If it can’t be externally assessed, it’s play, Gove’s message to teachers

Janet Downs's picture
The London Festival of Education (17 November 2012) kicked off with education secretary Michael Gove in conversation with journalist David Aaronovitch. A questioner asked Mr Gove what he thought about assessment. His reply was that if education wasn’t externally assessed it was play.

The audience groaned. I heard teachers repeating this remark as I walked around the Festival. “Gove says if it can’t be assessed, then it’s play.” The voices were not in agreement – they were angry.

Gove’s dismissal of any education which can’t be rated by an end-of-course test demonstrates why he should not be in charge of reforming the English exam system. He seemed to have no idea of the importance of formative assessment in raising pupil performance. For him, assessment is a final, sudden-death test.

Later in the day, in the debate “Do exams have a future?”, speakers made it clear that the purpose of exams was to support learning. Restricting discussion to terminal exams, which Gove is doing, is avoiding the more difficult debate of what education is for. This is a debate which increasingly needs to take place as the argument that passing exams leads to a better economic future is wearing thin. The curriculum should drive exams, not the other way round. The National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 has yet to be published (a copy leaked to the TES failed to impress) yet Gove is pushing for new exams at 16 before this is in place. Tina Isaacs explained the ridiculously tight timescale for the introduction of EBCs which were expected to be taught from September 2015 – the audience gasped.

Geoff Barton was in inspirational and rebellious mood. He said heads should use their freedom (and he spoke as the head of a community school not an academy) to have nothing to do with EBCs. There were other exams that schools could choose which would be better for their pupils – if they didn’t count towards league tables, then so be it.

Keri Facer described in dizzying detail how new technologies would allow people to “quantify the self”. Visual representation could take the place of a portfolio of achievement. Pathways towards goals would increasingly be decided by people themselves throughout their lives – they would also decide the way they recorded these achievements.

Michael Gove should have been present at this debate – perhaps he would at last realise that his exam reforms are unimaginative, backward-looking, and out-of-touch. Worse even than that, he seems to value only what can be measured instead of measuring what is valued. To him, anything that can’t be measured is mere play.

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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/11/2012 - 13:04

Post script: Chris Husbands, Director of the Institute of Education and Professor of Education, explains why we need a full-scale, politically neutral review of accountability and examinations on the IoE blog (link below). He comments on the pressure on schools to reach an externally-set benchmark and asks "whether a crude examination-led accountability system is not always going to lead us into difficulty."


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