Teachers boycott


It's teachers' conference time, and they want to boycott exams. Just like the old days, isn't it?

Research from Durham University suggests that the value of GCSEs has fallen by around one grade in the last ten years (ie a B is now a C) and that for A-levels maths (maths is easy to measure objectively), it has slipped by 3.5 grades in 20 years (ie a D score in 1989 now gets you an A).

Likewise, despite getting better and better grades on UK exams, the performance of UK kids is actually falling on international exams like PIRLS. The universities too are voicing increasing skepticism at the value of A-level grades, and employers too.

UK kids are falling on international exams because it's harder for schools to teach to the exam, as they do with GCSE and A-levels. Gordon Brown's fixation on targets – specifically, kids getting 5 A*-C grades has focused the whole of the education system on achieving just that, and nothing more. (Hence today's stories that kids don't read for pleasure any more – they just learn how to analyze key passages from the set texts.) Teachers' and heads' pay and pensions depend on hitting the target. So they don't enter kids they think might fail, they focus on turning Ds into Cs and not on the needs of A or F pupils, they work out the easy subjects for their kids, they spoon-feed kids with answer grids and the like. It gets the grades, but doesn't educate the kids. Worst of all, the exam boards want happy customers, and happy customers are schools which get lots of A*-C passes, so they have an incentive to inflate the grade system too. Targets have corrupted the whole system.

The teachers' proposed boycott of exams will do nothing to change this. Exams at 7 and 11 provide extremely useful information – not just about how well the kids are doing, but about how well the teachers are performing. And they resent that oversight, because they believe their own spin about their 'professionalism'. But we all need to be monitored. Of course, the multiplicity of exams has made the 'cram-a-kid' culture more intense. But the way to solve that is to simplify the tests, not to abolish them and the information that they deliver to education managers. The tests were conceived, under the Thatcher administration, as simple pencil-and-paper tests, but they have developed under Gordon Brown into a full-blown targets exercise, raising the stakes for teachers and pupils alike. There's a lot wrong with education, but the teachers' solution is self-centred.

Dr Butler's new book, The Rotten State of Britain, can be bought here.