On Monday I was spoilt for choice for a blog topic. I felt the continuing deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan was of most immediate importance. I was pleased to see yesterday the Defence Secretary had to revise his answer to me and others over the protection of our troops. The US has wisely decided to ban all mixed patrols between NATO and Afghan forces. Some of us want the UK to go along with this. It was one of the reassurances Bob Stewart and I were seeking in both Commons sessions. Just how long does it take to train Afghan police? Why can’t we give any additional advice now from the base, and let them do the patrols?
The topic I suspect many of you want to talk about is the question of exams. Mr Gove feels the GCSE is no longer fit for purpose. He dislikes the modular approach, the accent on coursework, and the lack of demanding exam questions in some papers. His critics think these developments from the last couple of decades have been benign. They have helped more young people to gain qualifications and give them more self worth.
As someone who underwent a school and university education based entirely on competitive exams, with no coursework that counted towards the final grade, I have no personal difficulties with a system more heavily based on performance in final exams. I do, however, understand that this method does not suit all people, and is not the only way to assess someone’s competence and learning. In recent years I have worried more about the people who do not perform well in exam conditions. It was also notable that girls results improved relative to boys as the educational establishment shifted from the grand final exam to more coursework based approaches.
If you are studying English literature, does it help that you have to spend hours learning crucial quotes to illustrate points in essays on topics unknown, rather than being allowed to take the text in with you to use to write your critical appraisal? If you are studying geography, should you need to remember many places and terrains or could referring to a map in the exam be helpful? The balance between analysis, skill in arguing and problem solving, and memorising is a nice one to debate.
Being able to recall a topic and argue or analyse a problem or write well on an essay subject are very useful skills to have. They are not , however, the only ones. There is a case to be made for developing skill at researching a topic, drawing on a range of sources and producing a more considered piece.
However, there is one overwhelming problem with this latter approach which motivates Mr Gove. If you rely more on coursework, projects, longer submitted essays and the like, how can we be sure it was the work of the student? How much help is a willing teacher allowed to give? Aren’t their variations between schools and teachers over how much they put in to the student’s work? Doesn’t a child with an able and engaged parent do better than a child without such help? Do we adjust for the very different family environments, where some children have study bedrooms, peace and quiet, and encouragement to use them, whilst others have no such thing? Shouldn’t a young person know and learn enough to be able to answer exam questions without assistance?
What is a fair test at 16? Indeed, why do we test at 16, when it is no longer the school leaving age in any meaningful sense? Are 16 year old tests a check to ensure the young people have the basic skills to go on to the next stage of their education? Or should it mainly be a leaving statement for those who wish to go off to apprenticeships and other practical training?