Reforming KS4 qualifications – Ebacc, a flawed consultation, a flawed philosophy

Ivan Godfrey's picture
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The education of our nation's children is central to Britain's future prosperity and well-being. Its complex organisation does not need simplistic solutions but a whole gamut of subtle and imaginative approaches aimed at bringing out the best of all our children's abilities wherever they might lie. Employers now require people who can communicate well, work with others, use modern technology, be creative and imaginative and show initiative. This consultation document, (and the thinking behind it), is fundamentally flawed and hugely regressive because
• It elevates a ‘final’ testing procedure for 16-year olds to the ultimate goal of our education system
• It proposes an end-of-course exam that would in no way reflect the totality of students’ learning processes
• It omits essential elements of the curriculum, in particular, creative and design skills
• It is likely to result in the dual calamity of failing to challenge and test the real needs of the most able and, at the same time, being totally irrelevant and demotivating for the rest of the school population.

To reduce the assessment process to ‘final’ exams as outlined wastes time and is not cost effective when all students will be continuing their studies beyond 16. The theory seems to be that, to remedy our perceived educational ills and to improve the educational performance of our children, all we need to do is change the final goalposts in the educational process by introducing a more rigorous examinations' system based around traditional subjects and remembered factual knowledge. These proposals inhabit a fantasy world where students achieve higher levels just because they are faced with a new ‘more rigorous’ exam structure - akin to telling our Olympic high-jumpers we will ensure they get a gold medal by raising the bar an extra 10 centimetres.

Compared with many of our competitor nations our education system ‘over-tests’. Yet international comparisons are used to bolster the theory that our system is failing. This is a gross and wilfully political misconception based on shaky evidence (even a YouGov poll!). Those with an understanding of education know that it is the learning process that matters, not the examination. Fiddling with exams is not the answer. Giving emphasis and funding to improving standards through the Sure Start framework and Early Years’ education and then building upon that through the primary and secondary sectors (as has been done in recent years) will see standards rise.

The consultation further suggests that our education system fails to meet the needs of the most able, so an exam (and teaching) structure is proposed to benefit those students likely to be successful at a certain type of exam with a high pass mark requirement. Skills are not compartmentalised into single subject area blocks of 120 minute exams ... and will the most able pupils be sufficiently challenged to demonstrate their potential if the emphasis is on end of course recall rather than application of knowledge?

Employers complain about literacy and numeracy amongst students today ... but they now look for standards from students in the 60th percentile of ability and below that would have only been required of students in the top 10 per cent in the past. These changes in the necessary knowledge and skills required have presented the educational world with the huge challenge of keeping pace and addressing the needs of average and below average students within schools. To believe that a single non-tiered exam on the lines proposed would be accessible to all is wishful thinking. It fails to address the needs of average and less able students, many of whom, sadly, have to be convinced of the inherent value and worth of learning in the first place. Introducing harder exams will only de-motivate the majority of students and will offer nothing other than a sense of failure. The resultant disenchantment with the education process presents our nation with an extremely serious danger that cannot be ignored.

The International Baccalaureate is a qualification for students aged 18+ recognised worldwide and based on a broad and inclusive curriculum. I have no objection to the concept of a baccalaureate system modelled on the international framework but such a model would need to reflect the requirements of the world of the 2020s and well beyond. It would incorporate skills such as teamwork, ability to use educational aids appropriately, interpersonal skills, creativity and lateral thinking. To use the name ‘baccalaureate’, however, for the sterile examination system proposed is confusing and misleading.

The consultation proposals mark a sea change from the consensus development of improved performance that has worked its way up through pre-school education, the primary sector and beyond in recent years. I fear they will create disillusionment and confusion for students, parents and teachers. I would love to think that the government would
• abandon the current proposals and return to the drawing board to work with professionals across the education world to address the issues of real importance for education in the 21st century.
• move the focus away from the final examination process to concentrate resources and efforts on addressing all learning issues by embedding progress already made in the primary and early secondary curriculum.

Ivan Godfrey MBE (awarded for services to education in 2011) Formerly – secondary teacher of French and German : Head of 6th Form : Deputy Head Curriculum (secondary) : Chair of Governors (primary) : Executive Officer and subsequently President of Devon Association of Governors : Chair of Devon Schools’ Forum and member of numerous other Devon county-wide bodies : member of board of Governorline : member of board of NAGM and active member of NGC and NGA : SW Governor of the Year (2007)
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