York head teacher and father John Tomsett argues that the Education Secretary’s new exams are outdated and unfit for the modern world
“In Ireland for a few years more we have a popular imagination that is fiery, magnificent and tender…”
This come from the preface to JM Synge’s Playboy Of The Western World, one of my A level text books I studied exactly 30 years ago. And I know it off by heart.
I love reciting quotations from my A level literature texts. I can bore people with the complete first scene of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “Nay, but this dotage of our general’s o’erflows the measure…”
It’s all good fun and it is what we had to do 30 years ago. It was completely appropriate then. It was six years before the world wide web had been invented. Kids still laiked around the countryside climbing trees, not playing X-Box chatting to their mates on-line without leaving the house. It was a different world.
And it was the world Education Secretary Michael Gove grew up in; well, not exactly – he didn’t attend a comprehensive school like me. But we were both educated during the Seventies and Eighties in England.
Back then I studied History O level. Over two years in the late 1970s I sat for 150 hours in History O level lessons with Mrs B and copied her writing off the board. I learnt her board work by rote and got a grade B in the end. I learnt nothing more than factual recall. It’s wholly irrelevant to me now that Blind Jack came from Knaresborough.
History GCSE in 2012 demands a range of skills which need to be artfully synthesised to attain a decent grade. Students have to interpret evidence, make connections between different sources, recall knowledge, make judgements and articulate reasoned conclusions. The History GCSE paper that my son sat this week tested all those skills and was blooming hard!
So the announcements of the proposed new O levels this week concerned me. The key features were a return to terminal examinations only, with minimal coursework and no retakes. It felt like it was a return to the 1970s, something I have blogged about here.
And if I reflect upon the last 30 odd years and how we have assessed students at 16 years old, we are back where I began:
1980 – English O Level: all examinations, no coursework
1988 – English GCSE: all coursework, no examinations
2013 – English GCSE: a mix of coursework and examinations
2015 – English O level: all examinations, no coursework
Don’t get me wrong: there is no learning without memory. It drives me crazy when youngsters don’t know their times tables, not because they don’t know them in itself, but because they waste so much time working them out or getting them wrong. And we have to know and understand content, as well as develop skills.
I also ask the question about the Secretary of State’s credentials for making such important decisions about our children’s futures
My concern is that we are moving towards a school curriculum and assessment framework which is not going to prepare students for a world which is changing rapidly, a knowledge society where students need to know things but they also need to know how to find out things when they don’t know them, with resilience and independence.
My sons cannot believe I didn’t have a mobile phone until I was 32 years old! They have in their pockets a piece of kit they take for granted, which gives them access to more information than was ever contained in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. We need to know content, for sure, but we also need to develop skills which help prepare students for the future, which is a very different world from my past and Michael Gove’s past.
We develop resilience and independence in our students through the the Extended Project Qualification, which does what it says on the tin! Students choose a subject to pursue and produce, largely independently, a substantial project by the end of the year.
Here’s Kate’s evaluation of her project in which she created a line of bath and shower products:
This project has taught me to learn from my mistakes and improve even more. In the past I have just given up when I have gone wrong. The Extended Project has helped me develop a growth mindset and let me keep making my work better and better, even if I fail. This project has been a great experience and I have loved every minute of it.
It would be terrible if our new O levels prevented students from following a course like the Extended Project, which so clearly develops the skills our young people need to survive in the increasingly competitive future. I’d appoint someone with Kate’s attitude every time!
I also ask the question about the Secretary of State’s credentials for making such important decisions about our children’s futures. My son will be amongst the first cohort through the new examinations; a Gove Guinea Pig. I’m not sure he has the credentials for determining the future of education in our country; I know a good many head teachers who have.
And this no-resits policy? Resits happen in all walks of life; we’ve all failed and come back a second time to be successful. If you ever see Michael Gove behind the wheel, remember that it took him six times to pass his driving test.