“Call time on the exam-factory”

27 Apr

This article by Labour UK Education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, makes for interesting reading and is potentially a pretty big departure from recent PISA driven reactions to education policies.  In the piece Hunt essentially argues against the continuing march across the vast majority of Western, or Westernised, education systems towards systems based on exams and testing.

He will not find much opposition to his views from me.  I have written several blog posts criticising the testing regimes here in Wales and the nature of education systems that put passing tests above developing a whole-child approach to education.  (As an aside I have also blogged on Ken Robinson’s TedTalks presentation that is referenced in the piece).

Now I don’t agree with everything that is said in the article.  However, it is refreshing to hear Tristram Hunt state views such as:

“We need to call time on the exam-factory model, ensure a broad and balanced curriculum in our schools, and focus on improving teaching rather than fruitlessly reforming school structures.”

Education is of course devolved and so what Tristram Hunt wants to see as the Labour UK spokesperson is not something that Huw Lewis may, or may not, wish to see implemented in Wales.  I think it is fair to say in recent years that the fact we have had the protection of devolution for education has saved a lot of misguided policy upheaval for our students.  Still, this is a view that may need to chime this side of the border.

Hunt’s views come at a time where we continue to have the intrusive and highly divisive standardised testing regime in Welsh primary schools.  We already know how unpopular and educationally disturbing these have been for teachers, pupils and parents alike since they were introduced, especially amongst the very youngest pupils.  We are also putting the Foundation Phase at risk by introducing assessment against age related expectations for those very youngest pupils.

Bizarrely, in some respects, while the above is ongoing in schools we also have the contradictory approach of the new curriculum review in Wales which is clear about the need for a more informative and light-touch assessment regime than we have at present.  Something I feel also came out of the OECD’s evaluation of Welsh education.

It certainly appears at present that the direction of travel we are aiming for in terms of curriculum design, as well as some of the principles of our system in regards to the Foundation Phase and philosophy of qualifications, remains somewhat at odds with the high-tariff, punitive accountability and testing measures currently in place.  We will need to square that circle at some point to ensure that the progressive changes that Huw Lewis is currently implementing are as effective as they can, and should, be.

On a separate issue it is also worth noting recent commitments by Tristram Hunt on class sizes.  This is something that Labour in England have put as a high priority with a specific election pledge on capping numbers.  At the same time we have seen a small, but steady, increase in the percentage of children taught in class sizes of 30+ in recent years in Wales.  With the state of school finances leading to redundancies there is a fear that number will only continue to increase.  It will be worth watching what all political parties say on that issue as we head towards the Welsh election in 2016.  I know from discussions with teachers that it is certainly one of the issues that trouble them most.

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