Monday, 18 June 2007

Mark Taylor responds to the GTC’s view of the future of assessment in schools

The General Teaching Council (GTC) has applauded the Education and Skills Select Committee (ESSC) inquiry into testing and assessment in England’s schools. According to the GTC, England’s pupils are among the most tested in the world, leading to a narrowed curriculum where teaching is ‘to the test’. For the GTC, a broad and balanced curriculum would be better than the current test-based one, which encourages anxiety and de-motivates children.

Unfortunately, the GTC does not provide details of the content of such a curriculum. Instead, referring approvingly to 2020 Vision (see my review on Education Opinion), the GTC notes that the current assessment system ‘may impede the full realisation of new approaches to education, including more personalised learning.’ 2020 Vision is also praised for perceiving that national tests are not ‘diagnostic tools’ of pupils’ learning needs. Furthermore, national tests fail to develop ‘desired skills and aptitudes’.

The GTC also backs the fashionable pedagogical idea of ‘Assessment for Learning’ (because it redefines teacher-pupil interaction) and supports the government’s new 14-19 diplomas: ‘Their introduction provides the opportunity to begin the process of moving away from an assessment system dominated by the purposes of quality control and ….towards a more balanced model with a greater element of diagnostic and formative assessment for learning.’ (Paragraph 18)

This report usefully clarifies the educational aims of the GTC in relation to government policies. For both, there is no longer a connection between subject knowledge and assessment. Instead, assessment means creating ‘diagnostic tools’ to develop ‘desired skills and aptitudes’ in a more ‘balanced’ system. And ‘quality control’ (national testing) should be replaced by ‘cohort sampling’ (local self-evaluation based on ‘professional judgment’ by teachers). Not surprisingly, therefore, the GTC report confirms their opposition to the ‘measurement culture’ set up by the 1988 Education Reform Act, which originally introduced the national curriculum.

This can all sound appealing to teachers weary of government initiatives. But this is not ‘professional judgment’ in the sense that should matter most to teachers – their love of their subject and the way it is taught. And this is not ‘balanced’ in the sense of the education that most members of the ESSC have had. However flawed the 1988 Act was, at least it offered a national curriculum rooted in genuine subject knowledge. The GTC report is really arguing for the replacement of external examinations of subject knowledge with internal examinations of the child’s mind.

The GTC proposals merely aim to replace one measurement culture with another. It is a further indication that self-assessment is becoming the central component of the educational system - and that subject knowledge is perceived as irrelevant. The GTC is right to argue that tests are undoubtedly unimaginative and possibly overdone. However, children are perfectly capable of doing them – and so much more besides, if only they are taught by adults who themselves value a genuinely intellectual education – and the subjects that provide it.

The GTC paper Assessment in the Future: Building the Case for Change was presented to the GTC pupil assessment conference on 21 March 2007.

A paper based on the report was presented to the Education and Skills Select Committee in June 2007.