The news that the EBacc is not, after all, going to replace GCSEs in 2015 has been greeted with, it seems, joy unconfined in schools. Nevertheless, its retreat does not mean that the EBacc, or ideas just as bad, will not re-emerge, because the essential misconceptions that underlie the reform of educational qualifications remain.
The obsession with qualifications is frustrating: good qualifications do not, per se, lead to good teaching. Poor, or mediocre, teachers can teach to the test however sophisticated the test is. At the same time inspirational teaching will usually lead to high performances in tests or exams, whether they are good tests or bad tests. The confusion over this in the UK public debate is unhelpful: the quality of exams and the quality of teaching are separate issues, and the Government, and the educational sector, need separate action plans to address them.
To take the issue of qualifications first: the crisis in the UK’s examining industry is not primarily to do with specifications (formerly known as syllabus), nor even to do with the timing and nature of the exams. The crisis is that the threat of litigation has made UK exams mechanical in the way marks are awarded, and mechanistic in the way that exams are marked, remarked, appealed and improved. An over-mechanistic structure simply doesn’t address the needs of students, who – in the end – are the customers of the exam boards.
The reform of qualifications needs to focus less therefore on which subjects are taken, when exams are taken and what the structure of the exams industry is, and more on the way in which the industry seeks to deliver ‘quality assurance’ to the customer. (It is a moot point whether the exams industry or the retail banking sector currently underdelivers most to its customers!).
In schools, the heart of the problem is not the qualifications pupils take – it is teaching. Many schools give reasons for changing qualifications which amount to the unsubstantiated assertion that the change will improve teaching, which is nonsense. What improves teaching is showing teachers how to teach better, not giving them a different set of subject content to bore pupils with, or a different test to obsess over in their lessons. Most teachers have a year of intensive training at the beginning of their career, and then fractured and spasmodic development thereafter. Fifteen years into a forty year career, teachers have little idea how the educational research has moved on – what has been shown by highly effective studies to be worth pursuing and where, just as importantly, what seemed to be clever ideas have been demonstrated to be little more than headline grabbing fads.
That’s why, in the school in which I work, we have employed a professional teaching coach to work one to one with any teacher who wants to improve their practice. Our coach observes lessons, makes suggestions, having listened to what teachers want to improve, and seeks to help them develop. The overall cost to the salaries budget is modest, the extent to which it helps significant. It has also led to teachers sharing the improvements, and in some cases innovations, with their colleagues. A revolution is slowly taking place. Teachers’ ‘inset’ is actually delivering real benefits week by week in the classroom throughout the school year.
We are doing our bit; now it’s the turn of Mr Gove, and Ofqual, to do theirs. Reform of the qualifications industry is overdue. The EBC was not the answer; process reform is needed.