The problem at the root of our education system

J-A Baird

Research output: Other contribution


Teaching to the test has been observed in many studies of our education system from primary to A-level. Harry Torrance calls this ‘assessment as learning’, because students are exposed to endless examples of past papers as a teaching and learning strategy. It is no wonder that many young people become disinterested. What has this to do with the state you might ask? Strategic focus on assessments Successive Governments have brought about teaching to the test by holding schools to account for their examination results, so teachers have an obligation to strategically ensure that time is focused upon what will be assessed. This is an international trend. One series of ‘The Wire’ dramatised the effects of this in Baltimore schools in the US: one of which was the disengagement of students, with resulting behaviour problems. The UK performance tables also lead to ‘gaming’ the system, with qualifications being selected for children on the basis of the number of points they give the school in the performance tables. Teaching to the test and gaming are not so much features of the assessments themselves, but of the schools’ accountability context, so teachers, schools, awarding bodies nor Ofqual alone cannot do much to change this. Professional skills The best teaching and learning comes from a deep level of engagement with the materials by teachers and students. Before the 1990s, teachers could devise their own syllabuses and were knowledgeable about curriculum development. For nearly twenty years, key stage, GCSE and A-level syllabuses have been centrally controlled by the state. Curriculum development and assessment have dwindled as components of teacher training over the same period. Key aspects of teachers’ professional development have therefore been undermined by this central control. Innovation Curriculum innovation has been suppressed too. In no way does this imply that there has not been change. Forget competition between awarding bodies – the biggest driver of change in this industry is Government policy. Another problem is that policy-makers take so long to spell out the policy that examiners are left with little time to produce publishable syllabuses and question papers. For the recent A-level revisions, examiners had three months between the requirements being set out and having to submit the materials for approval at the regulator. All that can be done in that time is to tweak what went before. Teachers want stability and predictability to prepare students well for the examinations and awarding bodies are keen to oblige their customers in this regard. Thus, the effects of slow policy-making, centralised regulation, predictability for teachers and market share for awarding bodies have combined to constrict the curriculum and drive out innovation. If we want an engaging and challenging educational experience for students, having things so centralised is the wrong way to go about it. In effect, standardisation has been over-valued. We need to tolerate more diversity if we want to create space for innovation, creativity and inspirational teaching. Expertise Few individuals in DCSF, QCDA or Ofqual have training or even experience of designing and delivering educational assessments. This situation has not improved with the re-location of QCDA and Ofqual to Coventry and the subsequent loss of experienced staff. Nonetheless, those organisations make detailed pronouncements about the assessments. At one point it was mooted that QCDA would attend the A-level examiner question paper setting meetings, with the power to intervene if the questions were not challenging enough. This would be fine if the individuals taking such decisions were at least as knowledgeable as the examiners. Quite the contrary - it is sometimes impossible to have a sensible dialogue with civil servants in this position as they are often simply following their organisations’ regulations or acting upon their own hunches. We need intellectually engaged discussion at the heart of our assessment systems, involving people with a range of expertise – policy makers, assessment experts, curriculum experts, practising teachers and students. Higher education and employers also need to be consulted. All of this needs to be more than a handle-turning consultation exercise. Stakeholders have become disenfranchised because of the lack of real discussion. The problems with centralisation What is missing in all of this is a high-level system for ensuring that the qualifications are at the right standard, valid, reliable and manageable. In other words, a focus upon the big questions and not the detailed content of the curriculum or classroom practice. We need real diversity in the system to breed innovation. If we want our education system to produce involved, thinking individuals, then the process of specifying the content that is taught in schools should model that. On our behalf, the state needs to foster engagement of teachers and learners with the content of the qualification system rather than subjecting them to overly-centralised control and standardisation.
Translated title of the contributionThe problem at the root of our education system
Original languageEnglish
TypeCivil Service Magazine
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2010

Bibliographical note

Title of Journal: Goverment Gazette
Page From: 16


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