Reform rather than revolution needed

Video transcript

Tim Oates: [00:00:12] Can I really welcome Barnaby Lenon today, there's the huge discussion going on at the moment about the future of assessment in England. We're also concerned here about in Cambridge, about the future of education globally, but today we're going to focus on the future of assessment in England. It's a great pleasure to welcome Barnaby. Barnaby got a CBE in 2019 for services to education, and I think it's right to call you a veteran educator. Actually, Barnaby veteran in the in the best possible sense, somebody with huge accumulated experience, both in the front line teaching and in administering education and helping in its governance. And I come on to that in a moment. You've been a head teacher. You're currently professor and dean at University of Buckingham. I know that you've been a governor of 25 state and independent schools over time and that for six years you were a board member of Ofcom. Get real insight into the management and development of qualifications in this country and their impact, their impact on education. And I think that's it. I mean, the critical thing that you you mix direct experience of delivering education in the classroom with the management of institutions and the management of policy. At the moment, we got many commissions. The Times asked for the new Pearson HMRC, the Chartered College of Teaching and Rethinking Assessment Group, and we've got many, many voices raised now. A lot of old agenda are suddenly appearing. We've got accurate statements about the system and many highly inaccurate statements, some of which we've commented on.

Tim Oates: [00:01:57] We've got sensible suggestions about policy development and wild statements of desire, I suppose for me. I think we need to maintain a sense of complexity, the complexity of the interactions within the education system, the need for sophisticated policy informed by research when COVID has been a shock and we have to understand the way in which the pandemic has impacted on individuals, families and schools. And it's given us very specific challenges. But we've got to both. We've got to balance both the response to those individuals affected by it directly by the pandemic with the long view that sophisticated policy requires. And you've given your view on a whole range of of important matters, but specifically that on qualifications in your in your blog rethinking assessment, and we really wanted to give you the opportunity to talk through both your thinking and the things that you've said in the blog and the things that you've said more recently, reflecting on the statements of others. The great thing is, Barnaby, I think, is that you blend educational philosophy with insights from practise, with the lessons from research with realistic expectations of what policy can achieve. And you integrate the integrate these in a very calm and methodical way. And that's what I think we'll hear from you today. So it's a great pleasure to welcome you today. Over to you, Barnaby.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:03:32] Well, thank you very much, Tim. So I think if we're talking about my my CV, what I want to emphasise is that I was a teacher in schools, secondary schools for 40 years and a lot of what I believe obviously stems from what I learnt in the classroom teaching mainly teenage boys. I think it's also worth adding that when I retired as a headmaster, I wrote two books. The first was I wanted to answer the question How is it that? A state comprehensive schools that have large numbers of disadvantaged pupils sometimes get fantastic results, either primary schools or secondary schools progress eight, progress eight schools. So I went and visited a stack of those schools that had the highest progress and particularly progress eight results and found out what they did. And I wrote a book about it. And then having done that, I wrote a second book about vocational education in England, which has been a bit of a disaster really since about the 1860s. So these are the things which inform me, as you say, there are a lot of groups thinking about the future of education in England at the moment, like the Times, which published their interim report yesterday. And many of these groups are advocating cutting exams as a form of assessment. And today I'm speaking in a personal capacity. I'm not representing anyone, but what I really want to say is that I quite like exams as an assessment method.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:05:12] And I think that what we have now is not as bad as some of these groups are representing, and clumsy reforms could easily set education in England back by a decade. I do support many of the reforms of the last decade fronted by Putin and by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, but not unconditionally, of course. So let me just start by saying what what a GCSE is for. I think it's important we do answer that question. So as I said in my blog, you know, one of the aims is to rank pupils for the benefit of universities, colleges and employers who want to use grades for selection purposes. And you know, my my hairdresser who runs a large chain, I asked him, how did he select from the many applicants he has for jobs in his in his shops? And he said he only recruits young people with a grade four and above in English and maths. And that was the rather surprising answer, I thought. But the point was that experience had taught him that if you can't pass English and maths GCSE, you're unlikely to have some of the skills he needs skills like basic intelligence and diligence. So he finds exam results as a useful shorthand, if you like for identifying those things. And another purpose is to determine which courses pupils should go on to next. And I quite understand that if you're a very selective private school, for example, you might not need GCSEs.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:06:53] But most schools need to sift out which pupils are capable of doing A-levels, which should be doing b text or going to an Fe college to do a vocational course. And GCSE grades are a pretty fair and reliable way of doing that. I mean, every secondary school in England requires a minimum number of GCSE passes if you want to stay on and take A-levels, and most require a very good GCSE grade in the subject concerned if you're wanting to take A-level maths or science or more languages, for example. And they do that for one simple reason that years of experience tell them that someone with a weak GCSE grade will struggle to pass the A-level, and that would be a complete waste of time. If you want to be a doctor, you need three grades at A-level, something like that. Normally in sciences, and that's not because doctors need a great deal of A-level knowledge, it's that passing a medical degree is difficult. All medical schools operate to the same quite high standards, and if you can't get good A-level grades, you will on average find it very hard to pass a medical degree. So you do need some sort of qualifications for that reason. Another purpose of GCSE is to accredit the years of work that children are put into these subjects. The average child is taking eight or nine GCSE subjects and will only continue with two of those into the sixth form, even if they go into the sixth form, which many don't.