Even if the summer seems to have beaten a hasty retreat no English summer term finishes without a lot of young people sitting exams and tests; for those preparing for public exams the stakes are high and it’s right that we focus on how best to prepare them and how to keep them going as they work longer hours and cut back on the very things that will keep them healthy in mind and body. But the group of pupils I’ve been thinking about of late are those for whom end-of-year tests shouldn’t be much of an event at all, and I’ve been keen to get across the usefulness of these tests as practice for exams that are significant as cv tokens for later life, but not much more.
Our Deputy Head (Academic), who knows a thing or two about exams, has written persuasively to parents recently about this very matter. As a well-trained historian, he’s of course able to summon up four pithy reasons why tests are worth doing: they allow pupils to practise learning information; they allow pupils to practise dealing with the unexpected; they prepare pupils for public examinations; they help pupils know what they don’t know, so they know what they need to do next.
So those of us keeping a beady eye on how well our children are developing as learners, how well they are mastering new concepts, we need to train ourselves not to rely over-heavily on the results of end-of-year tests for the diagnosis of our children’s progress: these will only ever be a small part of a bigger picture which a year’s home and class work will have painted more expressively and comprehensively; add in the number of alphas (and omegas), commendations and chivvyings, tests and re-tests, furrowed brows and illuminated smiles, and we will be getting quite a good sense of how our children are really doing. That’s why we really don’t want everything to stop in April (or worse, in February!) to make time for revision. A good fortnight before the tests is enough, and the pupils should tackle tests which expose skills as much as residual content. And while the objects of the tests, our children, will get quite excited by their results – who wouldn’t? – we can help them by seeing the numbers in the round and reminding them of the four-pronged purpose of the tests, not one prong of which is to see how well they’re actually doing, how ‘good’ they are in any subject or how worthwhile they are as human beings!
So far, so good. But what about those young people who are dropping subjects at the end of year 9? It strikes me that we should shift the terms and terminology of the move from year 9 to year 10: it’s the (national) system of assessment which means that our children have to make choices, and leave behind subjects which either they (or we) would rather they continued to probe. Let’s not talk about dropping: it encourages us to think we are happy to be shot of something! It tricks us into thinking that there are subjects to which our children are better suited or which they’re naturally or intuitively better at. But if they are all – as they are – fully human in the Highgate sense, then they each have a wonderful if sometimes untapped potential to be innovative, creative, analytical, collaborative (the list could go on), and each of these transformative competences could and should be discovered and developed through linguistic, musical, scientific, technological, literary, mathematical, physical, dramatic, historical, philosophical or artistic encounters. Choosing your y10 curriculum, and your y12 curriculum, should be accompanied by regret rather than jubilation, by concern that you will only have got just enough of the subjects denied to you by a system of early specialisation, rather than pride in precocious self-identification as a scientific or linguistic or artistic mind.
But throw in the wrong kind of assessment in year 9 – proto-public exams, for example – and you’ll fuel the sense that “I’m giving up X or Y because I’m no good or not interested”, and our children will be kicking their feet with impatience. However, change the terms of the debate, and we can view this summer term as a last and precious opportunity to get all the possible goodness out of these subjects the system doesn’t let me do, and set myself up to continue with them later in life or to make sure I’ve got a firm basis on which to use the years’ knowledge and understanding I’ve so carefully acquired.
I ask my colleagues to teach with unbridled passion in the summer term of year 9 and to imagine they could convert each and every pupil to their pedagogic cause! I recognise that this is pitching it high, but we really must be careful not to allow a system to frame our children’s view of the inherent value of an education which millions around the world can only dream of. Knowledge, and the opportunity to acquire it, is precious and there must be no hierarchy in our parenting minds of comparative value. In an economy, in an educational system, which struggles to motivate young people to see learning as a credible paradigm for preparation for adult life, we need to ignite passion and let it burn fiercely: allowing children to cock a snook at learning just sucks up the oxygen of those flames of passion!