Visioning a new education system: reduce exam tyranny and empower teachers and pupils
Ofsted is changing the way it conducts inspections. Drawing on the views of students, we take the opportunity to think about how the education system could go from coercive to nourishing
In a previous blog, Psychologists for Social Change (PSC) responded to the announcement that the education regulator, Ofsted, are to update the framework they use to inspect schools in England. Having looked at the changes that Ofsted are proposing and finding them extremely narrow, the purpose of this article is to go further and envision an alternative future for the education system. It is based on PSC’s joint submission to the public consultation on Ofsted's proposals changes.
When thinking about change in a democratic society, it is only right to begin by asking the people that will be directly affected. To this end, we spent time with States of Mind, a social enterprise that gives young people a platform to discuss issues related to education and mental health. Since January, States of Mind has conducted focus groups with 80 young people to elicit their views about the impact of Ofsted’s inspection framework on their education. Those involved were very keen to share their views:
“We feel that our voices and experiences are constantly overlooked and neglected... we believe that it is our right to tell the true story of how the current system is failing us.”
The students have written a powerful letter to the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, communicating their deep concerns about the system’s negative impact on students. They also put forward psychological healthy ways of doing things differently. We draw on some of their ideas for this article. We also heard from parents and mined our own experience as teachers and educational psychologists.
Read the students' letter here. Scroll down to ‘Alternative Education’ to read 4 action points based on the work.
In summer last year, Amanda Spielman said that schools have a duty to “actively promote” individual liberty. Individual liberty can be defined as a state in which a person is “not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another”. In contrast, a coercive environment is one where an individual is “unable to use his intelligence of knowledge or to follow his aims and beliefs”.
It seems to us that currently, the UK education system is far more like the second scenario than the first. Our experiences and the comments of the students paint a picture of a system that is highly coercive and dehumanising. As one student said: “It’s just a straight and narrow ‘one route’ [system] but you’ve got all these different types of people who think differently, who learn differently”. In other words, students of various shapes are being forced into one rigid, square hole.
Because everything is standardised, young people and schools have no choice around what constitutes success, what skills or attributes are measured, what intelligence or progress means or what topics are studied. There is no room for individual freedom, either at the level of the individual pupil or for the school as a whole. This results in practices such as ‘off-rolling’, where students (presumably the non-conforming ones that don’t or aren’t able to meet the expected level) somehow disappear from a school’s register just before exam time. Last year, 300 schools were identified as off-rolling students before their GCSE year. In any other context, the situation would be referred to as totalitarianism, not liberty. Despite this, students are trying to flourish:
“I want to be an engineer. I’m really good at solving problems, estimating things, really working with my hands but they force me to do things that I don’t really like, like written work... I absolutely hate it. I’d rather learn with something that I’m good at.”
An exceptionally rigid, top-down curriculum “bores both pupils and teachers” and “crushes creativity”. Schools are driven to teach to the test, which reduces young people to memorising machines in exam factories where opportunities to experience individual liberty or freedom are miniscule. This is detrimental to the mental health of young people. One student said:
... “we are stuck in an old era, we are not advancing, we are not moving forward with the people. Depression is a big thing now, everybody is affected by it.”
A nourishing education system
There is an idea in psychology that people are naturally inclined towards personal growth and fulfilment. It is called Self-Determination Theory. Its authors proposed three ingredients required for self-determination: competence, relatedness and autonomy. They believed that in order to trigger our innate capacity to flourish, everyone needs to experience mastery through learning skills (competence), feel a connection to others and social belongingness (relatedness) and a sense of being in control over our lives and goals (autonomy).
All three are required to ensure that a young person develops a positive, cohesive sense of self. In its current form, we believe that UK education provision is coercive and meets none of these needs. Here’s how to change it so that schools can provide young people with the ingredients they need to flourish.
How pupils can flourish: Focus on and value individual, personal development rather than results from enforced, standardised exams
Cramming for exams proves a very narrow form of competence. As one student said: “I just know that this is what I need to write in the exam so I’m not really learning, I’m just memorising”. In one particularly telling comment, one student compared the process of preparing for exams to the training of an algorithm: “That’s how they actually teach robots: they give them data, they memorise it and then they act on it. I think that they think we are robots, and it’s just not right”.
It is not acceptable to privilege certain forms of competence, the ability to regurgitate facts under time pressure, say, at the expense of others. Everyone is different and brings their own individual competencies to learning. We need to value individual creativity, celebrate individual strengths and support weaknesses. This can only be done if we move away from a one-size-fits-all education system and see the differences between students as assets, not something to be ironed out.
