On 19th January 2021, members of the New Visions for Education Group, meeting on Zoom, heard from Shadow Schools Minister Wes Streeting about the Labour Party’s policy initiatives for post-pandemic education in England. At that meeting Wes Streeting spoke about his willingness to receive contributions from the Group. Here Sir Alasdair Macdonald, Chair of the Group, describes a vision of 21st century education with lessons learned from recent experience, and invites members of the Group Council to take part in a vitally important new debate. 

There is little doubt that a case can be made for reform of virtually all aspects of our education system. A long list could quickly be drawn up – early years, SEND, funding, teacher education, the ‘middle tier’, vocational education, higher education etc. However, there is a risk, even a danger, that in looking at these issues separately we miss an opportunity to look holistically at education for all ages and all purposes, to consider the role of our educational institutions in society, and to create an inclusive system.

Over the last twenty years the agenda has been increasingly set by politicians and a relatively small group of educationalists who, through piecemeal change, have favoured a very traditional approach to pedagogy, the curriculum and qualifications. We now have a significantly narrowed primary education and a concerted attempt to return our secondary schools to the 1950s, to what is essentially a grammar school curriculum. We have retained and strengthened an outdated qualifications system which was developed when most young people did not stay in education beyond the age of 15 and whose primary function was to sort pupils. The qualification system now has the additional function of school accountability.

There is a growing awareness of the need for fundamental change including renewed interest in the Tomlinson Working Group on 14-19 Reform of 20 years ago. The pandemic and lockdown, which have put enormous pressure on schools and colleges, have generated considerable interest in the possibility of much wider change. There will have been two cohorts of young people whose GCSE and A levels will have been assessed by teachers and have not written examinations leading to a debate not only about assessment methods but also about what to teach and how young people are educated.

We need to focus on what a 21st century education should look like, an education that provides our pupils with knowledge and skills but also enables them to think, to question, to understand and to maintain the flexibility that will be essential in a world of ever faster change. We will need a system of assessment at the end of school education which shows what young people have learnt and can do. We do not need an assessment system which subjects youngsters to hours of high-stakes written examinations which classify many of them as ‘failures’ after 12 years of education.

At our last meeting Wes Streeting MP, shadow schools minister, spoke about his willingness to receive ideas for future Labour policy. We want to respond to his challenge. This is potentially a huge task and one that requires considerable thought and planning. Our Group needs an outline narrative of what we are proposing. How should we do this? Who will come forward to set the ball rolling ? Who will join a small working group?

Not all Group members will be able to help. If you are and have the time and space to help, please email info@newvisionsforeducation.org.uk or respond to the email recently circulated by our Secretary, John Fowler stating what you could do and your areas of interest.

Thank you

Alasdair

 


Writing on the day that England’s Secretary of State for Education announced special arrangements for GCSEs and A Levels in 2021, New Visions Group Membership Secretary Robin Head challenges him on whether he has real understanding of what is at stake.

Given the debacle England currently has regarding how we approach GCSE and A Level qualifications, one is left wondering, do the DfE really understand what evaluating educational understanding, learning and attainment actually means. The ever-decreasing circle with which the Government, ably assisted by Ofqual, appears to be disappearing into, seems less logical with every pronouncement.

The most recent announcements that Exam papers might be marked “more generously” seems utterly ridiculous and nonsensical. Taking “aids” into exams too makes very little sense. What “aids” will deemed appropriate? Will different “aids” or more generous marking be allowed in some cities and not others? Will Cornish and Isle of Wight exam papers be marked more harshly than the rest of the country as they are currently only Tier 1? How will that be “fair”? Quite frankly, it’s a mess which I feel can only be addressed by the cancellation of Exams in 2021.

Ever since September the elephant in the room has been, “How are 2021 qualifications going to be fairly assessed?” There were several responses at that time which alluded to different measures being considered, all of which were appropriate, however….and it’s a big however, Covid was never going away in the short term. Year 11 and 13 students had already lost huge swathes of time in the classroom, further isolation of pupils in both these year groups as bubbles were sent home was inevitable, certain parts of the country were always going to be affected more than others and areas of the country with the highest amount of disadvantaged families were always going to be hit hardest.

In my humble opinion, shared by many including those who publicly couldn’t but privately did, the only fair measure from the beginning of September was to cancel examinations in the summer of 2021 and move to Centre Assessed Grades as moderated nationally to ensure the best chance of “fairness” across the board. Doing it then would have given ample opportunity for the DfE and Ofqual with the vast expertise of the profession behind them to work hand in hand in coming up with solutions to any structural encumbrance which might prove to be a barrier to the concept of “fairness”. Students, staff and parents would have known from the off where they stood and what was being asked of them in terms assessed output with timetables and updates so that everyone knew the parameters. Never before has student progress been so closely monitored and “known” by teachers so this wouldn’t have been a problem.

The two issues held up by teachers as potential problems in this scenario were a) extra workload and b) a mass of appeals as per last year. However, as a counter to this, the latter should be of little issue as the parents will have been made aware of grades in an ongoing fashion as they are awarded and moderated throughout the academic year. The appeals window would only therefore need to be small reducing the chances of the situation becoming overloaded. In regard to extra workload, a proper consulted upon and negotiated policy of what work is required and when would reduce this. Work is being assessed all year round in any case and what would be required are milestone points at which data and sample work could be put forward and collected.

Of course we have now missed a whole term of making proper decisions which would have led to confidence for students, professionals and parents in how they were to be assessed, however I do not believe it is too late and that with a concerted effort from stakeholders such as education organisations, Trade Unions and pressure groups a renewed vision for summer 2021 qualification outcomes as described above can be introduced to ensure that fairness, as far as can be prescribed, prevails.

I’m sure not everyone might agree with my thoughts, however I think we can all agree that better outcomes and opportunities for our Year 11s and 13s next summer needs to be on offer as an alternative to the current DfE mud being slung at the wall to see what sticks. The build up to the festive season needs to be a space where this is addressed.