Replacing comparable outcomes with pupil passports

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

What big change would you make to England’s education system? How about replacing comparable outcomes with pupil passports? Geoff Barton explains

Whatever your view about how December’s general election turned out, there is little doubt that it provides an extraordinary opportunity for a government with a thumping majority to do something that could move the education system in England from good to world class. The question is: what?

Or, put another way, if you were secretary of state for education, what would you do? What would be the big idea you would deploy?

Let’s just pause at that point. Because in education it can feel as if we have lost the art of big ideas, at least in England. Back in 2010, a huge volley of changes was unleashed in a single White Paper – The Importance of Teaching. It was from this document that a raft of reforms ensued – academisation, changes in teachers’ conditions of service, the end of the specialist school movement, plus a major overhaul of curriculum and qualifications.

For many in the profession it was far too much change implemented far too quickly. And it largely felt done to us rather than with us.

In Wales there is an extraordinarily ambitious programme of curriculum transformation. But, unlike the England experience, it is a vision which is being phased in with care and the support of education leaders. Scotland has done the same with its Curriculum for Excellence. Northern Ireland’s leaders also talk of the need for transformation, especially now that devolved government is reinstated. Every other UK jurisdiction, it seems, is embracing the principle that more of the same will merely deliver more of the same, that the way we educate our young people and what we teach them needs to change.

So let’s play fantasy education secretary for a moment. What one big change would you make to move England’s education system into the international premier league? What might you do to make education more fulfilling for our pupils, teachers and leaders?

For me, the starting point should be to remind ourselves who is currently well served by our education system and who is not. The well served are the most able children. Very often they come from middle class homes, the habits of learning instilled from an early age, they go to good schools in the proverbial leafy suburbs, they do well in GCSEs, they study A levels, they go to university, and they get good jobs. We probably don’t need to worry too much about them.

But what of the others, many of whom come from disadvantaged homes? What is their experience of education in schools which strive valiantly to do their very best but which are often stigmatised and demoralised by a punitive accountability system?

And how well does the GCSE system work for them when every year it consigns a third of pupils to achieving less than a Grade 4 in English and maths, not by accident, but because it is baked into the system by the mechanism of comparable outcomes? How do they feel when, after 12 years of education, they finish school with a sense of failure? This is a terrible indictment of our education system.
Surely, we need some well-respected qualifications in the basics of English and maths that enable pupils to demonstrate what they can do rather than define them by what they cannot – an English and maths “passport” that is not hemmed in by comparable outcomes or school accountability measures.

And with such thinking comes the opportunity to think more boldly about the future of assessment. Because at some point, technology needs to transform the teacher’s role, taking the routine stuff of pupil assessment and feedback and freeing the teacher to do the human bits – explaining, coaching, advising and supporting.

The days of serried ranks of students sitting in sports halls supervised by armies of invigilators must be coming to an end. Instead, online, adaptive testing that is being used in other high-stakes systems could revolutionise our obsession with a battery of examinations at 16.

Such bold thinking would benefit children and young people – making sure our education system works for all of them, whatever their background. It would reduce the workload of teachers and leaders.
Most of all, it would remind us that in England we can have the same sense of ambition that is so palpable in other parts of the UK. It would demonstrate that we too can aspire to equity and excellence.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.


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