Dear Minister for Exams

There is something in the air. In fact, everything seems to be up in the air just at the moment.  I’m not only talking about the logistics of the Summer 2021 exam session – though some good sense and clarity on that would be good. I really hope that you listen to the experts: those who teach and support children.

It’s the whole thing, really. It feels as though it’s time you took a long hard look at yourself.

You’re probably way too busy to read letters. I’ll bet you get a lot. Such as this one; or the one I sent to the paper the other day, suggesting that we have a golden opportunity to re-think how pupils’ learning and wider skills are assessed. 

Daily Telegraph, 7th October 2020

This is a big picture discussion that would need to be held across the width and breadth of education.  When GCSEs were invented, the school leaving age was 16.  Children in England are assessed by written test more than most others on the planet.  As we all know, written tests are not the only measure of a person. Time for a re-think, surely?

Rethinking assessment – a cross-sector alliance

I should perhaps emphasise that Shrewsbury pupils do very well indeed on the current diet.  Our GCSE results are excellent. We prepare our pupils well and they succeed in these examinations. In that narrow sense, nothing’s broken from our point of view.  These assessments are a significant part of the story but our teaching extends beyond the set curriculum; we aim to explore and instil a true love of learning.  Character strengths, skills and aptitudes are developed outside the classroom: through sport, music, drama, expressive arts, leadership, enterprise and adventure, to name a few. 

Learning cross-fertilises and our pupils are recognised and developed not just in the exam hall but across a wide field of activity.  This is what we call ‘whole person education’: the intellective development, which is in part measured by examinations, is allied to active, expressive and reflective learning.  The process is about becoming fully human and developing Salopian virtues that will last a lifetime.

Shrewsbury has a long history of asking difficult questions and being willing to challenge the status quo.  Is our examination system fair?  Can we influence it to be fairer, more holistic, more responsive to the teachers’ knowledge of the children– more fully human. How can we exercise our independence to provide a broad and holistic curriculum?  Recent history shows that we are seizing opportunities here: the introduction of the Institute of Leadership and Management Young Leaders Award and the creation of Shrewsbury U, for example.

I know we’re all struggling day to day. Big thinking takes time and effort – and genuine will to address issues. At a national, system level, there is a debate to be had. This feels like the time.

I have two questions for you, the fictional Minister for Exams:

Question 1: Is there a better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?

Question 2: Read Brian Patten’s great poem, The Minister for Exams? And discuss.

Brian Patten
Brian Patten
‘How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams?’

Is there are better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?

2 thoughts on “Dear Minister for Exams

  1. Leo.

    I couldn’t agree more – and you put it so much better than I could. Having taught and run a boarding house in an international school in SE Asia for seven years, it is clear from where I stand that British educational system is held in very high regard, but schools pledged to delivering a wholistic education, wherever they are in the world, would benefit so much from being able to deploy assessments that have been developed for the 21st Century by educationalists committed to delivering a measure of a young person’s learning in its broadest sense – skills, qualities and knowledge from different areas of life – that will reflect what is now days valued and required by society at large.

    Politicians, it strikes me, are either too timid or too sure of themselves, yet ignorant as they jump from one department to another, and pre-occupied with their own agenda as they ascend the ‘greasy pole’. For too long they have sought refuge in quantification – things are only of value if they can be measured and ‘improvement’ statistically proven and advertised to the electorate. For too long, trust in teachers and school leaders has been eroded. Asking questions and building trust through collaboration and the development of a common purpose is what you are suggesting. However, trust has to work in all directions, and that requires courage, commitment and belief.

    What is achieved by many schools such as the ones you and I have been privileged to be associated with is remarkable and of immense value, but it is developed in spite of not because of the assessment framework they are bound within. If only the next generation could experience something better. There is more to life and therefore more to an education (and how it is assessed) that prepares for life.

    I came across the words of Eric Hoffer, deployed in Neil Chippington’s welcome message on the St John’s College Prep website the other day – ‘Semi-retirement’ in Brunei or, as I prefer, ‘being on sabbatical’, offers a little more time to browse, reflect and write: “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”.

    Keep going. Good luck. Sorry I have gone on so long!

    As ever,

    Chris.

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