Sir Michael Wilshaw, the newly appointed Chief Inspector of Ofsted, has been no stranger to controversy since taking over this role. Now he has waded into the furore surrounding GCSE grades by suggesting that this is an ideal opportunity to overhaul the whole exam system
Whether or not you agree with him (and that may be the subject of a future post), he did quote one irrefutable fact. Over the last decade, the UK has fallen from 7th to 24th in global literacy tables and from 7th to 28th in Maths. This should be a matter of great concern to us all. We live and operate within a global marketplace and today’s young people will be competing for jobs with the people in the very countries who are now rising above us in the skills charts. Yet this somewhat depressing fall from the top tier has taken place during a period when GCSE results have improved annually. When GCSEs were first introduced in 1988, 42.8% of pupils achieved an A-C Grade. By 2011, the figure had increased to 69.8%.
So how on earth do you square that apparently impressive rise in standards with our declining position against countries such as Poland, Ukraine and China? Some people are seeking a return to GCE’s and more “rigorous” testing, but I am far from convinced that this will be of any benefit. The problem with exams is that by their very nature, they assess “knowledge transfer”. But the acquisition of knowledge on its own is of limited value, it’s the way that this knowledge is applied that is of fundamental importance in skill development.
If you don’t believe me, then ask the increasing number of employers who are not only having to run remedial courses for school leavers but also for graduates so that they can apply their knowledge in the workplace. It’s all very well knowing how to punctuate a sentence, but if you cannot phrase an email in the appropriate language, being mindful of the impact of what you are saying and how your words may be interpreted, then you are soon going to run into a lot of trouble with your colleagues.
I am not arguing that knowledge isn’t important. On the contrary, it’s an important first step – but no more than that. What is vital to any organisation is how that knowledge is used and the impact of that application. And therein lies the problem – our current exam system assesses knowledge transfer. No doubt that assessment can be improved, but if we really want to produce school leavers and graduates who can add immediate value to the workplace and who can compete effectively in the global marketplace, we will need to find new ways of helping them to apply their skills and new ways of assessing their ability to do so.
Before writing this post, I looked back at two recent Ofsted Reports on clients with whom we work in partnership. Both reports were graded as “good” and were full of positive comments about “high success rates”, “good training” and “learners enjoying their work”. That’s all great stuff and gave me a nice warm fuzzy glow, but I failed to find a single word in either report as to whether the application of the learning in these programmes had had any impact on the organisations.
Until that situation changes and we value “application” and “impact” as highly as “knowledge transfer”, I fear we may continue to slide down the global league tables and that does not bode well for the future prospects of our new generations of young people.