Hold the front page: If you build a system around test results, your kids become expert test takers


I spent the past few days in Wales where, thanks to the devolution of powers in education, the path taken in policy making and school regulation is now quite divergent from that seen in England. The reason for my trips to Wales – and Scotland and Northern Ireland – has been to set up pilots in the Musical Futures programme, encouraging pedagogical innovation in secondary schools’ music departments. So, I’ve been able to work closely with teachers and learn, first-hand, how their systems shape attitudes to teaching and learning.

Both Scotland and Wales decided a few years ago, to prioritise ’21st century skills’ – the kinds of attributes employers say they need from young people – while we in England decided to go for what students should know, rather than what they can do. So, in Scotland we have the excellent ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ and Wales has its ‘Essential Skills‘.

The other significant difference between the English and their immediate neighbours is that our government publishes school league tables, whilst the Scots and Welsh don’t – though exams results are publicly available, and so the media inevitably does the number crunching and comes up with makeshift tables of their own.

The issue of accountability, and how much store we place in exam results, as a measure of school effectiveness, is one of the hottest potatoes in global education right now. My, perhaps over-simplistic, observation is this: when teachers are freed from the pressures of exam results as prime (and some would say sole) indicator of a school’s effectiveness, then they take a broader, and longer, view of what their students should be capable of achieving: knowledge, yes, but also skills, learning dispositions and cultivating the desire to become a lifelong learner. I saw a brilliant example of this when one of the teachers I was working with, Gareth Ritter, Leader of Learning in Creative Arts at Willows High School Cardiff, showed off his impressive¬†website. The site¬†highlights the work of students who create their own music video tutorials, which are now available globally to any student (or teacher) who wants to learn how to creatively use music and video technology.

One such tutorial has had over 1500 hits, from all over the world. I’d argue that such peer acclaim means more to these students than the difference between a B or C in test scores. After all, this is how the world works: supply and demand, within a global market.

It’s therefore not so surprising that, in comparison with countries like England, for whom international exam scores are the ends not the means (with all the attendant drilling-and-killing), that there may be a temporary dip in PISA results.

Not long ago, the Welsh were spooked by a drop in their 15 yr-olds performance in PISA tests and, in response, have recently announced a compromise decision to ‘band’ schools by their exam results, without going the whole hog of naming and shaming through league tables. It seems a sensible response, and one which the teaching unions in Wales have broadly supported.

At the end of the day, the more pressure we put upon schools to improve their exam results, the more likely it is that they’ll ‘hack’ the system. The English government today tried to out-manoeuvre those who (in their view) have sought to boost their league table positions, by introducing vocational qualifications, by saying that, in future, vocational courses will only count as GCSE equivalents if they include external assessment, have been taught widely for two years, and offer broad progression into occupational areas.

From where I’m sitting, this is another example of the fundamental lack of trust which the English government has shown towards teachers, for the past 20 years. The schools that offer their students more vocational exam routes, like BTEC, do so because those qualifications better meet their students’ aspirations. It’s not easier to do that. It’s far easier to relentlessly prep students for what is coming up on the GCSE exam paper.

Rather, they do it because it’s in the best interests of their students, and because the real measure of global competitiveness won’t be found in PISA tables, but in the skills, adaptability and entrepreneurship of each countries’ young workforce. Thankfully, the Scots and Welsh governments have sought inspiration from the Finns (who have always believed in trusting in teachers, rather than high-stakes accountability) and not the English, and fair play to them for doing so. ¬†


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5 Responses to Hold the front page: If you build a system around test results, your kids become expert test takers

  1. Hubert Spall says:

    In the light of the recent decision to cut vocational qualifications’ contribution to the league tables, it struck me that this was anyway a weird way to measure a school’s performance in terms of vocational education outcomes – surely it would be better to use longitudinal studies of actual employment outcomes? In addition a well-being index might be very useful, taking into account things like mental health and self-reporting of happiness levels in later life!

  2. David Price says:

    Interesting thought, Hubert. When I ask audiences for alternative standards by which to judge school’s effectiveness, they often cite happiness and well-being. And one of the best set of schools I;ve ever visited (High Tech High in San Diego County) ask to be judged on college-readiness. Longitudinal studies would, I think, present a very different picture (particularly for those schools emphasising skills, as well as knowledge. But which politician is willing (or able) to wait 10 or 15 years to see the impact of their reform?This is why education should be taken out of politicians’ clutches!

  3. Hubert Spall says:

    Of course, you are right, politicians need answers now, and they need them framed so they back up what they were planning to do anyway. However academics do not work to this timeframe, and could themselves instigate a systematic longitudinal approach to measure schools’ effectiveness. This could perhaps be funded by those bodies whose courses have been downgraded by the recent league tables change. I personally think this needs to happen – we do need to know how well schools are performing, but the current system isn’t fit for purpose.As a starting point what about tracking the outcomes for a random sample of 5% of students from a school, using standardised interviews at 16, 19 and 25, cross-referenced with existing data about their schooling provision and traditional measures of educational outcome? Schools could opt in to this, and students could opt out only after selection (i.e. a larger sample selected and reduced to 5% to ensure the most random possible sample while remaining ethical).Of course you would be very justified to reply “great idea, why don’t you do it” – its easy to say of course and very hard to do. I’m currently in the middle of a two year PGCE, so hardly the best person to catalyse such an initiative, but if anyone wants to take up the mantle I would be only too pleased to help! This would need backing from some very high places to happen in reality as it would need co-operation from a number of bodies that are affected, but maybe now is a good time when those involved in both vocational education and initial teacher training are under attack and may see a common cause and a means to fight back over the longer term. It would need someone with a lot of clout to bring the interested parties together on this.

  4. David Price says:

    Hubert,This sounds like a great research project! Like you, we (i.e. Learning Futures) aren’t able to commission it, but there ought to be a university interested/willing to do it.

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