The Ebacc: If we reform exams, we must also reform teaching

Whilst eating my breakfast and reading Michael Gove’s statement on the Ebacc, I had to pinch myself to make sure I had really woken up. Two weeks into term, I am reacclimatised with the dreary thoughtworld of contemporary state schools, a thoughtworld of behaviour management, active learning and developing self and others. Even coming from Gove, it was remarkable to read language so diametrically opposed to contemporary state education: ‘knowledge’; ‘rigour’; ‘academic expertise’; ‘ambitious’.

More rigorous exams will not necessarily lead to more rigorous teaching.

Yesterday’s Commons statement laid out an extremely brave set of reforms. Scrapping the multiple exam boards, raising the top bar of grades, and focusing on academic knowledge are all necessary moves. I am thankful we currently have a Secretary of State for Education willing to make them, and combat what he describes as ‘drift, decline and dumbing down’. However, in this blog posting I must sound a note of caution.

It would be a shame if Gove, and his friends at the DfE, fall for the Whitehall delusion that pulling levers in London can make root and branch changes to what happens in classrooms around the country. Behind Gove’s statement is a dangerous assumption that schools are easily manipulated organisms. Simply by making exams more rigorous, teaching will also become more rigorous. At the rate things are going, it will not.

If state schools are going to meet the challenge of Gove’s academically ambitious Ebacc, their entire child-centred teaching orthodoxy will have to be overturned. State schools will quite simply fail to make the grade if they do not give up many of the ‘progressive’ assumptions about teaching which have become so ingrained in the sector. Most of these assumptions I have criticised elsewhere, but here, in brief, are a few of the worst:

–         Skills are more important than knowledge.

–         Firm discipline is unfair on children.

–         Homework is not that important.

–         Marking should not harm pupil self-esteem.

–         Active learning is better than passive learning.

–         Above all, lessons should be relevant and fun.

The only troubling part of Gove’s statement was towards the end, where he combated the criticism that these reforms will lead to ‘more students failing’. He claimed that ‘we have the best generation of teachers and headteachers we have ever had’, and that a mixture of better training and academies mean that teaching will inevitably improve. This, quite frankly, is wishful thinking. In fact, we have a generation of teachers and headteachers who have made their careers under the influence of child-centred pedagogy. Those who have swum against the tide are the exception, not the norm. Harder exams will not, on their own, change this. A completely new culture of teaching will also have to develop, and such a culture shift will be far harder to enact than simply changing the nature of exams. However, if this does not happen, increased student failure will sadly be the most immediate consequence of Gove’s reform.

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~ by goodbyemisterhunter on September 18, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Ebacc: If we reform exams, we must also reform teaching”

  1. Hi,

    You seem to work in a particularly poor school. Please know that not all are like you make out.

    At mine:

    Skills and knowledge are valued equally (without skills you can’t apply knowledge and without knowledge there is nothing for your skills to apply)

    Students are disciplined when they step out of line – this includes withdrawl from the main school into an exclusion unit or exclusion from school.

    We have a homework policy that states that all teachers must set homework each week.

    Marking (we use the term assessment) shoudl help students get better (ie. tell them what they have done wrong so they don’t get it wrong next time and tell them what they have done right so they keep doing that!)

    “Active learning is better than passive learning.” – I’d agree with this one. A student copying pages out from a book (wthout even thinking about what they are copying) probably won’t help them get better whereas some sort of activity that requires them to read a text and then paraphrase or use it in some sort of way (ie. more active) will be better. I think we probably just have different understanding about what active learning means.

    I don’t think that lessons should be willfully dull but my school has no truck with ‘edu-tainment’ – if a lesson can be ‘good but fun’ that’s clearly better than a lesson that’s ‘good but dull’. But a ‘good but dull’ lesson is better than a ‘poor but fun’ one any day of the week.

  2. It’s yet another instance of Gove’s ineptitude if he really thinks that he can just introduce new exams and results will magically improve. Teachers are already struggling under the weight of excessive prescription, league tables etc. and will need time to, in some cases, re-train in order to deliver the curriculum relevant to these exams.
    I’m not opposed to change – I work in a difficult school where the items you’ve bullet-pointed certainly apply – but just changing the exams won’t cut it.

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