The #IOEDebates offers a rich vein of educational thinking. Panelists are dedicated experts within their education field. Hence the debates are often a level or two above a chance encounter, water-cooler conversation.
Chaired by Professor Becky Francis, Director, UCL Institute of Education, What if… we re-designed our school testing and assessment system from scratch? brought Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment, Iwho I find very convincing) and three new speakers to the fore. Ken Jones, Lead Policy Advisor, National Education Union, Dave Mellor, Director of Assessment and Curriculum, AQA and Dr Ruth Dann, Associate Professor, Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment, UCL Institute of Education.
Ken Jones stole the show.
What if… we re-designed our school testing and assessment system from scratch?
I’d like to thank the IOE for this invitation to utopian thinking. This encouragement to dispatch some news from a society which does not yet exist.
What are utopians? What are they for? Well they are a way of liberating thinking, a way of providing a different perspective on the present and lifting ourselves out, above, present horizons. Constructed at the same time on the basis of some internal logic which acts as a discipline; in utopias it’s not the case that anything goes. In his utopian fiction, “News from nowhere,” the designer, writer and revolutionary socialists, William Morris, writes about a future society. A society created through revolution and through flashbacks presents and a history of how it came to be. I’ll proceed on that basis but I’m substituting for revolution and election.
So sometime in the third decade of the 21st century the world of English education drew breath and paused for reflection.Schools had been through difficult times, primary teachers had worked the rhythms set by Key Stage 2 SATs, Secondary teachers had their work steered by Progress 8, new public management techniques required the constant production of data for purposes of accountability and schools were groaning under that strain. England in those days was a country whose own education policy makers, considered to be a world leader, but strangely was regarded in other parts of the world as an outlier who’s approached to assessment resulted in memorization, drills and other aspects of rote learning which had an excessive influence on teaching and learning – at least that’s what the OECD found.Teachers were told by their own policymakers that this was not just a reasoned educational choice but an expression of national identity. “We have the character of an island nation,” David Cameron told European leaders in 2013 and “we can no more change this sensibility than we can drain the English Channel.” But tired of isolation, looking for some kind of professional restoration, teachers had managed to turn the general election of 2022 into a public forum in which an underfunded an educationally impoverished school system was put on trial.The majority won by a coalition of parties committed to educational change, opened the way potentially to major reform – but what kind of reform. England had been exposed to a long process of induced forgetting. What had happened before 1988 (that’s year zero of educational policy) the involvement of teachers in developing practices of assessment and examination didn’t form part of a collective memory. The rich body of work that sought to link assessment to learning, theoretically and practically, had no consistent place in policy debates. In these circumstances the coalition took a bold decision. For if it had learnt one thing from the governments of the past, it was to be bold at the beginning, in setting out of course of policy and proceeded incrementally on that basis.
The government decided to suspend all statutory testing before the age of 16. It felt a modest objective, it restrained itself from going further. It would no longer rely on normative systems of progress measurement to hold schools accountable. It would rely on sample testing to identify national trends. It would expect schools to conduct self evaluations of their achievements and to make these available to critical examination by local advisors. At the same time it decided to reallocate educational resources to the encouragement of assessment methods which were more closely aligned to supporting students learning. No longer would money be poured into baseline assessments, the phonics check, the multiplication check, SATs and the myriad kinds of data tracking technology that schools thought they needed to invest in.
“What kind of learners do we want?” asked the Secretary of State for education (in previous life a primary school teacher). What kinds of assessments can help create such learners… how can teachers make clear to them the objectives of learning… how can they give feedback that makes a difference… how can we develop learners who know how to help themselves learn. These were the questions that professionals were asked to address but the questions didn’t get a soft landing. Secretaries of state emerged from the distant past to warn that they would grievously damage the standards agenda, media criticism was constants, teachers wanted to know where were the researchers, trainers and advisors who could help bring these ideas into being and give them practical life. To which the Secretary of State acknowledged that there at the beginning of a long road but it was time for England to rejoin the main, to reconnect research and education to learn from other countries. “The English Channel” she said “should not be a barrier to ideas.” Out of the experience of others we could lay the foundations of a modest new world of our own.
At this point, if I were William Morris I would depict you the educational riches which eventually flowed from these bold changes, the empowerment of teachers and as interpreters of policy and not its servants, the enjoyment of learners, the sense of education as a collective endeavor, not a fight for positional advantage but I haven’t got his pen nor his soaring optimism. So I’ll have to limit myself to saying that what the Secretary of State initiated and what the sector took up and eventually embedded and elaborated was a great deal better than what we have at present.
The power of a great story-teller. Thank you Ken and #IOEDebates.