Thoughts on the Sykes review

 

Monday, March 29th

Sir Richard Sykes’s review of qualifications for the Conservatives received mixed – at best – reviews in Friday’s TES, and I, too, have my reservations, despite my respect for the experience of members of the commission who contributed to the report.

However, I also think that some of its observations about what is wrong with the current regime, which have not received much press attention, should be noted and dwelt upon for a moment. They are, after all (and I would say this, wouldn’t I?), fairly in line with some of the arguments in my book.

Sykes says: “The commission considers the pre-eminent role of schools should be to educate. This may seem too obvious to be stated. However, many of those who gave evidence commented that a prescriptive assessment-driven curriculum, the examination framework and the nature of the measures used and targets set by government have forced teachers to abandon education (in its true sense) for easily measurable proxies. There is an obsession with measurement, setting quantitative targets and compiling league tables, as though what cannot be measured numerically has no value and should have no place in education. Yet the best things in education often cannot readily be measured in this way.”

Amen to the sentiments behind much of that.

Sykes also says: “The volume of external assessment has…grown enormously. For the great majority of pupils nationally it now encompasses the entire curriculum at age 16 and again at age 18. For many there is another full assessment at 17; and widespread external assessment at 15 is imminent. The process has undermined the credibility of teacher and school assessment as well as limiting and undermining teaching.” [my italics]

This is in line with an article I have written for the upcoming first edition of Questa, the magazine of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, which is launched this week. I argue there that the onset of more or less constant examination over the four years of GCSE and A-level, which probably does more to influence pupils’ learning experiences during those years than any other policy, has come about with little or no meaningful debate about whether this is educationally desirable. This, I think, is astonishing.

If the criticism of the Sykes report has focused on its end point, the recommendations for change, I think it is important, then, to acknowledge where it starts. If the over-politicised (another of its points) assessment system is truly undermining teaching, this is the best possible argument that it should change.

Precisely how it should change is, of course, where the more practical problems arise. And I’m not convinced by all of the measures proposed in the report.

For example, the suggestion of a standard university entrance test, similar to the American Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) strikes me as slightly over-the-top. I am no expert on university admissions, but I am not sure that A-levels do such a bad job in helping admissions tutors decide between candidates that such a major reform as this is required. It may be that the introduction of this test, focusing on English and maths, could be used as an incentive to get more young people to study these subjects post-16, as happens in other countries. But, as I say, overall I’m not convinced. Perhaps the National Foundation for Educational Research’s investigation into the possibility of such a test in the English context, which has going on for several years now, will provide more clues as to whether it would be worthwhile.

Perhaps the most significant proposal, however, would see school accountability now centring not on measures such as the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, but simply on performance in the two subjects of English and maths.

The reduction of the emphasis on GCSE performance in other subjects, to the point of suggesting that pupils might not take the exam in many subjects, is significant and radical, although one should note that semi-official suggestions to downgrade GCSEs – even to the point of removing this examination tier altogether –are not that new. This policy was advocated quite strongly by Professor David Hargreaves during his time as chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and even Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, started floating the idea when she took office in 2001. (See story here).

But to come back to Sykes’s specific proposals on accountability, the report says that moving away from the existing five or more good GCSEs including English and maths indicator, and other compound measures such as the average GCSE points score per pupil, would remove the incentive for schools to encourage “quantity rather than quality” in the accumulation of qualifications.

Although I would agree with that, and the removal of attempts to use statistical measures to try to reduce a school’s overall quality to a single, or a handful, of numbers, the move to accountability based on performance in English and maths does not resolve some of the problems identified elsewhere in the report, principally the “obsession with measurement, setting quantitative targets and compiling league tables”.

Whether one sees the even greater concentration on English and maths – for institutional reasons – that would follow from this change as good or bad may depend on whether one believes that a narrowing of focus to just two subjects and an increase in test-directed learning and other statistical game-playing around these subjects would be a good thing. If the belief is that it would be a positive development, this strikes me as contrary to the spirit of the rest of the report.

If one truly takes seriously the effects on teaching and learning of the politicised culture effected by league tables/targets/Ofsted inspections with which the report begins, I don’t think that a set of politically drawn-up statistical indicators in two subjects as the basis for accountability is going to do the job.

There is not really space here to discuss my thoughts in full on an alternative system of accountability, which are set out in the book. But I’ve come to the conclusion that, if it is felt that publishing school-by-school data is vital, then the best system would be simply to publish subject-by-subject results for each school, with parents then left to decide which they regard as important. I would scrap all composite measures, such as the five A*-C including English and maths score, which just increase the opportunities for schools to “game” the system, and resist the temptation to narrow the measurement down to performance in a couple of subjects. The complexity which would follow might make easy ranking a bit more difficult for the media, the Government and estate agents (what a merry list that is…), which I think would be a good thing.

The report is possibly strongest in arguing for a rebalancing of the relationship between schools and colleges, exam boards, the government and those “end users” of qualifications: universities and employers. Currently, all the major players in this system have an interest in results continuing to rise, whether or not this truly signifies underlying gains in pupils’ understanding, from schools and governments being judged on results to the boards who face a serious risk in losing business if they are seen to be offering harder exams than their competitors. This is unhealthy. Giving universities, for example, a greater say, might address part of that problem, although precisely how this would happen is not spelt out in detail. I think the best possible reform in this area would be to take the Government out of this process by having another measure – such as the performance of pupils in standardised sample tests similar to those used in the international PISA and TIMSS assessments, though not these tests – as the main measure of national education performance.

Overall, this is a complicated subject which probably needs a longer-term, more detailed look than is possible in its 40 pages. But remember the statement with which this report started. It said that “a prescriptive assessment-driven curriculum, the examination framework and the nature of the measures used and targets set by government have forced teachers to abandon education (in its true sense) for easily measurable proxies”. If one agrees with that, then such a look is essential.

1 Comment

  1. Insightful comments.

    But like many you have slightly misread one of the recommendations. The report suggested unbundling the GCSE 5 A-C measure into English, Maths, AND such other measures as the government might determine: it stopped short of making specific recommendations as to what those measures should be. For example, the report recommendation is entirely compatible with your suggestion of publication of full subject-by-subject results. But somehow everyone seems to have failed to spot the second half of this recommendation and interpreted it as saying that the review group recommended an accountability system based on English and mathematics only.

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