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:08:25] Do we not want to mark the end of their education in the majority of subjects with some form of certification. It's often not appreciated that over 60 percent of pupils change their school or college at the age of 16, and they need qualifications to take with them. Another reason for having GCSE is is to judge schools, which people obviously often don't like this fact. But given that the taxpayer funds state schools and we believe in giving parents reliable information about their local schools, we need some data about school performance. And the main indicator here is the progress eight score, the progress made by each child from the age of 11 to 16, and that has to be based on some form of sensible assessment at the age of 16. But most teachers would agree with me that another aim of GCSEs is to motivate pupils to commit knowledge to the long term memory. I have taught many thousands of teenage boys and they don't generally work hard. They're not especially interested in pleasing their teachers. But many do start to worry when GCSEs approach, they know that their grades will have an impact on their lives. And every teacher of teenage boys knows that they pick up speed as GCSEs approach.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:09:45] But why should pupils be forced to memorise stuff? Because the information in your long term memory is very important. You can't think critically or analytically about a subject unless you know something about it. And it's simply not true to say, as some people say, you know, we are well, we forget what we learn at school. You know, I can still remember most of the poems, most of the science, most of the French I learnt at school. Despite, you know, not having any further acquaintance with these subjects for about 50 years. Too many children are taught things, but learn little. It is commitment to the long term memory that is the important element, and boys especially need to be driven to memorise and exams all of that driver. And that's why exams at 15 or 16 are the norm across the world. And those people who so frequently claim that we are the only country in the world who has exams at 16 are just wrong. As Tim and Suter, his colleague of recently documented looking at the systems in the 19th highest performing countries. And of those, 19, two thirds have external assessment at this age, and the few who don't use external assessment like Sweden are beginning to move back to it. So, you know, these are good reasons for having some sort of assessment at the age of 15 or 16. That's saying, however, I'm now going to turn to the problems that there are with exams and then you know what we might do about it.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:11:23] There are, I think, three or four quite significant underlying problems, and there are a number of others which will touch on the high stakes nature of exam results is a problem for us. They determine the future of children, the future of teachers and the future of schools and schools with poor progress. Eight schools, for example, often get bad Ofsted inspection grades, and that can often initiate a cycle of decline. They're forced to become academies or forced to move from one academy chain to another. Headteachers lose their jobs, but this is not the fault of the exams themselves. It's the fault of government. Exams feed into what we call the accountability system, holding schools to account. So, you know, they have to be fair and they're important. And universities are also to blame. Universities have to select and be seen to be selecting fairly, and they know that past exam performance is a good predictor of degree outcomes. So they select using exam grades, showing little interest in all the other things that the critics of exams are rightly keen on, like sport and personality, social skills, initiative, leadership qualities and so on. And as I know, from years of writing references, universities in America take much more interest in those things. Exam results do matter more now than they did in the past, I mean, I started teaching A-levels in the 1970s and in the seventies and eighties, pupils who did badly at my schools went into the army or into a job, and there was little stigma attached to those who didn't go to university.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:13:05] And that must be because in those days, a relatively small proportion of the school population went to university, but now half do. And the second thing I want to mention, even though it's slightly technical, I think it's important and that is the comparable outcomes approach to grading. Because in the period 1990 to 2010, we saw rampant grade inflation. This got to the point where quite mediocre pupils that I was teaching were getting outstanding results. And the more selective universities and employers were no longer able to use GCSE or A-level results to choose students, so they had to invent their own tests. And in 2010, Michael Gove and Ofqual decided to put a stop to this, and they did so by fixing the proportion of pupils getting each grade in each subject. So if last year 65 percent of children got a grade four or better in English language GCSE next year, that same proportion would get a grade four or better. The difficulty with this approach is that if the ability of the cohort improved, perhaps because they're being better taught, thirty five percent would still fail. And that seems a bit unfair. So in order to meet this criticism, of course, I'll introduce the national reference tests in English and maths, and a large sample of pupils.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:14:33] Now take these tests in March before their GCSEs, and the standard of this test is the same every year. And if the average mark creeps up, Ofqual allows the number getting each GCSE pass grade to inflate. Now, that still leaves a criticism that far too many pupils about a third fail their GCSEs. Most must have learnt something at school, but that doesn't seem to be acknowledged. And that's partly because society and the users of qualifications have designated Grade four GCSE as the pass, and every grade below four is a fail. So how people interpret and use exam results is an extremely important part of any consideration in terms of reforming the system. I would also say that the system has become much less flexible than it was in the past, I mean, when I was head of department, the then Oxford and Cambridge board allowed me to write my own A-level geography syllabus and change it every year to reflect the particular and peculiar interests of my staff. That was incredible, perhaps unfair flexibility. After 1988, the start the state, the government started to determine what should be taught in schools, with the national curriculum relaunched in 2011, followed by new GCSE and A-level specifications. And because Ofqual is rightly concerned about fairness, the main exam boards had to produce syllabus based on these specifications.