Assessing the education system

What is to be done with assessment? This seems to be on the lips of many teachers, head teachers, parents and, even, students at the moment. Recent revelations that teachers may have been fixing assessments and results, helping students unduly and outside of the regulated amounts with coursework and other non-exam assessments. This has been coupled with the ever-present anxiety surrounding the assessment of children of primary school age. When it should happen, how often and to what end? – are all questions continually debated in the media, the commentariat and teachers Unions. Studies are even suggesting that British children are the least happy in Europe and the OECD, and the most stressed. So, how could these problems be addressed?

I was recently having a conversation with a colleague from Canada, who has a two-year work visa for the UK. As I work in the state education sector I was interested in knowing, from her perspective, how the two education systems differ. The main difference that came out of the conversation was the autonomy teachers in Canada enjoy, being able to teach their own curriculum within a loosely defined national framework and, therefore, design and set their own assessments. Having been educated in England my whole life this seemed a strange idea at first – but what of standardisation and fairness?, how do you enter university?, and, how do you know some teachers aren’t setting easier papers? – were all questions that came to mind, for which all the answers were ‘teachers are trusted as professionals, to act accordingly’. This, of course, is something I agree with (after my initial shock) and something I’ve written about before.

It’s not an idea that has received much sympathy in government or the profession in recent decades. The poor education many received during the post-war tripartite – or, more accurately bipartite – system led many to believe that standardisation could bring into line the disparages in educational opportunity and outcome; the lines being largely drawn by class. And so successive governments since the 1970s have placed increasingly stringent rules and regulations through national curriculum’s and, more recently, data-driven results, strangling the autonomy and creativity of teaching professionals. This has led to a lifeless education for the many, while our glorious leaders have proclaimed the rise in ‘standards’ and equality of outcome; while in comparison to the richest 25 large countries in the world the UK languishes near the bottom or at bottom for numeracy, literacy and problem-solving at age 15.

Recently there’s been much debate around teacher retention rates and the shortfall in the number of trainees wanting to enter the profession. Statistics released over the weekend have shown that the profession is in dire straits, facing a ‘national crisis’ according to Allan Foulds, president of the Association of School and College Leaders. Not only this, but reading the TES makes one wonder if there’s any teacher’s at all, with daily articles explaining why individual’s are leaving the profession. These relate largely to a number of key issues such as work-load and stress, authority and behavioural issues, and in addition, pay. The ever closer move towards performance-related pay have also laden extra burdens on teaching professionals.

However, to my mind, these all relate to one key issue: teacher autonomy. Everyone can sympathise with the idea that we are all happier in work when we have some autonomy, within which we are able to practice our freedom, do some of what we please and challenge ourselves to do our best. This is certainly true of teaching and, more generally, of educating children. What’s the use in studying for a degree for three years from which you should have gained expertise in a field of academic study, to then go on to teach and have no autonomy in which to use and apply the knowledge you have gained.

This is the stifling environment in which teachers find themselves in. Again, everyone can cast their minds back to their days in school. Who was the best and most memorable teacher you had? Was the teacher who did everything by the book? Was the strictest teacher who never appeared animated or to show any of their personality? Was it the teacher with the best lesson plans? The greatest teachers are the mavericks, the one’s who inspired you to do more, who challenged your pre-conceived opinions and presented knowledge they had a true affinity and depth of understanding of. This is the beauty of being an educator.

However, without the ability to do any of this, the education system is not educating. Nor is it a good place to work. The drive to drive-up standards, standardisation and creating uniformity does little for students or teachers. It’s no wonder, then, that teachers are fiddling assessments that they have no investment in, other than the need to prove their worth and head towards career progression through reaching and surpassing targets. And it’s no wonder students are unhappy and stressed in school. The ever-present ‘target’ narrative is uninspiring and at times over-bearing, and children are not being presented with knowledge by teachers with any affinity, depth of understanding in and, therefore, no real desire to be taught.

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