Thursday, 20 September 2012

Gove's new exam-based qualification sets us back 30 years

I am coming a bit late to this party, as it has been some days now since Education Secretary Michael Gove announced his intention to replace the GCSE with an English Baccalaureate Certificate.  Many comments have been made about this change by people with far more knowledge and expertise than me.  Perhaps the most entertaining, passionate and yet at the same time clear-sighted comments have come from the current Children’s Poet Laureate Michael Rosen, who has been blogging at length about what he calls the ‘GCSE Fraud’, his firm believe that the new ‘O-level’ style qualification will not raise standards, and the fact that Gove is using highly questionable data to support his claims of a need for change.

I am not a specialist of further or compulsory education (i.e. GCSEs and A-Levels).  My teaching career has been an exclusively higher education one (i.e. BA degrees).  Teachers in compulsory education are required to undergo years of specialist training before they are deemed qualified enough to actually teach, while frankly I was allowed to lecture a group of students after merely completing a Masters dissertation about Tristram Shandy.  However, I have taken a keen interest in higher education teaching as skill and a profession – and from that perspective I cannot help but be staggered at the changes Gove is proposing, and since this is my blog and I can write what I like I am going to say why.

The idea of replacing GCSE’s with a single all-defining exam-based qualification seems to me destined to destroy thirty years of educational thought which has been attempting to recognise the total inadequacy of such an approach.

If there is a difference between our ideas of education now, and our ideas of education thirty years ago, can be perhaps be theoretically summed up as the absence of behaviourism as an unquestionably dominant underpinning to all educational practice.  Behaviourism as an educational theory supposes that learning is something which can be seen to take place when our behaviour changes.  In other words, it is not what we think, it is what we do that demonstrates that we have learned something.  Implicit in such a model is the belief that learning is something shaped by outside forces.  In other words we are made to learn by the environments in which we function.  A pivotal believe of behaviourist learning is that we learn best by repeating something over and over again until we can replicate it instinctively.  It is easy enough to picture the kind of education which reflects this classic behaviourist model: a group of children sat in neat little rows repeating by rote what the teacher says.  And of course, what the teacher says is always right, because it is the teacher that says it.  In effect, the student is being asked to “give back to the lecturer what he or she has previously given to them” (Ashcroft and Palacio, 2004. p. 26).

In the 1960s cognitivist theories emerged to challenge the dominance of behaviourist views.  Reflecting the increasing understanding of how the brain functioned, cognitivist education theories attempted to shape a model of education which reflected better how the brain worked.  In practice what this meant was an increasing view that learning is not something entirely dependent on outside forces, but dependent as well on internal forces.  The various differences, assumptions and beliefs that each individual brings with them into a classroom will each effect how they think – and how they think determines how best they can learn. 

The shift from a focus on what happens in the classroom, to what happens in the mind of the learners, led to a range of new ideas in education.  It led to the realisation that while some people naturally respond better to visual stimuli, others respond better to oral stimuli.  It led to the realisation that some people simply learn better through social interaction, than by sitting still and quiet and just listening.  Educators began to accommodate in their teaching practices an understanding of the basic psychological needs of their pupils, as defined by groundbreaking theorists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

The new buzz-word in education became ‘differentiation’.  Teachers were trained to be able to teach a classroom of students in a way which did not disadvantage that boy in the corner who struggled to listen, but had no problems reading.  Not to disadvantage that girl over there who could only really grasp ideas properly if given the chance to talk about them.  Not to label as a failure that boy who wrote so badly that everyone thought he was stupid – when in fact he was merely dyslexic.

