This is the time to ask urgent WHY questions about the future of schools

Old orthodoxies need to be challenged so we can grasp the opportunities of the moment

Sir Tim Brighouse

Former London Commissioner for Schools, and Chief Education Officer for both Oxford and Birmingham

‘Why’ has always been a favourite thought-provoking device of the best teachers, philosophers and scientists. Covid 19 and its interruption of schooling now provokes a handful of urgent ‘why’ questions about the future of schools.

Why… persist with the current exam system?

Why persist with our antiquated and expensive examination and testing system for 11 and 16 year olds? We are the only western developed country to do it. The huge costs of running exams at 16 – yielding annual profits of over £100m to three exam boards, (Edexcel, AQA and OCR) alone – is borne by hard-pressed school budgets.  Nationally set tests and exams internally marked, externally moderated, validated by designated regional universities and regulated by OFQUAL could serve perfectly well for Primary tests and GCSE. This year the pandemic has forced us to trust teachers’ professional judgement: next year let’s choose to do so and fall in line with all our international competitors.

Why... should these tests and exams be taken at the same age?

Why not, as with all the rest of life’s tests – for example musical instruments, car driving and degrees – take them when the student is ready, whatever the age rather than all at the same age? After all, nobody now leaves education at 16 so GCSEs taken at a single age has two main undesirable consequences. First, because it is norm-referenced it has a predetermined failure rate with depressing consequences which become self-fulfilling for some candidates who are not yet ready while slowing the learning progress of others. Secondly, even with all their well-researched but rarely acknowledged error rates, GCSE results, likes SATS at age 11, are easily measurable and set the fashion for what has become a punitive and lopsided accountability regime shortening teacher’s careers and distorting pupils’ curricular experiences.

Why… are schools, except those small ones in villages, still organised in separate age groups?

In no other human activity are we locked into peer groups. From the early years it leads to disadvantage in sport and academically for the summer born. At secondary level it exacerbates behaviour/disciplinary issues and contributes to the false premise that schools need to be large to offer a viable curriculum, especially post-sixteen. Mix the age groups and that’s no longer the case and schools can be more human scale. In any case why have post sixteen in every school when in Hampshire and other places, Sixth -Form and Tertiary Colleges had proved so successful? Smaller schools would make it much more likely that every pupil, especially those who are naturally shy or vulnerable, forms a worthwhile relationship with at least one member of staff. Without that no child is really at school: physically present – yes; but likely to learn -no.

Why….are schools still organised into fixed terms with long summer holidays?

Why... can’t we use the pandemic lockdown to introduce a more intelligent accountability system?

There will be no league tables published this summer and Ofsted Inspections are suspended. When they are resumed we need to have devised a whole school reporting system describing a balanced curriculum with renewed emphasis on the arts, how far the school is taking advantage of a newly established Open School,  student commitment and well-being and their take up of a set of cultural and sporting experiences in and out of school. To the basics of English and Maths, we need to add a capacity to use the new technologies, for without that individually and collectively we are lost. And when Ofsted does return let’s abandon the four categories. All schools have strengths and weaknesses: it’s how they are improving which parents want to hear about.

School leaders are totally preoccupied with crisis management at the moment. Let’s ask this handful of pertinent questions of policy makers in England Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland. Post Covid-19 is a moment to reflect but also a moment to grasp opportunities.

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