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:16:11] And so in many respects, they are all quite similar to each other, and schools that have tried to break away from this rigidity have found it hard. The International Baccalaureate, but an obvious alternative to A-levels, has struggled because of the additional expense. And state school funding at sixth form level having been cut. The other alternative to A-levels, the Cambridge Preview, was scrapped a year ago. And fourthly, there's something about exam grades unreliability, of course, own research measures unreliability in this way. If you give an exam script to 10 experienced markers, to what extent do they come up with the same mark? And the answer is very often in the case of maths, sciences and modern languages, these exams are reliable, but often not in the case of essay based subjective subjects like English and history. And that wouldn't matter greatly, were it not for the fact that increasing numbers of universities are asking for an A or a star grade in your A-levels. So slipping to a B grade in your history, A-level will prevent you from taking up your place at a top university, which is pretty galling if a different marker might well have given you an A.. Here are a few other complaints about exams, which I think are worth thinking about. A lot of people at the moment are saying, well, exams are very stressful and pupils are suffering mental health problems as a result.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:17:46] And it's true that the recognition of mental health problems in teenagers has grown in recent years, partly because mental health has got worse and partly because we're paying much more attention to it. But I'm not sure it's always the fault of exams. I took part in a survey of our schools in Birmingham not long ago, which showed that the stress that pupils felt was caused by the uncertainty about exams during COVID, not with the exams themselves. They were just very keen for the exams to happen. The average number of GCSEs taken is eight, and no one takes more than, let's say, 12. If you take 10 GCSE, you have to sit 20 to 25 exam papers. They're all quite short, but it's reasonable to believe that this is quite a lot. The problem is that if you reduce the number of papers you are reducing the size of the sample of the syllabus you're examining, and that makes the exam less reliable. All some of you on this call might say, Well, exams are stressful, and that's one of their merits. The stress is what motivates the pretty large number of unmotivated 16 year olds to do some work. Then quite a lot of people are saying at the moment that exams don't measure some important things. And that's certainly true. When I was the headmaster of Harrow, I started a qualification for my sixth formers called the Harrow Diploma, which was accredited by an exam board, and they had to do seven things of worked.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:19:20] One was passed some exams, but the other the other six were things like, you know, learning how to do public speaking, involvement in the arts, involvement in sport, community service, learning specific skills, doing work experience. So, you know, I am one of those who agreed sat exams do not measure everything. The trouble is that I don't myself want my pupils to be too formally assessed for their ability to play football or perform the school play. I think that could reduce the enjoyment of those things, but these things don't have to be ignored either. We are a bit, too, as a society exam orientated, but this might be partly the fault of parents and schools. It hasn't become harder to get into university, it's become easier. Teachers and parents who stress the importance of exam grades the whole time are causing the stress that they're now complaining about. And incidentally, it's worth, you know, acknowledging the fact that after 2010, we greatly reduce the number and frequency of exams sat by our children by scrapping modules, module resets and January exams. And also, there's a bit of hypocrisy here because those heads who complain about the pressure of exams normally bang on about how well their school does in the league tables. I am a great believer in non examined activity and not examined.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:20:50] Activity is quite weak in many state schools because of a lack of time in the week and lack of money, so they need more of both of those things to allow the activities that I strongly believe in trips, expeditions, sport, creative arts subjects, all of those sort of things to flourish. The economy has changed so that now more jobs require a reasonable degree of literacy and numeracy. And what you are supposed to learn at school maybe has come to matter more. But I do have sympathy with David Goodhart, who talks about the three types of jobs jobs of the head, hand and heart jobs at the head, which require intellect and exam passes. Jobs of the hand requiring practical skills like gardening, cooking or hair and beauty where written exams are less useful. But assessment is still needed and jobs are at the heart. Like the caring professions, social care where personality is as important as the things measured by written exams. Jobs of the head have grown as a percentage of the total, but jobs at the hands and heart are still very important, so we should avoid placing all the emphasis on written exams. Schools have become a bit too exam orientated, but exams themselves are not to blame. If I get fat by overeating, I don't blame the food for goodness sake. Then there's the issue, which has been raised by asking which I think is quite important of the forgotten third, who fail English and maths GCSEs and you know, if you get a grade three in GCSE English and maths, you have to reset it the following year.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:22:44] That was the decision that was made because of Alison Wolff's view that passing the GCSE is a principal requirement of many employers, and she may well have been right there. So most of those revisiting the GCSEs in year 12 fail. A friend of mine has taught young people maths GCSE reset for many years in a and an FIH college, and he was telling me the other day that of the 30 percent who fail a GCSE age 16 20 out of that, 30 are most unlikely to pass ever because they're to enumerate or lazy and ending their free college teaching. The GCSE read restart class is really difficult. They are not responsive to discipline. They dislike the subject. They're very hard to motivate to deal with the problem of the forgotten. Third, you could require all pupils to take a pass, fail online literacy tests and numeracy tests when they're ready to do so. And a higher proportion of the forgotten third would then get a qualification. But their literacy and numeracy level would probably still be low. And once employers realised how low the level was, that qualification might not be of great value. A lot of people, including the CBI at the moment, are saying our schools don't prepare pupils for work.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:24:07] They've been saying that for years and it's, you know, a reasonable thing to talk about. No one quite knows what work will be over the lifetime of current pupils. That's one issue. And I would say that good schools do take an interest in the things that matter to employers like creativity and team working and schools. And when children take exams, they do learn about things like being organised and self-discipline and how to read and write, which you might think could be useful skills for employers. So. I think that, you know, I remember when I was when I was 11, my former teacher said to me, Lennon, you're going to end up selling matches on the embankment. It's rather strange idea, but on the whole, I'm quite glad that he did not prepare me for the world of work. So what should be done about exams? I would avoid replacing written exams with too much teacher assessed coursework. When I was on the board of Ofqual, we cut back on teacher assessed coursework after 2012 for pretty good reasons that teachers felt they were under a great deal of pressure to ensure their pupils got good results, so they and parents gave much undue assistance. The system was unfair because pupils with pushy parents and teachers did best. Many teachers, including me and pupils, found that the continuous assessment through coursework was very stressful and burdensome.