odd years, it has been all but forgotten. There has been plenty of training in the specifics of teaching a subject and managing a class, but I’m talking about wider horizons.

We could not imagine a trainee doctor learning about diagnosing symptoms or prescribing drugs without having a broader picture of what they are doing this for. They know it is about helping people to become or remain healthy. Although there may be disagreements about what good physical health is, they are at the margins. Most of us, including the trainee, share a broad consensus about what it is to be healthy.

Yet, teaching is not like this. The trainee teacher of mathematics knows, of course, that they are in the business of educating, but there are widely divergent views about what this is. If they are not equipped to critically evaluate such disagreements, within what wider framework can they place the specifics they are being taught?

Of course, he or she will have picked up some kind of implicit framework from their own schooling, as well as the training institution they attended and through government policy. However, it is largely up to the individual which of these frameworks they allow themselves to be guided by – or whether, they consciously select a framework at all.

If the trainee is ill-equipped in critical evaluation, they are likely to follow some such kind of received opinion. Most probably, it will be the dominant line of the last two decades: that school education is about following regulations for prescribed subjects, so that students can do as well as possible in national exams based on these subjects.

Unless we want received ideas like this to become, through constant reinforcement, even more ascendant across the generations, we have to do more to encourage teachers to reflect on them in the light of alternatives.

What might we want them to think about? We could start with the dominant line just mentioned. What is the rationale for it? If the point of good exam results is to help people get into interesting jobs, what relation does this vocational aim of schooling have to other possible aims – being a good citizen, for instance, or leading a fulfilled life? Is having an interesting job part of living a fulfilled life? If so, what else comes into the latter? – And what if a young person doesn’t land an interesting job? Can he or she still live a full life?

This is just the start of the journey. And already the thinker is plunging into deep waters to do with the nature of citizenship, personal well-being, and inequalities of life-chances. There are no quick fixes here. It takes time to sort these matters through with any rigour. We are in philosophical territory. Philosophy cannot equip our teacher with definitive solutions to these or similar problems, but it can at least help them to reflect and look at the assumptions behind certain positions, judge the soundness of arguments, and imagine alternatives. And all this takes time.

Am I arguing for a massive injection of philosophy of education into initial teacher education? Is that my – self-serving – motivation for writing this blog?

No. I taught the subject in the 1960s – and know that a lecture plus a seminar each week was a totally inappropriate package for teachers, who had much more immediate things on their mind, like controlling their classes. Even so, it would make sense to at least introduce teachers to these questions during their training, especially if linked to other aspects of their experience. If not, how else could they really know what they should be doing?

If it is agreed that teachers should be more than unthinking operatives, working within a received idea about what school education is for, then another way, or ways, must be found of equipping them to tackle these underlying issues with some degree of competence. How is this to be done? Are there lessons here for continuing professional development (CPD) as well as for pre-service work?

John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education.

The National Curriculum: what’s the point of it all?

 Michael J Reiss and John White

After Michael Gove’s announcement last week that English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) have been abandoned and that GCSEs will carry on, some might assume that the debate about the school curriculum has, temporarily at least, gone away. This is not the case. On the same day that the Secretary of State announced his “climb down”, the DFE published its draft National Curriculum.

There is much one could say about these documents. Here, though, we focus on just one issue – the dismal lack of attention paid to the aims of the National Curriculum. In the 221 page document on the draft programmes of study for KS1-3 (PDF), each subject has its own specific aims but here is all that is said about the overarching aims of the National Curriculum:

3.1 The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

3.2 The National Curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications. The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons.

“The best that has been thought and said” is a phrase from Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book Culture and Anarchy and Arnold would have recognised much that is in the new draft curriculum. The division into a litany of separate subjects – most of which were familiar to Arnold – shows how subjects remain the starting point for curriculum development, with the overarching aims tagged on as an afterthought.

But there is another way. After all, why should one start with subjects? Isn’t it not only more logical but also more sensible to start with the aims of schooling and from them derive a curriculum?

This is the approach the two of us have taken with our new book An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, published this week. We begin with overarching aims that will equip each learner to lead a personally fulfilling life and help others do so too. From these, we derive more specific aims covering the personal qualities, skills and understanding needed for a life of personal, civic and vocational well-being. The second half of the book, on political realities of implementation, takes this process of deriving aims further. Some of its detailed aims, but by no means all, overlap with conventional curriculum objectives. We also look at the role of the state in curriculum decisions, as well as the implications of the book’s central argument that aims should be the starting point for student choice, school ethos, assessment, inspection and teacher education.

Some might think that there is no need to bother with such considerations. Teachers can just get on and teach their subjects. In our view this is a deeply mistaken view. Thankfully, many 5-16 year-olds enjoy their schooling and learn well. But many don’t – not least because much of what they are presented with seems pointless; it doesn’t connect with them as they trudge from one subject class to another. We argue that by starting with aims, schools can have a curriculum that will inspire learning and provide a stronger basis for future life than is typically provided by a subject-based curriculum.

An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, is published by IOE Press on 15 February 2013. If you would like an invitation to a seminar at the IOE on 30 April at which the book’s argument will be debated, please e-mail abc@ioe.ac.uk.

Do we need any exams at 16?

John White 

The EBacc controversy sparks a further question. Do we need any public exams at 16? With the school leaving age due to rise to 18 in 2015, why don’t we just have a graduation certificate at that age for everyone?

I can think of several related reasons for an EBacc at 16, but they are all problematic. It gives the curriculum leading up to this age a massive steer in a traditionally academic direction. It is an early identification of students likely to be of university potential. As such, it is attractive to families anxious to secure a professional future for their children. EBacc looks for all the world like a vehicle of selection, a poorly disguised descendant of the 11-plus.

Another dodgy reason for a 16-plus exam has to do with accountability. Results can be classified in league tables, so that we can see how well different schools are faring. But if the latter is our aim, it does not follow that the best means is public testing of students on a mass scale. A good inspection régime, based partly on school self-evaluation, might be part of the answer. In addition, how well a school is doing is a matter of how far it is meeting general educational aims – and these take us far beyond the limited objectives pertaining to testing a few subjects.

Perhaps what we want, though, is a nation-wide picture of how well schools are doing in teaching maths, say, or English. Here again, we would need a good argument for testing individuals en masse, rather than, for instance, revisiting and improving on the sampling techniques used by the Assessment of Performance Unit in the 1970s and 1980s.

Removing 16-plus hurdles would leave secondary schools space to create a more worthwhile experience for all their students. This would mean paying more attention to what their aims should be, then sculpting curricula that better reflected them, rather than making do just with traditional ready-mades.

If getting rid of 16-plus exams were still to leave exam pressures at 18, there would at least be less wasted time, less anxiety, less instrumentalism in learning. It would also turn the spotlight back to what a graduation certificate should look like. The 2004 Tomlinson Report was our last source of illumination on this. Its suggestion of a single diploma to replace GCSE, A levels and vocational qualifications is still our best practical guide ahead.

This will still leave, if not exacerbate, the scramble for university places at 18. This can cause great personal distress, as well as restricting schools’ curricular horizons. Here, too, we need a rethink. The idea that students should ideally go straight on to full-time university studies after leaving school may have made good sense two centuries ago, when many people died young. But with perhaps seventy or more years ahead of them, why the pressure to make them think it’s now or never? Do we need to promote incentives for later, not least part-time, studies?

For more on all this, see my 2010 commentary in The TES