A major new survey carried out by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) lays bare the dysfunction in the relationship between schools and the national curriculum.
Sarah Fletcher, high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School and chair of HMC’s already established assessment reform working group, authored the report, which was released in November 2021.
“The world has changed since the curriculum was devised,” Fletcher says. “The challenges we face in the 21st century and the framework within which we work have changed beyond all recognition and we now need to reset the dial.
“While the acquisition of knowledge and qualifications are understood to be important, these are currently limiting broader learning. There needs to be more emphasis on curiosity and a love of learning, so young people develop the flexible, adaptable mindsets they need to upskill and reskill in later life.”
The take-home from The State Of Education – Time To Talk report doesn’t pussyfoot around. Our current education system, agrees almost everyone who took part in the survey, does not prepare young people to thrive in the 21st century. Assessment is “too narrowly focused and is being used for the wrong ends”.
The challenges we face in the 21st century and the framework within which we work have changed beyond all recognition and we now need to reset the dial
Simultaneously, the report argues, the system is in thrall to exams which stress out students and serve few other than university admissions offices. Generally, curricula and assessment fail to “meet the needs of diverse learners, including those with disabilities; neurodiversity, mental health and economic status remain the biggest blockers to securing equal opportunities in education”.
In short, it needs to shape up to respond to the needs and demands of an education sector crawling out from under the debris of the pandemic.
The survey ran throughout the summer of 2021 and was completed by nearly 800 people – 450 of them teachers and members of the senior leadership team from the chalkfaces of independent and state schools.
Ninety-four per cent of the respondents chimed that GCSEs and assessment methods were in urgent need of reforming; 54% said consultation should start immediately. Just five per cent of respondents “strongly agree” that the current education system encourages the banking of skills required for the world of work.
Make-up or break-up
No grade nines for guessing who wants to dump whom, then. It’s not us, say teachers (and parents and students), it’s you.
“Ultimately, teachers want more control over what they teach and how they teach it,” says Chris Fairbank, director of communications at HMC, when asked for his in-a-nutshell take on Time To Talk.
Expanding on this, he says: “We didn’t enter into this with an objective in mind, per se, it was very much about taking the temperature of classrooms and schools.
The idea that curriculum and assessment as it stands isn’t fit for purpose – a phrase that’s popped up a few times – has been borne out by our findings, rather than anything else, but you don’t have to look very far to see the immense unhappiness with how assessment is currently carried out.”
There’s a very real sense from the survey results that, in spite of the adaptations, tenacity and resourcefulness schools have urgently had to come up with to mitigate for the disruption of the pandemic, GCSE and IGCSE requirements are stuck in a different age.
“Take the use of technology in the classroom, for instance – which has, you could argue, completely revolutionised classrooms in the last 18 months, for obvious reasons. Almost every school in the country is using smart boards and iPads and submitting work electronically, yet exams are still done with a pen and paper.
“I think everyone would want to see assessments prepare children for the world which they’re going to go into. Of course, writing, testing, has a place in education, but I think that assessment needs to reflect what’s important, and the [student] progress we’re trying to measure.”
Fairbank says he was fully expecting the report to tell of across-the-sector criticism of the system as it stands – not least given the pandemic-aided disruption to lessons and the exam palaver that followed. Nonetheless, he was taken aback by the consensus of opinion.
“I thought there would be some disquiet with the current education system, the curriculum and assessments. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent to which, specifically teachers and senior leaders, were unhappy with how the education system was focused but also how unanimous they were in the need for reform – in fact, urgent reform.”
Demands from the suppliers
The report certainly reads like the opening salvo of that campaign for reform. The vision is, according to Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of HMC, for an independently developed alternative to the current model.
He says: “[HMC] firmly believes that those working in education, rather than politicians, should be central to this design process. An independent apolitical appointment should lead the consultation process.”
That might once have had a ring of wishful thinking. Recent DfE administrations have been, Fairbank carefully suggests, prickly, to the point of defensive, of their curriculums reforms in office and haven’t wanted to hear otherwise.
But, thinks Fairbank, with Nadhim Zahawi now at the helm, seemingly more popular and open to engagement with the sector, there’s a case for some optimism.
“There’s been this interesting shift in the ministerial group; there does appear to be more openness to looking at what’s happened over the last two and half years and the acceptance that there’s so much to be done to ensure that every child has a brilliant education. I very much get the impression from the present minister that nothing is off the table.”
Nonetheless, HMC aren’t about to impetuously storm the barricades of Sanctuary Buildings. Fairbank says: “The last thing we want to do is implement quick changes, quick fixes that haven’t been fully thought through and haven’t been fully considered by those that would be most affected – the teachers.”
How soon is now?
Over Zoom from his office in Hertfordshire, Dr Nick Dennis, director of studies at St. Francis’ College, tells me he welcomes the report, albeit with some reservations.
“This isn’t a new conversation. The curriculum has been questioned for as long as we’ve had mass education and it’s right that we continually engage in this conversation, but I doubt there’ll be a rapid reform – it’s an unfinished, never finished, piece of work.”
Are assessments and the curriculum fit for purpose? That all depends, thinks Dennis, on what purpose we’re looking at.
“The HMC report, I thought, was very interesting. Especially in terms of the diversity of purpose that the people surveyed seem to have. It’s timely, yes. I mean, there’s always a good time to have a conversation about what the purpose of education is.
The curriculum has been questioned for as long as we’ve had mass education and it’s right that we continually engage in this conversation, but I doubt there’ll be a rapid reform
“It asks if it’s also fit for the age we live in, and clearly, there are issues and things that we haven’t crossed. I think this is where we need to really understand that the examination system that we have is a cultural script.
“And what I mean by that is that because we are used to doing it, it actually informs all the choices, or many of the choices and forms of structure, that we work with.”
Dennis applauds the fact – borne out in the opinions of those surveyed – that inclusion and diversity are moving to the top of the agenda in education.
“Academics and researchers have been talking about these issues for years outside of schools. Now it’s a live debate in schools. I think there are a lot of good things coming to the surface.”
Have we learnt from the past?
So, it’s hitting the right notes but – he’s a history teacher, after all – Dennis says there is an earworm familiarity to the melody.
“It’s a fact, and as a history teacher I can vouch for it, that many of the exam curricula designed for key stage 3 has been fairly narrow. It’s missed huge parts of the British and the world story, and that is something which hasn’t been seriously discussed. But now it’s getting to be part of the conversation and it would be very interesting to hear if the government are open to discussing reform along those lines.”
He says, in spite of his optimism, he’s not sure things will change at the pace many in education might wish for.
“They were talking about exactly these issues in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The Swann Report (1985) for instance, just one of the reports produced by governments at the time, actually discussed the issue of the curriculum not being broad enough and that it needed to include a range of new ideas – which didn’t happen and the work’s been forgotten.
“I think there is more work for us to do to help government be really informed, even about the reports they commissioned themselves.”