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:25:48] The coursework in subjects like maths and science particularly was formulaic and dull. It did little to generate motivation or indeed real understanding of the subject. So years of experience tell us that teacher assessed coursework. Obviously, a fundamental thing in the subject, like art or design, technology or dance or drama. But on the whole, for other subjects, it sounds a lot better than it is, and any older teacher will confirm that. And I would also avoid records of achievement, which were tried by most schools, including mine in the 1990s and were ghastly. They were just a long list of everything the pupil had achieved in life in a folder, and universities and employers had no interest in them. They were just too complicated and too unfair. They reflected the effort that went into compiling your record and not really your ability. So finally, then what would I do? I I would allow the reform of GCSEs where a lot of teachers feel there, their inadequate and standard. I think a lot of English teachers are unhappy with their GCSE maths and science teachers, less so. So I would revisit English GCSE. I would I think that syllabuses should be allowed to evolve computational thinking, for example, should be added to mass level new subjects can come along. I mean, I'd love to teach a subject called the study of the Evolution of the Earth from 4.5 billion years ago to the present day, looking at geology, climate and life based on knowledge which we simply didn't have before 1970.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:27:34] So I think there should be evolution. We should encourage schools to move away from an undue focus on exams. Schools might devise their own diplomas like I did the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and the International Baccalaureate already do this to some extent. The growth of the extended project since 2015 has been a very helpful move away from exams. I certainly think that there should be a national programme to ensure that every pupil aged eight or maybe 11 who knows and above has reliable access to a computer, a keyboard and internet access at home. These things are a basic necessity, particularly for secondary age pupils, or at least they they certainly should be. What about vocational education? Now, some people on this call will argue in favour of vocational alternatives to GCSEs. For those who are less academic? But there remains a strong argument against this, which was put by Nick Gibb. And that is that past experience suggests that if schools are allowed to push pupils into a particular direction at the age of 13 or 14, for example, vocational courses as an alternative to GCSE as they often get it wrong. And we know that able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were routinely denied access to the EBacc GCSE subjects in favour of vocational alternatives, which were investigated by Alison Wolf and found to be worse than useless.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:29:12] If you look at the 2011 Wolf Report. If an exam has no status in the public realm, it actually turns into a negative qualification. It signals you as being unintelligent. So the only way vocational alternatives could be made to work is if the course is so good that it leads onto other good vocational courses, which lead to good jobs. There's no point in banging on about parity of esteem for vocational courses. You know, that's just nonsense. The point what you need is evidence that they lead to a decent job and then you get, then you get parity of esteem. Sea levels, I think, are a good innovation, but they're quite demanding. So routes to a level two T levels are going to be needed. Apprentices need an application system like UCAS. It's far too complicated applying for an apprenticeship at the moment. And finally, I would say so long as English and history teachers want to use essays to examine students as opposed to, say, multiple choice questions. There will be a degree of mark and grade unreliability, and the solution might be to publish alongside the Grade A measure of how secure the grade actually is and how close the student was to a higher or lower grade boundary. Then some users of these qualifications might, if we're lucky, use the grades more. Is this a good time to rethink the assessment system in England? In some ways, it's not a very good time.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:30:52] It would certainly represent a massive increase in workload at a time that teachers are very pressed and much in England is going well. Not that you'd know that by reading the Times commission. No politician is going to want to tear up the existing system if it's good in many ways. Education in our schools in England has been improving for the past 20 years and is now arguably as good as it's ever been. And you'd be a fool who risks if you want to take the risk of turning it back. Look at the PS of schools. England is doing really well and most importantly, improving. But on the other hand, we know from the experience of the last decade that it takes. It takes eight nine years for reforms to come in. So if people want to start planning changes now, that's probably right. Personally, I am worried about dumbing down. You know, I was teaching A-levels up until the introduction of GCSEs, and it's, you know, it's an important thing for everyone to look at A-level papers in the years before 1990 and then GCSE papers in the years after 1990, especially in subjects like modern languages, to see how rapidly dumbing down can happen. The teacher assessed grades of the last two years have resulted in massive grade inflation and have created university students with limited knowledge, in many cases, an inability to write essays.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:32:27] I'm talking to you from Oxford. I was talking to an Oxford University chemistry tutor the other day who was saying that the, you know, the new undergraduates who joined this last October know very little chemistry. And that's because they didn't go through the rigour of taking public exams. This year, 20 22 were going to see students taking A-levels who never sat GCSEs, and we have a long tail of pupils in this country who don't learn much in secondary school. We read in the Sunday Times this week that many 11 year olds are joining secondary schools with very limited reading ability. Some because they're spending too long on their phones or devices and just never reading a book. So I'm a bit nervous about dumbing down in many areas of the curriculum, and I believe that if we start dropping exams, the situation could get much worse. I taught boys for 40 years. Coursework was often dull and it was certainly corrupted, but I made my lessons fun and I took my pupils on great trips that had nothing to do with the exam syllabus. But exams were a thing which motivated my pupils and generated drive in the classroom. On the whole, the results were fair and exams were the tool which placed knowledge in their long term memory, which I believe is a principal purpose of education. Back to you, Tim.

