Ch-ch-changes. After the trials and tribulations of the summer of 2020, renewed calls are being made to transform education and change how assessment is enacted in schools. 

For experienced teachers, it is a familiar refrain. In the Guardian, Melissa Benn has asked teachers and policy makers to “recognise the unique potential of this moment to transform the national conversation about education”. Only days before, Benn compared the progressive freedoms of independent schools with the ‘drill and kill’ of state schools

Exams, ‘drill and kill’, assessment, and traditional teaching being opposed to more ‘progressive’ methods are once more being mashed together into familiar, century long arguments. Renewed calls to close the exam factory were duly reprised.  

The very notion of ‘exam factory schools’ – depicting schools as archaic institutions designed to meet the needs of industrialism and not our future – is a long-standing critique as old as…well, factories. The ‘exam factory’ bundles up exams, teaching in rows, and whatever other practice invokes a sense of traditionalism and notions of schools as backward-looking. 

Exams have long-since been cast as outmoded and even inhuman. The blunt algorithm has justifiably made us all reflect whether we can do better and go onto develop a broader, richer assessment.

Should we overhaul assessment? 

The narrow parameters of end-of-course examinations for both GCSE and A Level have proven to be inflexible in the face of a pandemic that wiped out school attendance and the summer exam series. 

What if we had modular examinations? What if we had coursework, or controlled assessments in the bank? What if we had verifiable mock examinations? What if you we had a flexible record of your achievement that superseded exam grades altogether?

If you are a seasoned teacher who has stood in front of a whiteboard (perhaps even a blackboard), you may be excused if you were to execute an eyebrow raise at these questions. 

I remember vividly the vocal complaints about the seeming endless exam loop of modular exams. In truth, endless resits ended up contorting the curriculum. So, what about the apparent freedom and creativity elicited by coursework? As a wizened English teacher, I can remember the coursework arms-race all too well (yes, there was lots of cheating). Time-sucking controlled assessments were no better. Most of all, I remember changing everything every few years, with not enough discernible improvement in my pupils’ learning for each change. 

I can also recall my experience teaching the International Baccalaureate (IB) too. The IB have a more expansive assessment model than GCSEs and A Levels, no doubt. From recorded oral assessments, to creative responses to literature, and good ol’ fashioned end-of-course exams too. In many ways, the IB model is very close to the calls being made by many to reform the English factory model of exams. 

And yet, when the IB was embroiled in an assessment fiasco this summer (it didn’t reach Newsnight like GCSEs and A Levels), I was left unsurprised. Attempts to mark all coursework still didn’t result in fair grades by all accounts. I remembered odd IB oral assessment gradings for my students, along with puzzling coursework and creative response assessments. 

It turns out that finding valid and reliable models of assessment, that span beyond the traditional exam hall experience, is really, really hard. There are no easy ways to transform assessment. That shouldn’t stop the calls for improvement, but they should give us pause. 

Stop and think…

You can label me a traditionalist, or an enemy of promise and creativity, but I am resistant to calls for transforming education and overhauling assessment in particular. In truth, I am simply too world weary from the hamster wheel of qualification and assessment changes that didn’t fulfil their promise in the recent past.

You can even call me an apologist for examinations. Indeed, I find this ‘defence of exams’ in Scotland compelling. I have watched this video by Professor Rob Coe and I worry that teacher assessment isn’t the silver bullet as it may be promised. As Coe states, we don’t know how to make teacher assessment work well and this summer hasn’t changed that opinion. 

Yet, I am also aware, before the algorithm angered the nation, that exams were flawed too. Indeed, around half of A level grades are wrong as a matter of annual routine. We shouldn’t resist change at all cost. But each commentator needs to understand the workload and turmoil involved in a change to assessment that comes with a related curriculum and qualification shift.

My key argument is that transforming anything in education is so hard and it normally doesn’t work. Put bluntly: most innovations in schools fail.

Are you interested in progressive project-based learning? Well, it didn’t work great with lots of expert supportFancy yourself some traditional core knowledge? It was hard to make work for teachers in England who needed more knowledge of their own. You can gift me anecdotes of tremendous individual schools doing great work, but they are seldom scalable across our system.

The arguments of Melissa Benn should be taken seriously. Experts ideas, such as doing away with A levels, via Sonia Sodha, or Tom Sherrington’s idea for a National Bacc, should be up for discussion and challenge our thinking. And yet, we should recognise that change is disruptive and will likely to cause as many problems as it solves. 

As the wise educationalist, Vivianne Robinson states:

“Instead of taking for granted that change will lead to improvement, we should do the opposite – that is, believe that change will not deliver our intended improvement unless there are structures and processes in place for ensuring that all involved can learn how to turn change into intended improvement.” 

Vivianne Robinson, ‘Reduce Change to Increase Improvement’

I can’t help but think of the workload and sanity of teachers when I resist easy notions of educational transformation. If you change assessment, you change the curriculum. If you change the curriculum, you ramp up the need for hundreds of new habits in the classroom and a wealth of new knowledge. Policy makers and commentators need to step into the shoes of tired teachers when they reimagine education and assessment.

We are not beyond envisioning a better future for education and assessment. But the optimism bias of the educationalists calling to end the exam factory needs to first spend a couple of years devising the structures and processes to support an army of hardworking teachers to deliver something better.