First published on November 2011.
Whatever our worries about coalition policies, let’s be grateful to Mr Gove for one thing: his General Motors approach to education (‘what was good for me is good for everyone’) has mobilised a national debate about the purpose of learning. The previous government, despite the rainbows and manic policymaking, never really got this conversation going. Central to this debate has been some new-old thinking about assessment. The way in which pupils are assessed and subsequent data-driven judgements made on schools are the most important control mechanisms of all. Regardless of rhetoric about freedom, it’s assessment that underpins or undermines the liberties that schools might enjoy.
This is not an attack on assessment. At its best, assessment is a wonderful part of the creative process we call learning. It enables reflection and critical analysis, offers an external eye and helps students understand where they are and how to progress. Despite teachers’ best intentions, various political and managerial forces have turned assessment into a reductive shell of what it could be.
Of all this government’s proposed changes to assessment, the most controversial by far is the introduction of an English Baccalaureate as a ‘gold standard’ for students. Although Gove claims that the EBacc should not limit choice, he is too canny not to realise the consequences of the publication of this data. Some GCSEs are now more equal than others.
Even more depressing than the EBacc has been many schools’ reactions to it, rapidly changing options regardless of students’ interests; and the responses from various interest groups, campaigning for their subject be included, rather than challenging the legitimacy of a flawed concept. The RE and music lobbies have been especially vocal.
The EBacc has a reasonable rationale, misapplied. Some academically able students are given poor advice about course options, hugely reducing their chances of a place at a Russell Group university. They are not the only ones. The Wolf Report argues that many young people choosing vocational routes are being guided towards qualifications that nobody values. The EBacc is a partial solution to a much bigger problem.
My alternative proposal is for a baccalaureate which supports all students, not only the most academically able, and also brings others into the assessment process: a MeBacc. The idea deliberately goes with the grain of current assessment processes. More radical alternatives rarely gain sufficient currency across a critical mass of schools.
To gain a MeBacc, a student would need to gain 5 A*-C or equivalent (with proper rigour over what is really ‘equivalent’) at GCSE, including English and maths.
In addition, each student would need to create one or more artifacts (an essay, film or other product) which justifies learning choices. Why did I take these particular courses? What am I planning to do next with them? What are the skills and interests that I am developing outside of school, formally or informally?
Each young person would need to show some clear ambitions for the future, not only career related, and demonstrate creativity, reflectiveness, metacognition – all of the skills we know are crucial for success in 21st-century societies, workplaces and relationships.
This work would then be assessed through a presentation process that involves peers, parents, teachers and an external assessor: someone from within or beyond the local community who, if possible, has some expertise in that young person’s possible career path, and might have time to mentor them. In many ways, this meeting would resemble a PhD viva. A 16 year-old would need to defend his/her ‘thesis’ about her future and how to get there. Yes, it would consume time, and would require a voluntary commitment from thousands of parents and other adults. But the process would also create energy from existing expertise.
This is a partly stolen idea. Kingstone School of Creativity in Barnsley has run a successful ‘assessment for living’ programme for five years – culminating in an alternative parents’ evening where each young person presents to peers, parents and others on their progress and future plans. Headteacher Matthew Milburn aimed to ‘create a curriculum and assessment process that genuinely nurtures human development and enables young people to come to terms with who they are and how they relate to others.’
A MeBacc could formalize this process, giving it a national status that employers, colleges and universities would value. Look out for the interviews with parents in Kingstone’s film. Watch their eyes and body language. They know and love their children like no others can. A MeBacc could harness that love and the love of others – whether love for the student, the subject matter or the future – and thaw out an assessment process that is often unnecessarily frozen and harsh. As Rinaldi has argued, a meaningful assessment process is itself an ‘act of love’.
Illustrations by Paul Davis - http://copyrightdavis.blogspot.com/