Ian Duckett and Chris Smith
Ian Duckett is Secretary of the Norfolk and Suffolk Branch of the Socialist Educational Association and Post-16 Officer for Norfolk NEU.
Chris Smith is Youth Officer for Norfolk NEU and a member of the Labour Party and SEA.
The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the necessity for government to work with and be led by experts. Trade Unions should embrace this as a chance to present themselves as when at their best they truly are: the experts in their field. Nowhere is this truer than in education where teachers, including supply teachers, and their unions should advance the professional status of their members as their biggest asset.
Any student of politics will appreciate the dictum “never let a good crisis go to waste” so let us follow that advice in imagining how education post COVID19 can be improved. Neither would any progressive educator miss the opportunity to develop the curriculum and assessment strategies in a way fitter for the modern world. Teachers like health care professionals, although not to the same terrible extent, have suffered the neglect of a lost decade of austerity and now must grasp the current crisis’ upending of accepted wisdom to enhance their professional agency whilst there is understanding of the value of experts. I am referring to exams here, alongside even the Daily Telegraph who on April 21st ran a piece asking if the temporary cancellation should be made permanent . Finally acknowledging an argument education professionals have been advancing for years that teachers professional judgments should be recognised as of more value than a snap shot of student performance. Transforming education and re-imagining it should be a priority for progressive educators post-pandemic.
Education after lockdown
The earliest revelation for many of the current crisis was that of who the real key workers of society are. Teachers are on this list, not in the same way as health workers for sound and obvious reason and this holds within it another revelation about the place and status of the teaching profession. Teaching has often been referred to as a “Cinderella profession” where politicians will regularly refer to teachers as professionals akin to doctors in times of demanding something from them but then when it comes to the practicality of pay, conditions and professional autonomy happy to dismiss the views of these same public servants. With disastrous consequences for both teachers and students. Many outside the profession will be familiar with how unattractive it has become through headlines of the numbers who have left it due to disgust with Govian reforms, unlimited workload and accompanying stress. This all underpins the most demoralising issue: the lack of professional status. As a teachers ourselves now of too many to count and eight years respectively, we have survived the first milestone of five years service after which a reported 30 – 40% quit and am now contemplating leaving before the ten year milestone which is frequently reported as a point by which 50% leave. The conflict between what teaching should be and what it is are my reasons which is why I am excited, and it should be noted for the first time in quite some time, by the potential for a brave new world of education.
Back to exams. If they can be forgone this summer and students still progress into employment, apprenticeships or university as it is expected to the point of certainty that they will then why return them? The case for exams is as follows: they are dispassionate and anonymous; they are standardised thus fair; They allow for results that are easily understood; They enable schools and teachers to be held to account by providing a way of measuring school achievement in terms of how many students achieve “good” results. This final point is the critical one as it is the most significant reason why many politicians are loathe to replace exams. It is also why ending exams as we know it would be such as a radical transformation as it would shift the balance of power in favour of classroom professionals in a way politicians are unwilling to do as it would create a self-confident profession possessing autonomy on an inconvenient scale.
A fresh approach to assessment
In terms of the other arguments in favour of exams they are not strong and I am not proposing a system of no examination or assessment as there is of course still a role for exams just ones created, administered, assessed and then peer-reviewed by serving teachers. To those unfamiliar with how current “standardised” GCSEs and A Levels work they are hardly fair or effective systems. The evidence of the stress caused by them is legion, British students are the most over-tested in Europe, and rates of poor mental health and even suicide are rising steadily linked to exam overload at the end of two years of “crammed” study. The whole experience of too many students in too many schools is blighted by an exam factory mentality where all efforts throughout schooling are geared towards passing a test rather than any more humane or enriching purpose. It is a cruel irony given how the ease of understanding an exam score is often cited as a benefit of the system that very few outside education fully understand the “standardisation” process that goes into our standardised exams. From my experience of trying to explain this to both parents and students when they ask the common question of what grade I predict come exam time the sheer unfairness and also inexpert nature of the process comes through. Most people assume simple quantities pass marks for exams exist and if a student surpasses a certain number of marks they get a corresponding grade. They don’t. The point at which grades are allocated is worked out through a bizarre statistical process predicated on the logic that certain numbers of children will achieve certain grades and then working out what actual exam marks equate to grades so as to enable the specified number of children to achieve them. Or not as the case is for many children who fall on the wrong side of the grading tracks. The only commonly understood element of this is that grade boundaries shift in relation to how well a cohort performs, if there is strong performance across the board up the grad boundaries go and vice versa. There is much more that can be said of this system but for our purpose here it is clearly not simple and more importantly it is clearly no more “scientific” than the judgment of a skilled educator.
