Exams - Government provides the turkey, we've got the cutlery

Exams - Government provides the turkey, we've got the cutlery

Simon Lebus weighs in on the debate over whether schools are responsible for ensuring they produce work ready young people.
In a speech in 1961, President Eisenhower referred to the ‘military-industrial complex’ as a way of describing the complex network of relationships between business, government and the military that sustained the growth of military spending during the Cold War. This was a common feature of much left wing political discourse, the implication being that policy (in particular increases in defence expenditure) was being driven by the interests of the producer groups that were part of the military-industrial complex rather than by a proportionate response to the underlying strategic threats and political uncertainties that had given rise to the creation of that military-industrial complex in the first place. A consequence of this was that it encouraged a similar response from the Soviets thereby creating a self-sustaining increase in the overall level of threat that then had to be met by further increases in defence expenditure, thus leading to an acceleration in the arms race.

I was reminded of this by Kevin Stannard’s recent piece in the TES in which he referred to a recent joint seminar organised by BIS and the Education Select Committee where there was disagreement about the extent to which our school system should be focusing on making sure that school leavers are "work ready". This is something that the CBI has been pressing for, and on the face of it, it sounds plausible. However, as my colleague Tim Oates points out, personal qualities such as compliance with work culture, diligence in a work context, and specific skill sets such as working and communicating with others are all likely to be most effectively achieved in long duration training that incorporates structured immersion in the workplace (something achieved in countries such as Austria, Switzerland and Germany where there are well-established vocational routes). In this, therefore, employers have a key role to play.

However, Kevin Stannard suggests that much of the responsibility for this state of affairs has less to do with a failure by employers to recognise that the English education system-with its heavy emphasis on general education-is poorly configured for the development of work ready qualities, and more to do with the collective failures of an education-industrial complex (rather along the lines of the military-industrial complex) which consists of employers, universities, government, the inspection framework and the public examinations industry.

He talks of the influence of the public exam industry on how education works, and suggests it creates a situation where curricula are constrained by the content of tests, and where teaching takes second place to test prep. He goes on to state that those who sell the tests (i.e. the exam boards) are heavily involved in influencing the shape of our education and assessment system through sponsorship of conferences, lobbying of politicians and so on.

However, this fails to recognise the reality of the last ten to fifteen years, which has been that the government has been the principal agent of change within the education system. During this time, under both Labour and Coalition governments, it has steered through major reforms of education funding, school organisation, accountability mechanisms, the national curriculum and the exam system. Unlike the military-industrial complex, where the defence firms were held to be, if not behind the steering wheel at least in the front passenger seat, the exam boards, in contrast, have had to support a series of reforms driven by a succession of governments that saw the exam system as probably the easiest and most responsive lever of change within the education system; the exam boards have had to operate in other words within a framework that has been created almost entirely by Government .

This has all happened during a time when economic uncertainty and an increased focus on performance measurement has led to a more instrumental approach to student achievement throughout the education system. As a consequence schools themselves are often less ready to take risks and less ready to spend time working on elements of that soft curriculum which develops the skills sought after by the CBI, and helps contribute to the educational breadth that Kevin Stannard complains is now so often lacking.

In his blog, Kevin Stannard states that asking exam boards whether it is a good idea to maintain a battery of tests is like asking Martin Lockheed whether we should renew Trident or putting Bernard Matthews in charge of making recommendations on the ideal Christmas dinner. However, the reality is that it is the Government that is responsible for providing the main course; arguably, the exam boards do no more than provide the cutlery and quality assurance that the turkey has been properly cooked.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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