Is now the time for educational reform?

"You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over."

Richard Branson


Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, society has been subject to a plethora of scenarios ranging from the tragic to the trivial. Somewhere along this continuum, education has been impacted massively. A (hopefully) temporary shift to remote learning has ensued worldwide, severely impacting the education of many millions around the globe. Further to this change, in the UK GCSE and A-Level exams have been cancelled, with the government now relying on teacher judgement and assessment to generate grades. Whilst this process may be fraught with bias and imperfect information, there does not seem much other choice.

Many argue that A-Levels are the most important exams a student will take in their academic careers. Doing well provides a foundation for an excellent university education and greater future income, whilst for some failing feels like the end of the line. The current structure for A-Level courses are two years of learning, followed by a few weeks of examination. Debate has raged for some time as to whether this process is fair, given that theoretically a student can skive off school for two years, and rock up in May, walking away with a set of qualifications. It also disproportionately favours students who deal with pressure better than others; this is a poor metric for ability and hard work. Thus, some have used this pandemic and disruption as impetus for discussion about educational reform in the way student evaluations are carried out and qualifications are distributed.

In 2015, the department of education decided to remove coursework (or NEA: Non-examined assessments) from the majority of A-Level courses. Some argued this was due to the unfair advantage to girls given their attitude to learning; a ‘bedroom culture’ (McRobbie; 1995) and greater sustained motivation (Burns and Brace; 1999). This was reflected by the statistics for educational attainment; girls outperformed boys in almost every educational environment. Whilst in the short-term this has perhaps reduced the disparity in educational achievement between boys and girls, in the long-term it looks to create an educational culture of ‘all or nothing’, not a system of sustained testing and a greater sample frame with which to make decisions about qualifications. Perhaps it is time to take some principles relating to coursework, and build a more robust and reliable education mechanism.

In Finland, there are no standardised tests forced upon students until they are 18. They do not undergo two years of GCSE preparation and the long, hard slog of as many as 30 or more exams. Even the single standardised matriculation test is voluntary. Yet, we do not see them falling behind academically due to a lack of rigorous testing. 66% of high school students enter further education; an incredible number! For reference, the UK stat is 50%. Our fixation with examinations seems, well, unnecessary. In fact, the whole idea derives apparently from a lack of trust in teachers; maybe it is easier to trust your peers in a social democracy. In 2009, 58% of Fins agreed with the statement “People can be trusted”; in the UK, that figure was a meagre 30%. So, I hear you ask, how does Finland track the progress of their students? Trust.

The Finnish government puts faith in school teachers to create accurate pictures of student ability and attainment. All teachers are given support in how to evaluate students, and apart from that it is down to them. The Finnish education system, arguably the most celebrated in the world, is built on principles of trust! So, why aren’t we, or more precisely education ministers, trusting in our pillars of education? The simple argument would be that we do. Trust that they will deliver a curriculum, trust to uphold the values of education, trust to educate a budding generation of architects, businesspeople, and scientists. Gavin Williamson’s decision to allow the now-cancelled exams to be replaced with teacher assessments is perhaps also a pointed mark of trust. There seems to be trust running throughout the entire education system from reception to Year 13; why is it abandoned at the end of year 11 and 13?

Giving teachers full and proper training in techniques to assess student progression and ability may just be the way forward. A culture of evolution and innovation invigorates both students and teachers; a learning environment without tense pressure and frustration. By making the system less dense, there could be gains in attainment, potential, and mental health. The burden of such stress accompanied by a million-and-one decisions to make about going into the ‘real-world’ (whatever that is) is surely not something we should be placing on current and future generations. Humans grow over time; we do not graduate from being a baby to a toddler in a jump. It is a slow and delicate process of gaining strength and courage to take our first steps. Maybe we should stop being babies and start teaching ourselves to walk.

Now, this is not to cast aside the issues of systemic inequality in education on the grounds of social class, ethnicity, and a number of other bases of prejudicial treatment. It would be an injustice to the issue not to devote a series of posts on these issues, so keep your eyes (or eye, for any luscuses among us) peeled for future posts.

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