Let’s move towards graduation at 18

Janet Downs's picture

Heads reacted wearily when shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt suggested we downplay exams at 16 and move towards graduation at 18. As I explained in Schools Week, schools are already punch drunk from constant changes and reforms without being faced with another upheaval.

But graduation at 18 could be achieved without massive disruption by incorporating what is already in place. My four points, which are explained more fully in the article, are these:

1 Uncouple what is taught from what is examined.

2 Reduce the number of exams taken at 16.

3 Exams taken at 16 should be used to decided post-16 progression and not used to judge schools.

4 Graduation at 18 should be achieved by multiple routes.

There’s a danger, however, in Hunt’s call for a 14-19 curriculum. Children should be entitled to a broad, balanced curriculum until 16. This is what happens in most parts of the developed world where lower secondary ends at 15/16 and upper secondary comprises two years up to 18/19. A 14/19 curriculum assumes pupils will drop subjects at 14. The drawbacks of early specialisation would be enshrined in this extended upper secondary phase.

The future of exams in England should not be to throw out what is already present but to allow pupils and their schools to choose from a wide range of qualifications most of which already exist.

 Reform doesn’t have to be radical but it can be inspirational.

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Michele -Lowe's picture
Sun, 28/06/2015 - 17:28

I think it's not just what England, but also Wales, is crying out for. My kids are in the midst of relentless testing and it's doing exactly what critics of over-testing say. The Assembly Govt in Wales puts pressure on the schools, the heads and governors put pressure on the teachers, the teachers put pressure on the kids - and parents via home-school communication - and the parents put pressure on the kids. The children internalise the pressure and beat themselves up, or else their insecurities spill out onto each other. You have to admire quietly the kids who simply switch off sometimes. Not the most unreasonable defence mechanism.
I think here, though, an education system could indeed evolve away from high-stakes GCSE's and more towards a European model of education. Tristram Hunt is to be praised for floating this idea. Huw Lewis, Education Minister in Wales has spoken of the need for us to move away from the English/North American model and more towards the European model. It remains to be seen if he sticks to his guns: government here in Wales in the past has been unduly rattled by poor PISA results and responded with testing kids every year from Yr 3-9 in English, maths and for the Welsh medium schools, Welsh. Some of the Year 10 cohort had to sit PISA tests (nicknamed 'pizza tests') as well as doing the first part of their GCSE science and English exams and mock exams in other subjects. My youngest is only 14 and doesn't turn 15 until the end of July so was delighted to avoid at least one set of tests. We try to keep her on track with a do-you-best-but-don't-fret-too-much philosophy.
Is there anyone in Scotland, or who knows about the education system there, who could comment?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/06/2015 - 09:20

Michele - were the PISA tests taken by Year 10 practice Pizza or the real thing? The latest round of PISA is due this year (2015) and 15-16 year-old pupils should take them in a six week period sometime between March and August. But the UK usually has had a dispensation in the past because the PISA tests clashed with GCSEs. The last time round (2012), English pupils took the tests in the Autumn after the rest of the world had taken the tests. I argued this would mean the pupils would have had less time in school than their international peers.

If Welsh pupils took the actual PISA tests in Year 10 (presumably to avoid clash with actual GCSEs), then they would have been a year younger that their peers in other countries. The OECD, which sets the tests, clearly says, 'Schools in each country are randomly selected by the international contractor for participation in PISA. At these schools, the test is given to students who are between age 15 years 3 months and age 16 years 2 months at the time of the test, rather than to students in a specific year of school.'

If 14 year-olds took PISA tests then the results would be unreliable and would likely show the 14 year-olds were 'behind' other countries.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 29/06/2015 - 14:15

The key thing is to use a different metric for school accountability than for student outcomes. Goodhart's Law says: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." Whether at 16 or 18, it will all still go wrong through perverse incentivization if the same key performance indicators are used.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Mon, 29/06/2015 - 17:03

Janet - I couldn't say for sure whether they were practice ones or the real thing. It happened last term and only certain kids did them, owing to their birth dates. My daughter turns 15 right at the end of the year. The Welsh govt has had a bee in its bonnet re the tests every since the last round in 2012. Wales did badly in comparison with England, Scotland and N Ireland. The psychological repercussions are still with us here.
My other profound worry is that the kids seem to learn a lot and then dump it. The knowledge and understanding are not always deeply embedded. Makes you wonder how many hours are lost to preparing for tests, marking the practice tests, sitting the tests etc. If they didn't test so much, what could a school do with the extra time on its hands?
Barry's point about target culture is on the mark. It's done little for policing and medical care.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 07:40

Barry and Michele - your'e right. When performance is measured by targets, then meeting the target is all that matters. It leads to superficiality and teaching-to-the-test. The OECD warned in 2011 there was too much emphasis on exam results in England and that risked negative consequences. But the Government ignored this and has actually increased this emphasis. It's now moved the goalposts to bring more schools into the 'must-be-improved' category which will inevitably lead to academy conversion.

And now it appears this contagion has spread to Wales.

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