Schools minister’s lack of thinking skills leads towards Gov’t control of exam setting

Janet Downs's picture
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In the past, exam boards ‘pandered to some in the educational establishment who believed that qualifications should assess vague thinking skills rather than core subject knowledge,’ wrote schools minister Nick Gibb in the Telegraph.

Leave aside the argument whether exams should just test factual recall or the ability to use knowledge acquired, what does the article tell us about the minister’s own thinking skills?

It is thanks to Government reforms ‘already introduced’, Gibb wrote, that pupils receiving their A level results on Thursday will be ‘among the best qualified in a generation’.

But A level candidates in 2015 would have started their A level courses two years ago and their GCSE courses even earlier in 2011/12. And they would have started their secondary education in 2008/09. The reforms allegedly responsible for this year’s best ever qualified A level pupils weren’t in place . Gibb actually admits this later when he said Government reforms didn’t begin until 2012. It’s worth quoting the muddled sentence in full:

‘In tests taken by 15- and 16-year-olds in 2012, before our education reforms had been implemented, England was the only country in the OECD in which the literacy and numeracy skills of young people were no better than those of their grandparents’ generation: adults aged 55-to-65 performed better in literacy and numeracy than those aged 16-to-24.’

According to this, the tests taken by 15-to-16 year olds (ie PISA) in 2012 showed 16-to-24 year-olds performed at the same level as older adults. No person aged above 16 took PISA tests. Gibb is confusing two separate surveys. His comparison of young adults and their grandparents came from the OECD Adult Skills Survey 2013. But, as regular readers will know, this came with a warning. The results should be used with caution, the OECD said, because the analysis was ‘based on assumptions’ and few countries, including England and Northern Ireland, met the sample requirements*.

In any case, the OECD said the lack of apparent improvement between older English and Northern Irish adults’ literacy/numeracy skills and their grandchildren was not “necessarily because performance has declined … but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations”. In other words, in countries like Korea elders were more likely to have weak literacy/numeracy skills because of the poor education they received. Education improved from this low base. At the same time, Korean young people scored higher than their peers in England and Northern Ireland. This would make the “improvement” gap in such countries larger than here.

‘…we therefore launched a programme to reform every GCSE and A level subject, bringing standards up to match the best around the world,’ Gibb trumpeted. But this alleged rigour is not as it appears. A row erupted between exam boards about the level of challenge in specimen papers. Three exam boards have been told to refine their higher and foundation tier papers to sufficiently differentiate across student abilities. Schools and pupils will be preparing for exams under two different systems for several confusing years. The reforms haven’t been adequately trialled and tested. And many of the international exams used for comparison by Ofqual are out-of-date or disbanded (see here).

Worse is promised. The Mail reports how the Government is considering scrapping exam boards and replacing them with a Government exam-setting body. And it's not just hot air, Schools Week reports. This is a menacing development. It is worthy of a dictatorship eager for schools to produce pupils who will conform to the party line. No Government, of whatever persuasion, should take control of exam content and questions. It’s clear such exams would not require candidates to think but just to regurgitate Government-approved facts. If Gibb is unaware of the risks, then his thinking skills aren’t just vague but dangerously unsafe.

NOTES

*I queried the results with the OECD saying the non-response made the results invalid. It stood by its results but still urged caution in their use. This warning has, of course, been ignored. The desire to score political points overrides accuracy. More information here.

CORRECTION The original article said '...few countries, including England and Northern Ireland, hadn’t met the sample requirements'. This should have read '...few countries, including England and Northern Ireland, met the sample requirements.' This has been changed.
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