Tim Oates: [00:34:03] Thank you very much indeed for not breathless, but very succinct and wide ranging journey through many of the issues and from different perspectives again, from a view, from your experience as a as an educator of young people as well as participants in policy processes, really valuable. I've read a couple of things in the last couple of days because of some documents I'm preparing, which I think are very salient. All of your comments on the unintended consequences and collateral effects of particular measures have a modular assessment or not, and so on. I think a very prudent and, you know, the kind of stuff we need in sophisticated policy and the stuff I've been reading has been, particularly on Finland. There is a danger in changing our system. We we make assumptions about what's happening around the rest, around the world and in other countries and actually pass them like ships in the night. Finland at the moment is saying, actually, we've got a very, very high level of testing in schools because we don't have national examinations. Interesting. They're very concerned about that. Likewise, they're actually trying to increase the number of people being entered for the equivalent of A-levels.

Tim Oates: [00:35:18] The Finnish matriculation ATATU because they want to decrease the proliferation of university admissions tests. You know, interesting, very interesting and quite contrary to what people think and say about Finland. So, you know, again, we have to really drive through with solid evidence of the kind that you've been advocating and the evidence that you've been running through. I'll I'll bring in some of the questions, so I'll take them in order because the first one is, I think, very apposite, although you dealt with some aspects of it. It contains something quite interesting, which has been quite discriminating about the purpose of examinations, particularly GCSE. And although it's from the ever present anonymous, if we applying Newton's purpose profile framework, do you feel that GCSE is an equitable and fair measure to feed into the accountability system? Is it possible to design other measures to judge schools and lead GCSE and A-level to focus only on accreditation and discerning who can and cannot take the best next step and cause so many things? Really introducing discrimination about purpose into our instruments and into the way in which people regard them and use the outcomes from them.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:36:38] Yeah, unfortunately, we don't we are, as a system, don't have much control over how people use qualifications, that would be my first point that, you know, we can. We can devise a system, but people will use it in the way they want to use it, and it's and it's quite hard to manage that. I mean, I use the example of, you know, grade four being a pass fail grade. I mean, certainly when I was with Ofqual, we never talked about grade four being a pass fail grade, but obviously the government introduced it. And then Nick Gibb tried to up the game by making grade five or GCSE a good pass. And so do I think that Jesus is equitable and fair? Yeah, I think it's I think it most certainly is the most equitable and fair system that you're likely to come up with. I mean, what is not equitable? What is not fair is having large amounts of teacher assessed coursework. And I mean, we can talk more about that if you like.

