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With a week to go until the general election, Laura Partridge writes about the education pledges of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, with a focus on everyone’s favourite topic: exams.

In the absence of a discussion about education policy in last night’s BBC Election Debate, I’ve been reflecting on the three manifestos’ education commitments, starting with an assessment (pun fully intended) of their approaches to testing.

In 2015, research by the University of Oxford’s Professor Dorling found that the UK is among the world’s worst culprits for educating students just to pass an exam. We know that this is not enough for students, who need to develop the critical thinking, creativity and problem solving capabilities that will set them up for life. Nor is it enough for teachers who are torn between their responsibilities to prepare students for tests, the outcomes of which have huge potential ramifications for the reputation of their school, and their commitment to delivering a broad and engaging education that capitalises on their wide subject knowledge and professional skills.

Conservative testing at primary – more is less?

In this context, the Conservative manifesto pledge to “reduce teaching to the test” in primary schools sounds promising.

Yet, in the same breath, the party reaffirms its commitment to the somewhat controversial phonics test and seemingly proposes an additional test at the end of Key Stage 2:

We will expect every 11-year old to know their times tables off by heart.”

For as long as school ratings rely on test scores and the reputations of schools and careers of their senior leaders and teachers rest on these, the incentive for teachers to start with the mark scheme and work back from that to design their teaching will persist.

Continuing commitment to the EBacc

At secondary level, the Conservatives have upheld their target of 90% of students entered for the EBacc at GCSE, albeit with an extra five years for schools to achieve this goal. Despite research from the New Schools Network (NSN) which argues that the introduction of the EBacc has not impacted on the number of students studying the arts at GCSE, there is cause for concern about the curriculum narrowing under the EBacc. Data released by the Department for Education (DfE) in October 2016, and overlooked in the NSN report, demonstrates a decrease in the number of students studying at least one arts GCSE from 49.6% in 2014/15 to 47.9% 2015/16. What’s more, the data did not include Design and Technology subjects for which entries have dropped significantly since the EBacc first appeared on the scene.

A new way forward under Labour?

Labour pave a potential new way forward towards formative assessment. They say they will launch a commission to look into “opportunities for continuous assessment, learning from successful models in other countries”. One key point of reference will undoubtedly be Finland, where teachers are responsible for student assessment and students do not participate in national examinations until the final year of secondary school.

This approach to assessment has huge promise, with a 1998 study by Black and William finding that the introduction of formative assessment on a national scale would be equivalent to raising the mathematics attainment score of a country rated ‘average’ in the OECD rankings (England, New Zealand or the United States for example) into the ‘top five’. OECD What Works case studies have demonstrated that the differentiation of teaching that this form of assessment informs may have particularly positive consequences for the most disadvantaged students.

However, there is no firm commitment to a policy change at this stage, only an openness to exploring the possibilities. And despite the potential long-term benefits, there may be a short-term resistance from some parts of the teaching profession who see it as time consuming. A significant investment in re-skilling (particularly around effective and efficient collection and use of data) may be needed to address this.

The third way?

The Liberal Democrats seem to have struck a balance between proposing a complete recalibration of assessment and sticking to business as usual. While they plan to continue the use of progress measures in primary schools, they pledge to do away with floor thresholds. This may be warmly welcomed by some sectors of the profession who can currently face interventions from Ofsted or their regional schools commissioner if they fall below the attainment threshold of 65 per cent of pupils achieving the national standard in reading, writing and maths. It has led to the naming and shaming of schools falling below the floor, despite DfE evidence that disadvantaged pupils are over-represented in schools below the threshold. We need a more nuanced approach that accounts for factors such as these, rather than a hard and fast rule.

The Lib Dems also pledge to “work with the profession” to “reform tests at 11”. Teacher engagement will be welcomed, but much like the Labour pledge for a commission on continual assessment, it is hard to know at this stage what the resulting policy recommendation might be.

In conclusion, it is reassuring to see that the message has reached the major parties loud and clear that we need a rethink of the “exam factory” model of schooling, but it is yet unclear quite how any of the parties would achieve this once in power. That said, the commitments of Labour and the Liberal Democrats to consulting a profession tired of constant change that is done to them rather than with them might be the key to creating policies that stand the test of time.  At least it would be a step towards building the public legitimacy that underpins effective policymaking.



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