And so it all boils down to this...

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The government's examination reforms are centred around the belief that students should only be allowed one shot at success. But when dealing with adolescents, this approach is fatally flawed, explains Professor Mick Waters.

Should the secretary of state be allowed two attempts at exam revision? Discuss.

Michael Gove decided to create a new, more rigorous approach to examinations. He called it an English Baccalaureate and he said it would be good. A year after he began work on it, he screwed up his EBacc and decided to start again. It was to be his sort of “planning resit”, a self-awarded second chance. The principle of the second chance is not one that Mr Gove is applying to the proposed I levels, the key component of the new examination strategy.

He has got it wrong again and presumably is hoping that nobody will notice. Will two mistakes determine his failure? The new exams are to be almost absent of coursework and built on a one-shot model. For a party that believes in competition this is coherent and logical. The Tory politicians argue that we cannot have an “all must win prizes” outlook. But we are talking about young people; adolescents who are coming to terms with many aspects of life as they meet their exams coming towards them.

Even the top performers get it wrong sometimes. Tennis star Roger Federer recently lost in straight sets. “It was one of those days,” he said. “I have got to go home, think things through and come back ready to have another go.”

Class generally wins out; it endures. Sometimes, though even class isn’t good enough as other factors conspire. We have off days, meet the unexpected, or misjudge the height of the hurdle. It happens to pupils too: “I had a cold and couldn’t hear the French properly.” “I just couldn’t get my ideas to work.” 

Steve Davis missed a pot; Tiger missed a putt, and Rooney a penalty. Dean slipped and dropped Torvill. Mary Berry’s sponge cake didn’t rise. When famous people don’t perform to expectations we usually know it is a blip. We know they are still a class act.

Competition does matter and can have a positive impact and so can collaboration for high performance. Look at the choreography and orchestration of the Olympic ceremonies and the synchronised efforts of Team Sky in cycling.

The school system is bedevilled by this historical obsession with being “right first time”. Teachers are subject to it as much as pupils. To extend the Olympic metaphor to Ofsted, the inspected lesson assumes the importance of the last lap of the keirin, the final vault or dive of the set, or the last lift of the weights.

As the sport commentators would say in hushed tone: “It all boils down to this. All those years of effort, the lonely preparation and sacrifice. All those years of supporting pupils with their careers advice, visiting science fairs, gaining a degree, taking pupils on residential visits, taking part in musical performances, organising work experience, helping the struggler to keep up, pushing the strider to stretch for the top, those hours of planning and writing reports, this is it – can she hold it together and deliver an outstanding lesson on density with year 8 on a wet Wednesday afternoon?”

Schools themselves have this same “no mistakes and no excuses” attitude foisted upon them. Once nominated, the outstanding school lives in fear of having a bad day when every aspect is not as splendid as schools in Finland.

It is reality that gets overlooked. Learners are developing and they will make mistakes, have off days, and struggle on uphill bits. They will also see spurts of growth, make progress with sustained effort, and sometimes have a glorious fluke. Sometimes it was so easy that their work looks better than they themselves thought it was.

The proposed examination structure, like the inspection regime, is built on the premise that measuring the nuances of teaching and learning is a precise and exact science. Learning is inexact, imprecise and uncertain. It is not an engine that can be precisely tuned with a resultant improvement in performance. That is what makes it frustrating and enjoyable. At its root, it is also what makes teaching rewarding.

  • Mick Waters is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and a member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance. Visit www.21stcenturylearningalliance.org. His book, Thinking Allowed On Schooling, is out now.


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