Forcing schools to use standardised testing to benchmark themselves and pupils only suits a proportion of the student body and leaves everyone else behind, sometimes with devastating consequences. As the students write in their letter to Spielman, “High stakes testing has damaging consequences for our mental health, due to the constant, ongoing pressure and stress this singular measure creates. The long term consequences of this system can include panic attacks, feelings of anxiety, stress and sadly, a loss of interest in learning”. Another reason to reduce the emphasis on standardised assessment is the lack of connection between what students are required to learn for exams and what they need to succeed in our complex, difficult world. As described by a student: “When I actually go out into the professional world and the types of skills [that are required]... you can’t learn on a mark scheme. It’s a school system that is separate from the real world”.
Once schools are no longer forced to design the way they teach solely around exams, the emphasis can shift onto the students’ personal development. This should not be an afterthought. How to do this should be left up to the individual school and the needs of its particular student body, but in the words of the students’ letter, the focus should be on “growth, self-awareness and qualities of emotional intelligence, as these are characteristics which will have much more of lasting and significant impact on an individual’s health [than grades]”.
In the context described above, the national curriculum would be ‘more of a guide than a script’, providing space for young people to explore their individual competencies and strengths. Any fears that this would somehow reduce rigour or decrease standards is unfounded as it has succeeded in other nations.
How pupils can flourish: Increase opportunities for and emphasis on students working together
As described by the World Bank in their report ‘The Changing Nature of Work’, education needs to provide learners with core skills involving ‘problem-solving, and critical thinking ⎯ as well as soft skills such as perseverance, collaboration, and empathy’. Other evidence shows that the labour market increasingly rewards social skills. The students we spoke to are highly aware of this and mentioned it repeatedly, alongside the need for opportunities to develop their character. According to one student, education “shouldn’t be judging someone’s intelligence on whether they are getting a question right or wrong. They should be judged on the morals and the ethics they have.”
In their letter, the students write that they want schools to help them understand how to become a "good person": “Being human and being part of a society involves more than numbers [grades] on a paper. You need manners, you need sympathy, empathy, honesty... That is not what we’re getting. We’re learning how to try and be better than everyone else”. This was echoed by a parent: “How [does it help when you are trying] to bring up your child to think about the wider good of society when they are continuously being encouraged to compete against their peers?”
In order to prepare pupils for the adult world, schools should provide opportunities for students to work collaboratively and to constructively critique each other’s work - something that the students felt would prepare them for facing criticism later in life while increasing self-esteem. Students wrote to Spielman about wanting “to create group presentations, projects and practical assignments where students are able to take ownership of the subject matter.... to work together to pool their expertise, knowledge and skills”. They wrote about the importance of active listening - listening to understand rather than to reply. “Promoting the development of good listening skills could enhance critical thinking and interpersonal skills required in the workplace, as it encourages students to practice asking clarifying questions to fully understand the speaker’s intended message”.
These are suggestions that we are fully behind. Once the focus is shifted from preparing for exams, classroom time can open up for group work and high quality, inclusive discussions that all students should feel able to contribute something to. This would help foster a greater sense of community and enable more students to feel like they belong at school - something that the current focus on grades and success doesn’t allow for everyone. This is essential as belongingness is a fundamental human need.
How pupils can flourish: Schools need to be trusted and empowered to use feedback from parents and students to build communities that meet the needs of their students
The school curriculum needs to be underpinned by nationally shared values and subject areas, which are decided democratically and subject to change over time. However, there must be room for flexibility. School leaders, teachers and young people must experience a sense of autonomy. As reported in the previous blog, the Department for Education itself has published research showing that schools need the freedom to develop bespoke, whole-school approaches to learning, the curriculum and psychological well-being. One parent’s testimony shows how frustrating it is when schools aren’t empowered to listen:
“I feel very removed from being able to influence a very important part of my children’s growing up. I can speak to my kids' individual teachers but they do not have much influence themselves or room to change. I can speak to their school’s head who is under pressure to get funding and for the school to perform and therefore rarely listens. My sons’ school was inspected by Ofsted a couple of weeks ago and my only opportunity to voice my concerns about the inspection regime was in a tiny ‘any other comments’ box at the end of the parent questionnaire”.
What’s more, young people must perceive themselves to be in control of their destinies. Giving them a meaningful say over how their school is run would be one way to do this. The process of doing the research project with States of Mind has shown what can happen when you give young people the skills and the opportunities to work together in order to play a role in shaping their future:
“For once, my opinion and the voices of other young people have been listened to and [we feel] that they actually matter. I enjoyed every week and every activity that we did and I genuinely feel like all of it has a purpose and that it should become a much bigger deal and acknowledged by more people... The whole experience has been enjoyable and I have learnt skills that I will take with me for life”.
AN ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION
Drawing on the work described above, we call for -
Christopher Bagley is an educational psychologist based in London. Other members of PSC contributed to the blog, as did Bea Herbert, the founder of States of Mind who worked with the students on the research project.
10/7/2019 12:59:05 am
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