Tim Oates: [00:37:42] The next question deals with that actually quite fun. But just just returning to to, I think one of the implications of what you've said and what the question stimulated. I think a lot of policy inertia around certification assessment and qualifications in the UK is created by people, researchers, policy makers, educationalists concerned about the misuse of the outcomes of assessment as if we can't do anything about that. I mean, we do have, you know, we have membership organisations like HNC. Where are the discussions? There are discussions about educational policy. We have a membership organisation for universities, UCAS, which deals explicitly with the management of the outcomes of qualifications. And yet we're concerned well, perhaps we shouldn't change the grades because, you know, a scoring system, a standardised score would be misused. Well, maybe we ought to undertake communication and start professional staff development amongst the users of the outcomes of assessment so that we can optimise what we do in measurement, in the confidence that the outcomes will be used appropriately when that seems like a bit of a gap in national policy and action. What's your reaction to that?

Barnaby Lenon: [00:39:01] Yeah, I completely agree. Well, okay. So I just make sort of two comments on that. First of all, we all need to acknowledge the fact that the Department for Education now controls everything in a way that they most certainly didn't do even 20 years ago. Um, you know, back in 1970, the secretary of state was only responsible for, you know, two or three decisions. He had two or three powers in relation to schools now. The secretary of state is responsible for almost everything. I mean, they control absolutely everything. And so in terms of policy making, we have a problem that everything now has to go through the Department for Education and then incidentally, through number 10, and we're not even sure who are are influencing those policy makers. Secretary of State for Education, they come and go pretty quickly. And so, you know, I completely I completely accept that we need a much more sophisticated approach to thinking about these things. But at the moment, at the moment, my observation is that these things are not very sophisticated. The Department for Education, probably one minister, comes up with an idea. There's a consultation. The consultation is short, the consultation is ignored and then regulations are created. The second thing I would point to and that is schools that I've already said that one of the problems with teacher assessed coursework is that. Teachers in schools have been understandably under pressure to get good results for their pupils, and that's one of the things that distorts teacher assessed coursework, particularly which, let's face it, is the old the big alternative to exams.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:40:54] But that's because we don't have a sort of professionalised approach to assessment within schools. And if we were to ensure that you know that there was somebody in every school who was trained in assessment, it was a high status qualification. They were paid more for doing that job, that teachers took it seriously, that there was there was clear control over head teachers putting pressure on their staff to get give all their children the best possible result. Then we might be in a position to introduce more teacher assessed coursework. I mean, while I was with the board at Ofqual, they looked at the scores that were giving being given by teachers for the speaking element of English GCSE. And they found that, you know, basically all children were getting a very high speaking element because it wasn't being properly moderated. And you know, there were loads of children who got 80 percent, let's say, in the speaking. And then 30 percent in the written. And it's just quite absurd. But that's because of the way in which we have we allowed. Teacher assessment to operate in our schools, we could do that differently.

Tim Oates: [00:42:23] Thank you. And I mean, that does lead into the segue nicely into the next question, which is it says what is your view on the potential return of more modular examinations? You did deal with modular and it would be good to collect your views about how you see this big block of exams nine to 10 GCSEs. A large number of of A-level papers in the summer. It's been argued that it can act as a defence against school disruption or in cases when students are unable to take assessments in the summer series. I mean, we've looked at that and it is certainly the case that if we had had the previous modular system, that probably would have helped the cohort of 2020, and it wouldn't have been much far less so for the cohort of 2021 assessment. And there was a balance of pros and cons for modular and for the 2010 coalition. Government really thought that the balance was in favour of removal of modular, particularly from A-levels and modular was always a bit of a problem in GCSE because the qualifications are so much smaller. So so what do you feel about this issue of the big block of assessment spreading it out? What's your your your position in relation to modular?

Barnaby Lenon: [00:43:36] Well, I would hope that we don't have to devise an assessment system in this country on the assumption that people's education is going to be frequently disrupted by a disease. I mean, obviously, if that's your assumption, then you would come up with something completely different. But the reason that I would say most people were pleased to see modules scrapped after 2015 basically was that we had become over examined. So in my school, like most schools, you know, pupils would start a course in September. They take their first module in December or January. They revisit that probably the following June and then again, the following December or January. And it was, you know, every single lesson right through the two year course was preparing for a forthcoming module that was one issue. And then the specific problem that Glenys Stacey had really at Ofqual was that there were some pupils who were sitting all their modules. Towards the end of the course, it was being treated as a linear course. In other words, there were other pupils who have been sitting, revisiting, revisiting, revisiting and Ofqual, quite rightly, I think said, Well, it's just unfair to have one grading system when you've got so many different routes into into that grade. So, me personally, I mean, well.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:45:12] Let's talk about ace levels, so ace levels were the way in which A-levels became modular. And I didn't like them at all because. In before, as levels began, the first year in the sixth form was a year when you could teach. You know, off the syllabus quite a bit. And many English teachers, for example, did that. It was much more fun, much less pressurised. There were many opportunities to do to do non exam activities once as levels came in. Of course, the amount of exam based work that pupils were doing in the first year and year 12 grew massively. So I'm pleased that personally that we've gone back to linear GCSEs, even though. There is more emphasis on revision and learning at the end of the course, but then, you know, universities were telling us ten years ago, far too many students are coming up not knowing much because they'd done their exams in year 12 or at the beginning of year 13. By the time they come to us, they've forgotten it all. So, but in terms of in terms of, you know, just my experience and I think that of many older teachers, I prefer on balance linear, even though it's a bit more stressful.

Tim Oates: [00:46:42] Thank you, and we've got a lot of questions, 25 of them will. We'll run through a few more in the 10 minutes I have remaining, but we can also take a look at them after the seminar is finished and put some stuff up on the website in response to them Barnaby. If you if you'll be kind enough to help us in that. Quite a few sort of imply that you really are asking you're asking for an exams only system heavily emphasising exams, but I picked up something rather different, actually. You're combining three things which are mentioned in a lot of the questions. Dependable assessment where we can do it at manageable, dependable assessment. But you're also asking for a shift in what selectors take into account when they make their decisions so that the system becomes less dependent solely on some of these high stakes elements of our assessment system. You've asked for some scrutiny of the way in which standards are set within those exams, and people have mentioned your criticism of comparable outcomes. I mention that the national reference test hasn't shown much shifting, actually. So we thought perhaps in the 10 minutes to return to this issue of how we determine standards. But you've also argued that exams do their overemphasis in preoccupation in the minds of of educators, understandably, because of the nature of accountability, leads to a distortion, has a distorting effect on the curriculum. So, so some questions have raised the importance of honesty of other dimensions of of the public goods of education and the processes of the curriculum. And you have argued quite strongly that they should be preserved by good educators who should perhaps not not let themselves be drawn into an over exam dominated system.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:48:41] So, yeah, I think you're absolutely right.

