FE Voices

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Inequality is a killer. Literally. It’s widely recognised and known from a wealth of research that specific economic and social deprivation variables have causality to health, wellbeing and prosperity. I’m an example of it. Growing up in a terraced house with a single parent who had a life limiting disability in a home with dangerous wiring and no hot water I learned at a young age that poverty sucks. For me education provided my first, and I later learned only opportunity to transform my life chances. The lesson I believe is clear. If we are to co-create a preferred future built on equity of access to health, wellbeing and happiness, education is the only way. 

As we live through the first major pandemic of the 21st century it has revealed many things in this context and my contention is that when it comes to equity of access and inclusion to the transformational possibilities of education we have a bigger challenge than most outside of education perhaps realised. Since, as the old saying goes, education is the profession on which all others depend, I can’t think of a higher priority to enable building a new and better world and it’s hard to imagine who wouldn't want that. My contention is that we have a unique moment in history right now to pause and reflect. 

We have the opportunity to reimagine education for the 21st century not just in the context of how we do it during a pandemic but more fundamental questions of the ‘why’ behind education and how we measure its impact. Many educators are of course doing exactly this. I was recently involved in some work supported by HP, Google for Education and Intel involving listening to a number of leaders in education sharing their experiences and insights during the Covid19 pandemic.

You can read the full report in terms of outcomes here but perhaps the most significant message for me from this work was the opportunity to fundamentally pause and question why we do what we do, and to challenge it given the glimpses of a better world that have been revealed not least when it comes to more sustainable ways of living and working aside from more personalised learning. 

Whilst measurements and statistics may always be a feature of the education landscape there is a clear and present opportunity now, perhaps a once in a generation one, to reimagine a better system. Reducing the organic complex creatures we are to a standardised score never was an appropriate or fit for purpose way to measure our collective abilities, but in the 21st century it is now as redundant as it's possible to be. 

An education system that is human centric and that places critical skills (those sometimes referred to as soft by people who neither understand how we learn or how we apply learning in industry) at the core is more essential now than it ever was. The pandemic has revealed the extent of the intellectual bankruptcy of the current system obsessed with standardisation and an industrial model of learning. On that note as politicians are often inclined to do, we shouldn’t waste a good crisis. I have always argued you can’t leap a chasm in two jumps. You go for it. Education has the opportunity to take one giant leap for learning-kind now because the pandemic has actually handed the sector a gift to do so, that is if we collectively focus on the bigger picture rather than the present crisis. 

There are tests, damned tests and statistics

I should make it clear that I am not opposed to all forms of standardised testing in specific contexts. For example, I am soon to have a new central heating system installed and I feel it’s important that the gas engineer can demonstrate a specific competence to avoid a gas explosion or similar, and to do that a standardised methodology that can be externally verified as meeting specific safety standards is likely a good thing. Same for a pilot (when flying not installing a boiler) or a surgeon and so on. However my contention is that it should not be the dominant culture in education, and even in subjects like engineering where specific scientific principles are consistently applied history shows that the world’s most notable engineers applied great creativity, leadership and wider skills to enable them to achieve what they did. The problem with standardising anything when it comes to humans is that we are not standard to begin with, so any approach that advocates this, like ‘fun for the whole family’ is always likely to run into trouble.

The reason for referencing standardised testing in the context of equity of access and inclusion in education is because the 2020 pandemic has starkly revealed the impact of poverty on access to learning and therefore life chances, specifically as it relates to passing standardised tests. This of course is nothing new, back in 2015 one in three students identified as disadvantaged achieved five good GCSE passes compared with more than 60% of better off peers, and there are countless wider examples of this trend going back even further. What’s different now is that in a world of remote working and learning where equity of access to both technology and a suitable home working environment become critical, for millions of people this wasn’t, and isn’t, the reality. 

For the more affluent, personal online tuition could be accessed along with fibre broadband and a supportive environment. For the less affluent, shared devices if at all along with impoverished broadband (again if at all) and an environment that may be hostile to learning was more likely to be the norm. Irrespective of which camp a learner found themselves in, this matters equally because we are all part of a hyper-connected learning society where our mutual success is codependent like never before. 

Please Sir, can I have some more?

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The recent scandal with exam results and the mess that Ofqual has found itself in are just the latest in a long, long list of examples of endemic social mobility barriers for those less well off in education when set against the most privileged, and when a dominant culture of standardised testing exists this will only get worse. On Saturday 15th August 2020 Ofqual removed, or placed under review, its guidance regarding the appeals process just hours after issuing it. This seems to be due to concerns over the algorithm used that appeared to favour private schools over those from the most deprived areas as part of it was based on subject pupil numbers, so smaller ‘cohorts’ taking a subject would on average achieve a higher average grade. The analysis produced by Ofqual found that 48.6% of private school pupils attained an A* or A this year representing an increase of 4.7 percentage points set against an increase of just 2 percentage points in secondary comprehensive schools. So if you’re lucky enough to be born into relative wealth the odds are most definitely loaded in your favour. Over the same weekend as this fiasco a wonderful satirical tweet was circulating claiming that Camelot had secured the contract for next year's exam results. It was both funny and tragic in equal measure. 

Whilst it’s true to argue that both poorer and more affluent students have shown some progress in regard to overall attainment on standardised tests in recent times, the proportional gap is widening and this matters because it will compound inequality over time, and that is not sustainable for any country that wishes to maintain a democracy. I know this to be true from my personal experience in the investing world where the same principle of compounding applies where if we continue with the same capitalist models ultimately the system will break because of the compounding effect (in this example in regard to wealth). A world where just a few people have nearly all the wealth is about as sensible as a world where just a few people get the best education, and both will ultimately result in revolution. So no matter where you sit on that spectrum, we have a collective responsibility to reimagine a better system if we prefer reasonable change to disruptive and radical revolution that could actually result in something much, much worse.

Despite my background I was lucky to enter the education system when I did. I received a full grant for my post compulsory education world and prior to that I was lucky to engage with teachers who were less concerned about achieving various statistical benchmark outcomes (it wasn’t so much of the dominant culture then) and more interested in developing the skills required to get on in life. That school would never have been at the top of any league table based on current metrics, but looking back it produced more than an average number of entrepreneurs who went on to build things of value, including employing others.

I am increasingly questioning the ideology that competition at an individual level drives success and this is just one of the areas where the current examination system fails to measure potential, and it seems that most successful employers know this to be true. Rather an education system where the dominant culture is one built on collaboration and the cross-pollination of diverse perspectives and ideas that have value is likely to create greater benefits in terms of outputs at both individual and society levels. When it comes to assessing those outputs, I would trust nobody more than the professional educators we trust with our most treasured assets every day. To suggest that it is rational to trust educators with the future of all professions, aside from their specific legal responsibilities from safeguarding to the prevent agenda, yet somehow we can’t trust their judgement when it comes to assessing the individual academic ability of their students is absurd as it is damaging.

Given the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on individualist, reductionist numerical measures as the dominant form of assessing human potential, perhaps it's now time to finally shift the priority of this resource allocation to better serve our national interests. My contention is that investing those resources into educators and into a new system they design, rather than one imposed on them, and built from their expertise would benefit us all. Some forms of standardised testing would likely need to remain in specific contexts, but the dominant culture of education could shift from an industrial dehumanising model to a human centric one that enables a learning society where collaboration drives innovation and sustainable prosperity. 

Get that right, and we all win. 

Jamie E Smith, Executive Chairman, C-Learning

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