What I want to know is this: if a PhD and a Masters degree are pass or fail and if an Honours Degree is assessed with four sub-divisions, why do we sub-divide A levels and GCSEs into 8 sub-divisions? Why do we feel that it is right and appropriate to create very fine rank-ordering for 16, 17, and 18 year olds but not adults?
In many schools, mine included, we shun grades altogether for pupils at KS 3, preferring instead to focus on the learning. We find it un-helpful to apply grades for attainment or effort – they do not promote learning or motivation and the arguments are well described in ‘Inside The Black Box’ – that ground-breaking piece of research from the late 90s. We do use NC levels because they are nationally benchmarked and therefore have some meaning but we use them sparingly in most subjects, usually publishing levels just twice a year.
But when we come to KS4 all that is turned on its head, and everyone becomes only too acutely aware of the criteria to gain a C grade and seeks to gain 5 of them or better. Why?
What would happen if we simply had a pass or fail situation at 16+ education?
Let’s look first at the next level of education. 6th form colleges and beyond them, universities, would have to make their own judgements about the students they are taking on. There would be a burden to those institutions because they need to know whether the student they were taking on is capable of studying a particular subject at the next level. But, to a large extent they already do this. They interview students and at some universities they also test them too. The idea that fine grading at A level and GCSE is there in order to service the selection needs of further and higher education is quite bonkers and yet it is the most often quoted reason.
The same argument goes for employers too. They like to be able to read a list of grades and gain an understanding of the cognitive ability of their candidates. And yet we all know of countless examples of people whose intelligence and ability has been completely mis-represented by the academic grades they achieved at school. Any decent employer will appoint on interview and ‘test’ activities to see who is the best candidate. That doesn’t mean that the present grading system is not of some use, but the distortion it brings to school education is massive and destructive.
Let’s face it, if we were going to start again and produce a brand new matriculation system for 16+ education we would surely not start with the premise that we should have a benchmark that means that just over half the 16 year old population are deemed to have failed! Yet that is what we have at present. And just when many schools have created success through vocational routes and are posting 98% success rates, the government go and move the goal posts so that they haven’t passed after all.
I am struggling to find a reason why we fine grade at GCSE. Is it for motivational purposes? If we took away the cherry of the grading system would the young people stop striving? Well yes, that is a distinct possibility, especially in the short term, because our young people have been brought up to ‘chase the grade’, as indeed have their teachers. Even I found myself addressing my Year 11 cohort the other day with “learn it for one day, get it down on paper in the exam and then you can forget it all for the rest of your life!” But instead of motivating young people with grades should we not be attempting to motivate them with the satisfaction of the learning itself. The top end students who are bent on an academic path need to be encouraged to love learning and research for its own sake and not because it is attached to a grade. For those for whom a vocational path is more appropriate, a solidly built brick wall is satisfaction enough surely, especially when coupled with the praise of a trusted teacher. To give the construction of a brick wall a grade is meaningless; instead it should be judged (yes, I am not arguing all judgements are wrong) by whether it is standing up, whether it is safe, whether a building employer would give you a job on the strength of the skills shown and whether a client would be inclined to pay for it.
Don’t chase the grade, chase the knowledge, the understanding, the know-how.
As far as motivation goes, I find (teaching in a non-selective school) that grades terrify many pupils. The whole ‘sword of Damacles’ thing that hangs over their heads in late August of Year 11 is more than they can cope with. It is a judgement day like no other they will experience in their lives. It falsely creates winners and losers, dividing the population down the middle, sending people off on different paths based on a set of assessment criteria that fails to recognise many of the facets they possess. In the face of this judgement day they simply cave in, preferring instead to be defiantly nonchalant, openly apathetic and wilfully nihilistic. There is no joy in school for them, no sense of satisfaction or achievement dawning on the horizon; just failure, disapprobation, lowering of self-esteem and indignation. At school for 11 years and nothing to show for it.
So I say let’s change it. Let’s get back to the core values of what education is for. “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself”. said John Dewey. Should school be about now and not about preparing for later? Ok, well preparing for later is important but shouldn’t we be able to produce a curriculum that does both; that engages, stimulates, inspires as well as teaching skills and know-how for the future?
We are over-looking one massively simple fact: the whole ‘preparing-for-the-future’ thing is promoted by people who have a past – the adults. We can see where we went wrong and how we would like to see our young people get it right for the benefit of their futures. But that is not how young people see it. They cannot see their futures and have no point of reference from their own pasts to can guide them – so they have to take guidance from the adults. They are prepared to take that guidance as children but it runs counter to their biological instincts to take too much guidance from adults when they are adolescent. Instead their instinct is often to do the opposite. We know this, this is not new! The way round the problem is to make school life real and about now. Engagement in a community that gives respect and responsibility to the individual with the minimum of authoritarian guidance and the maximum of collaboration and positive modelling. Adolescents crave to be grown up and to rebel and the wise Head is one who creates opportunities for these two needs to be met within a community that can absorb the negatives of the latter. The need to rebel will, for some, always focus on the thing the adults most want the adolescent to do – work hard and learn. So school needs to be a place where you can rebel in creative ways and not self-destructive ways.
I think we need an assessment system that acknowledges that a person has been meaningfully engaged in school education and says nothing more. But each young person should produce an ePortfolio that demonstrates the learning they have undertaken and the skills they have acquired, an ePortfolio they can take to the next stage of their lives and continue to update and improve.
In my next blog I want to explore ways in which our current curriculum can be made more suitable for young people, providing a better range of pathways that allow for both an integration of studies and the chance to specialise.