Tim Oates: [00:48:44] You've emphasised the balance between those different factors.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:48:48] So the other day, I went and gave a talk to a couple of hundred parents about how to choose a secondary school for their children. And the main theme of my talk was Please do not rely too much on raw exam results or just on exam results, because actually plenty of the schools that get less stellar exam results are getting incredibly good value added and a wonderful schools. And one father put his hand up and said, Oh yes, Mr Lennon. But you know, exam results are the only firm evidence we've got. That's the problem. You know, they love the number, they love the league table. But you know, from my point of view, I spent most of my life working in boarding schools where less than half the time really was spent on preparing pupils for exams. And so I'm I'm the very first person to say we don't want an exams only system. I strongly believe in the educational value of all of those things I've already mentioned, like creative arts, sports and certainly or very important in every school I've ever worked in has focussed a lot on Odyssey. That's one point. Secondly, we must make the point, Tim, that there's quite a big difference between different school subjects. And, you know, if you've got a if you've got a balanced diet of GCSEs, you know, hopefully you'll be doing a subject like art or drama or design technology where there will be a good deal of of coursework.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:50:29] And you know, in the case of art, for example, a subject which in this country has not declined. People always talk about the decline of creative arts subjects, but you know, numbers taking art, GCSE and A-level have not declined. You won't be doing a formal written exam at any rate. So I'm a great believer in schools actually recognising, identifying and if and if you wish, certifying the other qualities other than the mark, you're going to get in exams. But I do think that as things stand, because of the pressure of the accountability system, parents, teachers and heads do put a lot of focus on exam results. Governors do. I mean, I do as a governor myself, you know, I look at exam results and we talk about them and this this can be taken too far. Exam results are a very good measure of something, but as I've said, there's more to education than exam results, and there are plenty of pupils who in life are going to flourish, not because of any kind of exam that they've taken, but because of other qualities that they've developed.

Tim Oates: [00:51:40] And what's interesting, as you were beginning to list your preferred curriculum approaches in terms of a rich and broad curriculum within a school. It's quite clear that articulates with research, which says if you do that, one of the outcomes tends to be higher grades in traditional examinations, which is a very different way of thinking about it.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:52:02] I mean, every every every summer term, as a headmaster, I had to stand up in front of the whole school and explain why cricket may be a time consuming activity, but that I had done the research, which showed that the boys who did cricket tended to get better exam results than those who didn't. These things are not in in contradiction to each other. You know it is. It's it's an important point.

Tim Oates: [00:52:30] In the closing minutes, I think a couple of things that really would like you to to touch on your your issues around the dependability and reliability of examinations and control outcomes and then also digital, because undoubtedly it will come. And undoubtedly, we will move to more on screen, not just replication of paper assessment, but new forms of assessment within that as well new forms of question time and within that the balance of objective items. The risk is that we go to solely to to objective items and the issue of balance between different forms of questions and responses that we questions we put to young people and the types of responses that we we ask of them in terms of responses to closed questions, more open responses, essay style questions and responses and so on. So, so first, firstly, standard setting and comparable outcomes and then digital and what kind of transformation we should look for beneficial transformation we should look for in moving towards digital?

Barnaby Lenon: [00:53:33] Yeah. Well, because so first of all, standard setting, I just make the point that a lot of what happened in the last decade was driven by the PISA scores and a growing understanding of what was happening, particularly in East Asia. When I first set a scholarship entry exam to Harrow for Hong Kong boys, I set I set the hardest maths paper I think we'd ever sat set. 70 boys took this in Hong Kong and every one of them got 100 percent. So I realised that as what we all know now, which is that in Hong Kong, they're all two years ahead of us in maths. And so I have every sympathy with the white paper. Whenever it was 2010, where Gove and Cameron made the point that we were falling behind other countries and so our standards need to be raised. And Nick Gibb, of course, was particularly keen to see standards and maths raised, which he did successfully by rewriting the GCSE maths syllabus and looking at how they taught maths in Singapore. But so I do. I do believe that. Secondly, it is very important that Ofqual should be there, ensuring that exams are fair, that you know that different exam boards all operating on the same standard. Incidentally, it's interesting that in this country, we don't we don't in any sense ensure that different A-level subjects all set at the same level.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:55:10] Some A-level subjects are actually easier than others. But across the exam boards, anyway, there are a similar standard. And that's and that's fair in terms of in terms of digital. Well, first of all. I know it's tempting to go over to more multiple choice or objective items, but you know, I've taught both English and history, and I know how much English and history teachers believe in essays and free writing as a way of promoting creative thought originality, as well as, you know, learning to organise your thoughts into paragraphs. So no English or history teacher that I know is going to want to go over to objective items of that sort. Well, no doubt some might be persuadable. The I think that having exams based on the computer is obviously going to happen. It will. It will allow us to have adaptive questions which adjust so that if you get one question right, you can go on to a harder question. And if you get one question wrong, you go back to an easier question. And that's a good thing because it prevents the situation where a weak candidate sits through an entire exam, knowing rightly that they can't do many or most of the questions. It means you can get rid of tiered papers which are not great, and it allows you to sample a bigger number of questions from the easier domains for weaker pupils.