Indeed, the focus appeared to be shifting from the imposed act of teaching to the receptive act of learning – and learning in a way which made children actually want to do it.  As Carl Rogers so enthusiastically described, this kind of learning was:

not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING - the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his 'cruiser'. I am talking about the student who says, "I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me." I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: "No, no, that's not what I want"; "Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need"; "Ah, here it is! Now I'm grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!" Rogers, C. (1983)
 Of course, not all these theories were as convincing as each other, but during this time teachers became educated as specialists in how children learn – not simply educated as subjects specialists who had the knowledge and simply had to tell a class what it needed to know.  Extensive research was conducted by people like John Hattie (1999) that appeared to demonstrate clearly that these more responsive and reflexive approaches were more effective in helping children learn, and everything appeared to be going well.

For a long time though, educational assessment seemed a long way behind educational practice.  After all, what is the point of recognising that a child learns best visually and then testing their understanding by making them write an exam for three hours?  Assessment needed to be valid in more ways than one.  In higher education Richard Wakeford (1999) suggested three modes of validity: assessment should be valid in terms of how it changes behaviour, certainly, but it should also be valid in terms of whether it is appropriate to those being assessed, and in terms of how meaningfully the assessment can be measured.

These three ideas of assessment validity appear to have made it into the official ‘code of practice’ of the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) which determines the standards of all higher education in England and Wales.  The QAA code of practice on assessment refers to “validity, equity and reliability” – implying that assessments need to be relevant, fair to all students, and capable of being fairly measured.

Implicit here is the notion that one method of assessment is simply never appropriate to all circumstances, which the QAA also acknowledge by encouraging “innovation and diversity in assessment practices”.  The traditional unseen exam, which it appears is going to be the only method of assessment in Gove’s new English Baccalaureate Certificate, was discouraged because it often failed to justify itself in terms of validity.

Certainly there are many who still view the unseen exam as “the reliable ‘gold standard’” of educational assessment.  Sally Brown and Peter Knight make a valid point when they suggest that while exams may “encourage surface learning … it has to be said that they also can allow the student who has gained a deeper understanding of the subject throughout the course to show it” (Brown and Knight, 1994. p. 67).   Another strength of unseen examinations is that they “cause the student to need to learn, which is a significant driving force for learning” (Race, 1999. p. 62).  The ‘cause’ in this case, may well be abject fear and terror, but hey – if it makes them learn a lifetime of nervous disorders is a small price to pay.

Another strong argument in favour of exams is that it is an effective way to prevent plagiary. 

Of course it is hard to argue that exams do not provide an effective mechanism for limiting the instances of ‘cut and paste’ plagiarism.  However, exams do not prevent cheating altogether:  students with effective memory recall can memorise passages to include in exams, and the range of stratagems some students may adopt in order to take forbidden resources into an examination hall with them are arguably no less subtle than those employed by students in trying to deceive a marker into thinking a previously published essay is, in fact, their own.

Perhaps more significantly there is an equally strong argument that exams can be counter-productive in dealing with plagiarism – where a student copies somebody else’s work in their essays.  It is, the argument goes, harder to cheat in an exam.

I would disagree.  Indeed, I would go further and suggest that exams actively encourage students to adopt a plagiary mindset.  A large percentage of plagiary cases come from students who resort to it out of desperation – because they do not understand the things they are supposed to be learning, they simply copy the work of those that do.  Since exams are a forum in which a student is largely expected to memorise and repeat, it appears to actively discourage students learning things for themselves in favour of simply memorising stuff.

This is not my main problem with exams though.  My main problem is that the arguments in favour of them seem to focus on simplifying the educational process at the expense of the standard of learning.  To blanket Gove’s new EBC qualification with a final exam is to impose a mode of assessment with “little relevance to what was intended in either the anticipated learning outcomes or the teaching” (Dunn, et al., 2004. p. 17) – an approach which theorists like Paul Ramsden and David Boud have been fighting against for years.

Phil Race suggests that what unseen written exams actually measure is nothing more than “the techniques needed to do unseen written exams!”  Race goes on to condemn unseen written exams for de-motivating students, providing a limited learning experience, encouraging surface learning approaches and proving “limited or useless for measuring teamwork, leadership, and are rarely a suitable vehicle for measuring creativity and lateral thinking” (1999. p. 62-63).   In another study, Race points out the impact of performance-related anxieties attendant on exams.  Enquiring of conference delegates what their worst nightmares about assessment might be, “the majority of them thought of exams they had sat”.  Several specific examples are given, but it might be worth listing a few here:

§         Making the wrong choice of first question (exams) – a good start is essential!

