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Turning around the education oil tanker

Today, like every A Level results day, has been full of excitement. It is a genuine pleasure to see the joy and relief on the faces of so many pupils as they open their A Levels and realise that they have realised their dreams. However, despite the excitement which today brings, I really do wonder whether we need to put our young people through the stresses of it.

A few years ago, Mary Curnock Cook, the Chief Executive of UCAS, made a bold attempt to change the university admissions system in the UK. Her vision was that pupils would apply for university only after receiving their A Level results. It makes sense to me. Everyone knows where they stand. Pupils know whether they have the grades or not to apply for a particular course, and universities know exactly what they are getting. This is in stark contrast to the current system, where pupils generally receive conditional offers based on predicted grades and have to wait several months to have their places confirmed when they receive their A Level results. The predicted grades are a huge imperfection in the system. Schools will naturally want to be positive in predictions and they do not have crystal balls. As a result, statistics show that across the country as a whole only about half of predicted grades are correct. You might think that’s not too bad, but when you consider that most pupils do three A Levels that leaves them with only having a one-in-eight chance of accurate predictions. How can this system work when seven-eighths of the candidates are misrepresented?

Unfortunately, there was considerable opposition from many quarters to Mary Curnock Cook’s proposed changes. From where I stood it seemed schools were concerned that it would involve their staff working over the summer holidays, while universities were concerned that they would lose at least part of a term’s fees in the first year of the new system (as the university year would have to be delayed).

It was a brave proposal and it is a shame that it did not get further. It illustrates for me one of the problems with education – it is conservative. This should be a major concern to us all when we consider schools’ pivotal role in preparing young people for the fast-paced and changing world with which we are now faced.

On the surface it might look like schools are keeping up: courses have up-to-date content and new technology is quickly embraced (at least by some). But at the same time the overall system is one that goes back to the Victorian Age. It is a system based on distinct subjects and one which ignores the very vital transferrable skills which are the key to success in the graduate job market. How can our current system, for instance, measure a pupil’s ability to work collaboratively? How can it measure their emotional intelligence? How can it measure their ability to work across a number of disciplines? The answer is that it can’t; and, because it can’t and these are not a focus of our GCSEs or A Levels, they can often be neglected by schools.

Unfortunately, schools in the UK cannot afford to ignore GCSEs and A Levels. They are vital measures which employers and universities expect, and so whilst many schools would like the opportunity to refocus their approach, they find themselves constrained by an out-dated system. These constraints do not exist everywhere in the world. In the US, for instance, where there is no national examination system, you will find some extremely innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

At High Tech High, for example, which operates thirteen schools in San Diego, the mission is ‘to prepare reflective practitioner leaders to work with colleagues and communities to develop innovative, authentic, and rigorous learning environments.’ They do this through project work, student-led initiatives, collaborative working and cross-curricular approaches. It may start with a pupil wanting to explore a particular topic. He/she might get other pupils and teachers on board and then lead the process from beginning to end. Teachers don’t teach in the traditional way, but largely become ‘guides on the side’, learning with the pupils. It is an approach which reflects much more closely what young people are likely to encounter in the real world.

Could something similar be achieved in the UK? It seems unlikely whilst education remains a political football and whilst the government uses the examinations system to drive improvement. While countries such as China look to our system in order to innovate, we are looking backwards to the ultra-didactic systems which they are offering their students. And all because of the international league tables, which in reality tell us very little of significance.

Modernising an education system is a bit likely turning around an oil tanker – it takes a good deal of time. For a government minister there isn’t that time to make their mark. It is, therefore, up to schools to keep finding ways to still prepare pupils fully for success at GCSE and A Level, but alongside this to deliver everything else that is important to the future success and happiness of our young people. This is no mean feat, but it is what we aim to do at Truro High School.

In the meantime, we must not forget to celebrate the hard work and achievements of the current A Level cohort. At Truro High School we are very proud of what our outgoing Upper Sixth achieved and we wish them well for their future.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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