Then there is the logistical process of creating and then assessing these exams through a bureaucratic labyrinth comprising multiple “competing” exam boards which are mostly “edu businesses”, some charities, and a host of quangos. Regardless of exact status all take public money to draft vast amounts of literature to tell teachers how to do their jobs written by people with little to no teaching experience themselves. Schools must then spend more of their portion of the nation’s education budget on buying supporting materials such as text books from these bodies. Here it is important to note the presence of edu businesses most significantly Pearson who is the education worlds answer to the likes of Capita and G4S taking public funds, in the name of outsourced efficiency but in reality providing distanced service devoid of true attachment to its purpose. Many teachers then mark exam papers for these cartels in a manner prescribed it would seem entirely to remove professional judgment. This is not a scientific study of the economics but the costs of compensating teachers through higher salaries to take on some of these roles independently would undoubtedly be less than the sums spent on this outsourcing of professional agency. For starters any pay rises would be minimal as all teachers would prize the increased professional autonomy and status derived from being the true gatekeepers of educational standards above any change to their contracts measured in pounds and pence. But the gains would be more long term and although less friendly to the eyes of accountants no more significant for the health of the education sector. Nye Bevan the founder of the NHS frequently defended the cost of the health service by pointing to a ledger overlooked on the balance sheet, that of the cost saved to the country and the revenues generated by all those quickly treated by the NHS and returned swiftly to active life. The same parallel should be drawn with education. The sums lost through stress-related sick leave brought about by teachers who are nor masters of their own fates are vast. As is the waste of human capital and training expenditure of all those who leave the profession after a few years or those who never even enter a classroom having had their fill on a training year. Not to mention how much harder it is for teachers to do their jobs faced with stressed-out students who again teachers are largely disempowered to truly help due to the lack of control over the assessments at the root of the stress. If teachers were to seize the means of educational production so to speak, think of the possibilities for progress in all these areas it would create. It will be a long process but the work of the SEA & unions should be to advance these ideas now whilst there is the intellectual space to think so radically and whist we are faced with a Labour party in need of policies which can present it as a government in waiting with answers it wants to implement not just things it wants to criticise.
On the cusp of education and social care
So, what can we do to seize the initiative post-pandemic? Apply some of the progressive emergency curriculum and radical learning strategies used in the time of crisis.
In a world where teachers stand at the cusp of education and social care, learner engagement is a complex business. As with the urgent need to find more fitting assessment models in mainstream education, the current pandemic has thrown engagement into even sharper focus. It is concerned, not only with straightforward engagement, but learning and developing skills of employability and enterprise and is increasingly directed at those on re-engagement and intervention programmes in schools, colleges, alternative provision and home education schemes.
New ways of engaging
Learner engagement should determine a curriculum that is meaningful and personalised and one which will foster the development of personal, learning, thinking and employability skills in a safe environment for all 14+ learners.
This curriculum outline is based on an entitlement model and is, at the same time, developmental and aspirational. With English and Maths at its heart and with engagement, enterprise and employability as its chief objectives, the curriculum will emphasise personal and social development and provide vocational tasters. Learning is supported by regular 1:1 coaching sessions and target-setting reviews; Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE) and citizenship and a wide-range of enrichment activities aimed at enhancing overall learning experience.
Many will dismiss these proposals as utopian, in dismissal of the professionalism of teachers which is understandable given Britain makes no effort to present teachers as expert professionals. What the current crisis proves however is teachers are key workers. You can take away the exams and associated bureaucracy as has been done and teachers still innovate in delivering learning opportunities for students who will still progress to the next stage of their lives. Take the teachers out of this the exam boards cannot do fill their roles. Is it really utopian to suggest teachers be free to exercise the full professional agency their status deserves? After all teachers working conditions are children’s learning conditions and if this crisis can create a better understanding of how to enhance these then it will not have been wasted. At the end of it all, after post-coronavirus, re-imagining education and seizing a new initiative, as well as protecting these gains, should be a rallying call for radical educators.