§         Exam paper format is different from that expected.  The main topics I studied do not appear at all in the paper.  The fire alarm goes off!

§         Freezing, mind going blank, realizing afterwards (and too late) what I ought to have said or written.

§         Fear, panic, not being asked what I had studied.  The awful gut feeling that you wake up with on the morning of the exam – still remembered several years later.

§         Being so tense that I might pass out, and suffer the embarrassment of being carried out of the exam room.

§         Finding that I was so strung up, that despite the fact that I knew how to answer the question, I could not get my hand steady enough to write the answer.

(Race, 1995. pp. 61-3)

Notice how exams bring with them a range of performative factors with “little relevance to what was intended in either the anticipated learning outcomes or the teaching”: anxiety, fear, panic, and tension all working in such a way that even where the knowledge and understanding are present, the form of the assessment can inhibit a students ability to demonstrate it (Dunn, et al., 2004. p. 17).   If examinations do, as Sally Brown and Peter Knight suggest, allow demonstrations of deep understanding, Race’s findings suggest it to be entirely dependent on the extent to which a student is able to approach an examination without any of these momentary and often unpredictable reactions.  It is arguable, as well, whether examinations can ever really allow a demonstration of deep understanding unless that student in question has a sound ability for memory recall.

And here is the most frightening thing about what Gove is doing.  To pin a child’s entire educational future on a single exam risks labelling them as a failure before they even turn 16.  All it takes is JUST ONCE for a child to suffer too much from anxiety, or to become ill, or for a fire alarm to go off, or to choose the wrong question – and that’s it.  No EBC qualification.  Which means no A-levels.  Which means no University.   Which means limited life choices.

To pin a child’s entire educational future on a single exam means that the ones who get to University will have good memory recall, and be good at repeating stuff.

I’m sorry, but my computer can do that – and do it better.  Mr Gove, for nearly a century educational theorists have been trying to make education more about learning how to learn.  Teachers have become experts in differentiation, and in helping children to use their strengths in achieving learning.  Your approach to education is one which replaces learning with memorisation, which benefits few and will be costly to many.  When it comes to the educational future of my children, I want to think that it is shaped by a genuine understanding of the learning process – and not by a reactionary, ignorant and horrifically rash policy based on the false assumption that ‘it was better in my day’.


  • Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991). Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Tennant, M. (1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge
  • Ashcroft, K. and Palacio, D. (2004). Researching into Assessment and Evaluation in Colleges and Universities, London: RoutledgeFalmer
  • Hartley, J. (1998) Learning and Studying. A research perspective, London: Routledge
  • Rogers, C. (1983). The Freedom to Learn. London: Merrell
  • Hattie, J. (1999). Influences on Student Learning. Available at: [Accessed: 09/01/2006]
  • Wakeford, R. (1999). Principles of Student Assessment, in A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 2nd edn., Fry, H., Ketteridge, S.  and Marshall, S., eds.,  London: Kogan Page, 42 – 61
  • Race, P. (1999). Why Assess Innovatively?, in; Brown, S. and Glasner, A., eds., Assessment Matters in Higher Education, Buckingham: Open University Press, 57-70
  • Race, P. (1995). What has Assessment Done for Us – and to Us?, in; Knight, P., ed. Assessment for Learning in Higher Education, London: Kogan Page, 61 – 74
  • Dunn, L., Morgan, C., O’Reilly, M. and Parry, S. (2004). The Student Assessment Handbook: New Directions in Traditional and Online Assessment, London: Routledge Falmer
  • Brown, S. and Knight, P. (1994). Assessing Learners in Higher Education, London: Kogan Page

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