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Measuring Measurement in the UK School System

Thursday, May 1, 2014

By Warwick Mansell, freelance education journalist

Image © alamosbasement 

Is England’s schools system encouraging its teachers to focus on too narrow a range of qualities in those they educate?

It is a common complaint. And yet the paradox of policy over here is that just as concerns multiply about how schools and those they educate are judged, so our system seems to be moving to an even more entrenched emphasis on external accountability measures.

As discussed in my previous blog, the accountability regime which has developed in England over the past 25 years has been very results-focused, with pupils’ performance in English and mathematics tests in primary school and then in a wider range of mainly exams-based qualifications in secondary, again with an emphasis on English and math, being the key to how schools are judged.

In fact, children’s performance in tests at age 11 and then their passing of exams at 16 and 18 are the key to all meaningful aspects of England’s accountability system; including school-by-school performance tables, visits by government inspectors, performance pay and the ability of the government to close schools with poor results. 

Image © Steven Depolo


Schools in the UK have had to obsess about the next set of results for their students in external tests because so much rests on them, for the adults as well as for the young people. Last year, I investigated the case of a headteacher who seemed to have lost his job as a result of one bad set of results – in a single subject – while schools have been handed over to outside organizations seemingly because of a single year’s bad data.

Leading critics of this regime over the years have been employers, with regular complaints that qualities they value in new recruits, such as verbal communication skills, the ability to work co-operatively and even aspects such as politeness and time-keeping are not measured and are therefore marginalised in schools.


Within the last 18 months, the main employers’ organisation in the U K, the CBI – formerly, the Confederation of British Industry – has become more strategic in setting out its concerns, having published a report in which it called on the government to define schools’ aims more broadly.


The paper, “First steps: a new approach for our schools”  said, “Delivery (i.e. whether schools are judged as successful) has been judged by an institutional measure – exam results - which is often not well linked to the goals set out at a political level.” In other words, the kind of system which politicians espouse in speeches, with schools offering pupils a broad, liberal education, was not being reflected on the ground because the measurement regime, encouraging intensive test preparation and the side-lining of aspects not central to accountability indicators, did not align with the rhetoric.

Indeed, this corresponds with stories I have come across in the past two years of schools subjecting pupils to day after day of instruction in only English and mathematics in the run-up to their exams, because these two subjects are so central to the way the school will be judged.

The CBI highlighted establishing a set of goals such as Singapore’s “desired outcomes of education” which, it said, laid down priorities such as building a strong sense of right and wrong in students, independent learning, team-working, and civic consciousness.

It proposed that schools should be judged on a “balanced scorecard” – with inspection visits forming a qualitative view as to a school’s ethos as well as seeking out “outcome measures” as to how young people fared after leaving – “rather than only narrow, exam-related criteria.”

In February, an organisation with a grand name – the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce – published a report arguing that, in England, “the goals that used to define the purpose of schooling appear to have moved to the peripheries.”

These aims included developing students’ personal and social qualities, which had been enshrined in law at the foundation of England’s modern education system in 1944 but which were now being “overwhelmed by attainment-related accountability pressures,” among other things.


To this can be added a long list of criticisms from other organisations such as subject teacher associations and unions, which formed the backdrop to the book I had published in 2007 about the side-effects of our system.  

Yet arguably one of the defining characteristics of England’s system is how our exam data-driven accountability regime, though susceptible to endless changes in its details, remains essentially unaltered in its fundamentals.

The concerns of the CBI seem to have had no influence on policy, despite the UK currently having a right-of-centre government which might be assumed  in general, to be willing to listen to employers’ worries.

In fact, one aspect of policy development over the past year underscores, amazingly, the fact that when concerns about what we might want to value in schools conflict with the demands of the measurement system, the measurement system seems to win.

In the qualifications that are the bedrock of secondary school accountability, some subjects have until now retained aspects of in-class assessment by teachers, rather than students sitting in the exam hall writing answers which are then marked by outsiders.


Two examples are in the spoken aspects of the English General Certificate of Secondary Education qualifications taken by 16-year-olds and in A-level science assessments taken at 18.

Both are enthusiastically backed as important elements of the subject by subject associations and even, in the case of science, by the Government’s chief scientific adviser.

In both cases, our exams regulator has recently proposed removing the internally-assessed elements from contributing to the final grades, amid seemingly well-founded concerns that schools have been under so much pressure to improve results, they have inflated marks.

Indeed, critics of the current government warn that we seem generally to be moving back towards the kind of written-only, pen-and-paper-at-desk format which was completely dominant decades ago.

The proposals to focus only on externally-marked, written assessments in English and science, as these are all that can be relied on in the face of pressures on schools to raise results, may seem logically well-grounded.

But they do beg the question as to why we start with a results system that seems to be driving out aspects of education that matter, and then seek to try to design what happens in schools around it, rather than asking what our goals are, and then making accountability, and everything else that goes on in schools, fit around them.

Perhaps, as indicated in my previous blog, the criticism that is building on our system will eventually force meaningful change. But our accountability regime does seem remarkably resilient, whatever concerns are raised.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist, specializing in investigating the examination and testing system and its implications for teaching. His work can be found published in the Guardian and the Times Education Supplement. He is the author of Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing.