"Our examination technology is crude, partial, inadequate and discriminatory."

We are in the exam results season here in the UK, and yesterday's Guardian newspaper contained a number of letters reflecting on our current public exam system. I particularly liked this, from a letter by Professor Colin Richards:

"Despite a century or more of research and “measurement”, we still have no firm, reliable or systematic way of assessing young people’s understanding. Our examination technology is crude, partial, inadequate and discriminatory. The mental health of many former students bears witness to that."

And the final sentence of Professor Richards' letter is a clear statement of what need to happen now:

"This year’s teacher assessed grades should be the start of a much-needed process of development, not an unwelcome interruption of a faulty measurement system which has passed its sell-by date."


My Old Blog


Back in 2008 I started a blog called How do people really learn? but I stopped adding new posts in 2014, around the same time that I (gradually - and gracefully:-) retired from paid work as an educator. 

I recently added one final post to this blog.  In this 'Last Post' I provide a thematic index to all the posts in How do people really learn. These themes remain highly relevant today, as it seems to me that the world of education has not moved forward since 2008 - if anything it has moved backward.

Click here to link to the last post of How do people really learn.

Enjoying school?


Through being a member of the Refracted online group, I learnt last week about a University of Bristol study investigating the relationship between school enjoyment at age six and later educational achievement.

What I find interesting about this study is that the only metric used as an indicator of educational success/achievement is GCSE performance. And we nearly always find this exclusive focus on GCSE results in England and Wales when attempts are made to evaluate the educational success of teenagers or to compare the performance of different secondary schools. But surely we must challenge the validity and appropriateness of using GCSE exam results as an indicator of accomplishment (by the pupil and/or the school). And the key question to ask is this: is the learning undertaken to achieve a good GCSE result of value in itself, or are we merely asking young people to play a game in order to climb life's greasy pole - a modern version of trial by ordeal? I believe it is the latter, because we know that for the majority of young people in the majority of GCSE subjects, the exams require them to memorise and regurgitate information that they will never, ever use in their life again after they leave the exam room.

In the very first paragraph of the Bristol paper we are told that "school enjoyment may represent a promising intervention target for improving educational outcomes." I do not question the study's statistical methodology, but there is an unexamined value statement here in the use of the phrase "promising intervention". It implies, at least to me, uncritical acceptance that improving GCSE performance is a worthwhile aim of education; and this is perhaps reinforced later in the paper when we read:

"Given the importance of having 5 + A*-C GCSE grades to progress into further education and enter skilled jobs in the labour market, lack of school enjoyment may provide an early indicator of pupils in need of more or better educational support."

I can, of course, understand why young people, their parents and their teachers feel obliged to worry about GCSEs (until the wretched things are abolished). But somebody has to have the courage and imagination to say, quite explicitly, that much of what GCSE exams test - memorisation and regurgitation of information that will never be used again outside the exam room – is utterly irrelevant to whether of not the candidate can, for example, undertake "skilled jobs in [today's] labour market". I think Judith Carlisle, Headmistress of Oxford High School, came close to showing this courage and imagination when she said to her students:

"In five years’ time, no one will give a damn which GCSE [grade] you got in French.”

Let me offer this (rather obvious) hypothesis to explain the correlation found in the Bristol study between school enjoyment and GCSE performance. I suggest that some children know, at least tacitly, from the word go that what happens in school is not really for them. So they do not enjoy school at the age of six; and ten years later they perceive, quite correctly in my view, that it is not worthwhile devoting time and effort to memorising the formula for the surface area of a trapezium.

Image based on public domain photo by R. K. Singam

More GCSE nonsense

An opinion piece in yesterday's Guardian newspaper reminds us of the stress and heartache that young people, their parents and their teachers will face when this year's GCSE and A-level results are, once again, pulled out of a magical hat following an opaque process of so-called 'teacher assessment'.

So it is quite understandable that there may be huge sighs of relief from young people, parents and teachers if and when it becomes possible to revert to 'normal' GCSEs and A-levels, rather than the present pandemic arrangements, which are widely seen as unfair.

But it would be quite wrong to think that the normal exam processes for 16- and 18-year olds are in any way fair. Our system of GCSEs and A-levels is demonstrably unfair, unscientific, and unfit for purpose – and it causes a huge amount of stress and mental ill-health for young people.

To appreciate this just consider two imaginary 16-year-olds. Student X is awarded a grade 9 (the highest possible grade) in their GCSE maths exam and Student Y is awarded a grade 5 (equivalent to something between a C and a B on the old system). What might this difference in grades tell us:

Perhaps X has more mathematical capability than Y;

Or perhaps the two students are equally good at maths, but X had worked harder than Y in preparing for the exam;

Or perhaps X had a more efficient and experienced teacher than Y;

Or maybe X had parents who were willing and able to pay for private tutoring and Y did not;

Or maybe Y was suffering from a bad episode of hay fever on the day of the exam and X was not.

The difference in grades could be a result of any of the above factors or a combination of them. So in reality the results tell us precisely nothing about the mathematical capability of X and Y, particularly as the pass mark for the exam is so low that you can get more than half the question wrong and still pass! A key aspect of science is that we need to control variables if we are to draw any meaningful conclusions from our data, but I have just shown that a host of uncontrolled variables that can affect exam results; so they are scientifically unreliable and invalid.

And it's even worse than this, because we know that much of the material that a young person will have to learn in order to jump through the GCSE maths hoop will never, ever, ever be of use again to them after they leave the exam room – what a waste of human effort!

So rather than return to 'normal' GCSEs and A-levels, we need to use the pandemic as an opportunity to ditch these outmoded ways of assessing capability and to implement alternative methods of recording and reporting what young people have learnt and what they are capable of doing. The good news is that these alternative methods of assessing capability and achievement already exist – but they are little used within schools.

In a future blog post I will explain what these alternatives are.

Image based on Photo by Unknown Author licensed under CC BY-NC

Can learning be "delivered" and "received"?


During an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme yesterday Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter said:

"… around two million children received no learning during that first lockdown period."

(You can hear the interview by listening to https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000wlf2 from 2:10:00.)

I was stuck by the bizarre suggestion that learning is something an individual can "receive". Another misleading verb sometimes used in connection with learning is "deliver". Donald H Taylor pointed this out in a blog post several years ago  in which he wrote:

"‘How should we deliver learning?’ We shouldn’t. Or rather, we can’t."

The words "deliver" and "receive" can only make sense in relation to learning if one imagines the learner as the passive recipient of something. For the last 14 months I have ordered almost all my groceries online and they have duly arrived at our front door. My provisions have been "delivered", and I have "received" them without me having to make any effort at all (apart from opening the door). But learning is not like that. Real learning involves commitment and active participation on the part of the learner. To use the words "deliver" and "receive" in relation to this process is dangerously misleading because it suggests the learner is passive rather than actively engaged in the learning process. It is perhaps particularly unfortunate to adopt the "we deliver, you receive" idea of learning in the context of the perceived need for young people to "catch up" with the schooling they have missed during the COVID pandemic. It is surely dangerous to believe that young people just need longer school days and/or additional tutoring to compensate for school closures, and that everything in the world of education will then be fine again.

But everything in the world of education is far from fine. As Simon Jenkins wrote in an opinion piece in today's Guardian newspaper:

"… the sadness of the Collins plan [for educational recovery] is that he did not seize the opportunity to propose a revision, even a radical experiment in British education… Schooling today is an introverted pursuit. It answers to an exam board and a minister, but not to a community. That is the opportunity lockdown missed."

Jenkins also identifies the need for "education for life, for jobs, self-reliance, relationships, health, money and citizenship". That is the sort of real learning that cannot be passively "received" from the educational equivalent of a grocery delivery.



My attention was recently drawn to the existence of an "Independent Reconfiguration Panel" within the National Health Service (NHS). The Panel's job is to advise on changes in the pattern of NHS service delivery.

I was rather struck by the word "Reconfiguration", and I immediately began to wonder if it might be a useful word to add to the vocabulary of those of us who see the need for a radical rethink on how education works in Britain.

We cannot usefully use the word "reform" to refer to our ambitions because this word has been commandeered to describe the very trends that we oppose. For example, Pasi Sahlberg has coined the term Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM!) to refer to the process of standardisation, curriculum narrowing and fetishisation of testing that has done so much to damage to young people and their education. And the more general term "educational reform" has been used in America to describe similar reductionist failures in their education system, starting with George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind". So the word "reform" has all the wrong connotations for those with imaginative and far-reaching ambitions for improving education.

Another "re…" word used when referring to educational change is "reclaiming", with several conferences and campaigns in recent years adopting the slogan "Reclaiming Education". But this is also problematic, as it suggests that as long as "we" take back something that "they" have taken from us everything in the world of education will be fine. The Socialist Educational Association has recently made this idea even more explicit with its "Give Us Back Our Schools" campaign. And there seems to be little doubt as to who and what they mean by "us" when their campaign poster talks of a need for "all schools to return to the CONTROL [my emphasis] of democratically run local authorities. This implies that "us/we" must "control" education. Hmm!

But I think that the notion of "reconfiguration" could be useful for those of us with a vision of a radically different approach to education. Dictionary definitions of reconfiguration refer to altering the form of the elements of a system. And we must surely accept that most elements of our current education system do need to be shaken up and rearranged. Imagine the mythical visitor from outer space coming down to earth and taking a close look at British education. They would surely be perplexed by what they saw and would have some searching questions like:

  1. Why are school buildings locked shut for nearly half the days of the year? Why are they the least used of all public facilities? Surely you should use these expensive resources in more imaginative and efficient ways if you kept them open for longer. [See Note 1 below.]

  2. Why does the school day for teenagers start so early in the morning when there is scientific evidence that this is damaging both for their health and their  educational success. Don't you want to optimise their learning? [See Note 2 below.]

  3. Why is a young person's educational success judged by the efficiency with which they memorise, and regurgitate in exams, information which will mostly never again be of use to them after they leave the exam room?

I think that the idea of reconfiguration could be really useful in helping to communicate the magnitude of our ambition for educational change. But I also think that our ambitions need to be far broader than those of the NHS "Independent Reconfiguration Panel". It seems to concern itself with quite limited change, like whether a particular geographical area should have one or two maternity hospitals. But we educators need a far more ambitious and imaginative approach to reconfiguration. Only by implementing such a bold vision can we move to an education system that can do its job of preparing and enabling young people to truly thrive in the 21st century.

Note 1. I wrote about the issue of the scandalous under-use of school buildings back in 2014 in a blog  post entitled Why are schools locked shut most of the time?

Note 2. For evidence about the circadian rhythm of teenagers read this study: Is 8:30 a.m. Still Too Early to Start School? A 10:00 a.m. School Start Time Improves Health and Performance of Students Aged 13–16

Say goodbye to GCSEs - they won't be around for much longer

A year or so ago a neighbour told me of her concerns about her 16-year-old daughter. The girl's ambition to become a vet was in jeopardy because she had failed the maths GCSE exam. That got me thinking about GCSE maths and veterinary medicine. I accept, of course, that a vet must have a certain capability to think scientifically, but does a vet need to be able to solve quadratic equations? Almost certainly she does not. Does a vet need to have memorised the formula for the surface area of a trapezium? Of course not. Does a vet need to understand unique factorisation theorem? Again, no. So just how relevant is the GCSE maths syllabus to the practice of veterinary medicine? That leads to a much broader question: just how relevant is the GCSE maths syllabus to anything that the majority of young people who take the exam might do subsequently in their lives, regardless of the vocational path they might follow?

"Not very" seems to be the answer. And one would surely give the same answer if asked about the relevance for most young people of most of what they are required to commit to memory and regurgitate in GCSE exams generally, not just maths.

Questioning the relevance of GCSE exams is hardly new. The 2004 Tomlinson report proposed a series of radical educational changes, including abolishing both GCSEs and A-levels. (But the Labour Government At the time lacked the courage to implement the Tomlinson proposals.) A few years later the visionary educator Guy Claxton gave a clear explanation in his book What's the Point of School? of the educational damage done by schools focusing on GCSE performance. And a recent poll by the  Association of School and College Leaders of 799 head teachers found that 86% felt that GCSE exams should either be reformed or scrapped. Perhaps most tellingly of all, Lord Kenneth Baker, who introduced GCSEs back in the 1980s, said last year:

"I think that they’ve run their course now. I’m in favour of them not continuing."

With this degree of unanimity it is hard to see how GCSEs can last much longer. The wheels of reform can often grind slowly but I confidently predict that no child currently at primary school in Britain will suffer the nonsense of being obliged to take GCSEs (or any other age-specific standardised exams) at the age of 16, In other words they will be gone by 2026 at the latest.

But what, you may ask, will replace GCSEs? How will we be able to record and report on the capability and achievement of young people? I will answer this question in a future post on this blog, but the good news is that alternative - and much better - systems for assessing capability and achievement already exist, and they have been tried and tested. Where do we find these systems? We just need to open our eyes and look outside the school gates!