Barnaby Lenon: [00:56:40] Harder questions for the more able it means exams could be shorter. Incidentally, it would mean obviously the exams would be much cheaper. They'd be much quicker to mark. You could take exams at different times of the year. You know, there are many, many reasons why. In a way, they're bound to happen. But I would just say that, you know, there is a problem and an obvious problem, and that is it. Systems are still pretty unreliable. And I was reading the JQ website last week and it was interesting that they made the point that quite a lot, quite a lot of their candidates are now word processing because it's their normal way of working and they're allowed if it's a normal way of working to use a computer. But JK said We have many problems with these candidates, such as data loss, printing issues, missing pages and corrupted data, not to mention power cuts. So I would say that there are obviously these technical issues, as well as the fact that disadvantaged children don't have easy access to computers. So what are we going to do about them? Is it going to? Is it going to widen the gap in that respect? So, you know, online exams, they're bound to happen, but a lot of investment is still needed.

Tim Oates: [00:57:58] And on that note, I think that will now come to a close. First of all, won't be many, many things. Thanks for giving up your time to present to us today and to give a presentation which is absolutely situated in the current debates. I, for one value hugely the fact that you have again balanced three things you're not arguing for no change. And this is very important that there are aspects of the system which you perhaps have had your eye on for a while, but also that you've thought through in terms of, well, these are the kind of improvements that are either nascent in the system or that we should make in the light of current events. So you're not arguing for no change. You are arguing for a revised policy which be driven by recognition of the genuine advantages of the system that we currently have that we've so carefully developed and the approaches which have been a proven benefit in terms of improving equity and raising attainment. And the two other things that you want alongside that is for a highly pragmatic set of policy moves which really do engage genuinely with the problems, for example, of what kind of things higher education is asking of the qualification system and a very pragmatic look at how schools are driven, in particular directions by accountability arrangements.

Tim Oates: [00:59:28] And the third and final thing you have asked for this all to be evidence driven. You've looked at a whole series of characteristics of international arrangements of the existence in many systems of high stakes assessment and exams at 16 and the limitations of the different forms of assessment, but trying to harness those in a balanced way in relationship to new arrangements. And thank you everyone for giving some put it putting to us some penetrating questions which absolutely nailed some of the key issues. And as I said, we will look through the questions that we haven't been able to answer directly outside the seminar and post some responses on the website. But Barnaby, thank you so much. It's always a pleasure to hear you talk and a great pleasure to have you with us today. Thank you very much indeed.

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Clumsy education reform – such as scrapping GCSEs - could set education in England back by a decade, a leading educationalist has told a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar.

In his talk, Looking to the future of assessment: What reforms are needed, and which could take us backwards? Barnaby Lenon CBE, Professor and Dean of Education at the University of Buckingham, explored the nature and purpose of exams and specifically the GCSE. He argued the qualification – introduced in England in 1986 - served a variety of important purposes, including ranking pupils for employers, colleges and universities; marking the completion of a student’s education in the majority of subjects; motivating students and enabling reliable assessment of school performance.

He then went on to debate some of the reasons behind recent calls to abolish GCSEs. He said he recognised that “the high-stakes nature of exams has become a problem” but said this was not the fault of exams, but rather the way they were now used, whether by government, universities or society in general. 

A former member of the board of the England exams regulator Ofqual, but speaking in a personal capacity, he acknowledged debate over the comparable outcomes approach to awarding of grades and how in the past this has led to concerns in some quarters that school or system improvement was not being recognised. However, he said the National Reference Test was beginning to provide a solution to this, enabling grades to rise if performance had improved.

Prof Lenon then debated some changes that could be made to exams. He said that a return to more coursework instead of exams was not the answer, arguing that in the past much coursework had proved “formulaic and dull”. Instead, he argued that considered reform of GCSEs should take place, particularly in English where he argued a new type of qualification is needed for those who have to resit at age 17. He added that other subjects could be developed or allowed to evolve – with computational thinking added to maths A Level, for instance.

He said that schools should also be empowered to recognise extra-curricular activities - perhaps devising their own type of diploma. He said qualities such as teamwork and critical thinking were also recognised in qualifications such as the Extended Project Qualification, which has been growing in popularity in schools.

Thanking Prof Lenon for his talk, Tim Oates CBE, Cambridge University Press & Assessment’s Director of Assessment Research and Development, said the seminar had been “a brilliantly succinct but wide-ranging journey through many of the issues, from different valuable perspectives, from your 40 years’ experience as an educator of young people as well as a participant in policy processes”. 

He said Prof Lenon’s call for considered reform rather than abolition of GCSEs was timely, not least as Nordic countries – widely seen as having turned against formal, national assessment – are discussing a return to national exams.

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