David James, a former teacher at Wellington College, has written a scathing piece for CapX about the ’radical’ educational proposals put forward by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. As someone who spent 10 years as an education reformer and co-founded four successful state schools, I concur with everything David says. It begins:
A new academic year has broken, has it not? And with it, inevitably, come the calls for GCSEs and A levels to be reformed or abolished outright. Following on from the recent Times Education Commission’s demand for a total ‘reset’ of education comes a similar call from former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The report, “Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England”, published by Blair’s Institute for Global Change, is similarly radical in its calls for changes to assessment.
I say ‘radical’, but actually the arguments put forward in the report, the language used, the unfounded claims made about what such changes can deliver, are all depressingly familiar to anyone who has followed the ‘skills vs knowledge’ debate over the years. The argument can be boiled down to something as simple, but as dangerously misleading, as this: our children are being assessed by an outdated system, and in order for them to thrive we need to change how they are taught and examined so they have the skills for the future workplace. Blair’s position is almost identical to his son’s who, earlier this year, also called for exams to be replaced by something more suited to a future nobody can predict.
What is surprising about this report is that although it is keen to present itself as wired up to the cutting edge of educational thinking (the first paragraph of the Executive Summary includes mandatory buzzwords and phrases like ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and ‘AI’) as author and assessment expert Daisy Christodoulou has already argued, it is anything but original or progressive. Indeed, Christodoulou points out, rightly, that most of the arguments included in the report, like Blair himself, were the future once, but are now outdated. They are as cutting edge as microfiche and over-head projectors.
If we are to reform schools then it has to be based on evidence that shows the outcomes work. To do otherwise would be to risk the future prospects of young people. None of the recommended reforms in Blair’s report do this.
Take continuous assessment. The report argues for the replacement of GCSEs and A levels with a new qualification based on the International Baccalaureate (Blair’s love of the IB is long standing) that includes “multiple, rigorous forms of continuous assessment”. Leaving aside the fact that this is a misrepresentation of the IB diploma, which relies very heavily on final, highly demanding, examinations – continuous assessment is less fair than final examinations like GCSE and A level. How do we know this? Because we have gained two years of evidence which clearly shows how teacher-assessed grades distort outcomes, add significantly to the workload of teachers, result in huge grade inflation, and, worst of all, hit the poorest children the hardest.
But such is the hatred of examinations that the authors of the report would favour anything else instead, irrespective of the potential damage such changes could have. For them, schools “rely heavily on passive forms of learning focused on direct instruction and memorisation”. They remain completely unaware of how insulting this is to all teachers and pupils; and of course, they can never name a school, or a teacher, or a pupil, that actively does any of this – nor can they accept that direct instruction and memorisation are actually good things that help pupils learn. No, for them such qualities illustrate a ‘narrow set of methods and subjects’. So, instead of studying English, Maths, Science, as well as languages, the humanities, sport, music, and other subjects available at GCSE, Blair’s team would favour our children being taught the “4 Cs: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaborative problem-solving”.
Worth reading in full.
What’s so astonishing about this hackneyed report is that the authors put forward their proposals as if they’ve come up with something cutting edge and original, apparently unaware that these romantic notions – teach creativity! – date back at least as far as the mid-19th Century and have been shown to fail over and over again. That’s the problem with so many education ‘experts’ – they know virtually nothing about the subject.