Exam reform: Focusing on facts ‘won’t equip pupils for modern life’, says leading independent school head

21 September 2015
Posted by Heidi Salmons

TES, 21.09.15, a leading independent school headmaster has warned that the greater focus on facts and knowledge in reformed GCSEs and A-levels may fail to equip pupils for the modern world. Christopher King, Chairman of HMC and headmaster of leading independent Leicester Grammar School, raised the concerns in an interview with TES. HMC member Tricia Kelleher, Principal of Stephen Perse Foundation is also quoted.

“To say that the acquisition of facts should be the overwhelming priority of the education system is to look backwards, not forwards, in my view,” he said. “There’s a point at which if you don’t liberate [pupils] to be able to explore and undertake individual independent research, you’re not equipping them for the modern world.”

His comments come as schools begin teaching reformed GCSEs in English and maths, which contain more factual ­content than their predecessors and place increased emphasis on teaching a core body of knowledge.

Schools minister Nick Gibb told a conference in London in July: “We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake.”

But Mr King said that although subject knowledge was important for students, they should also learn to “think laterally, think creatively, take risks and be confident in themselves”.

Pupils should also be taught that “there isn’t an absolute ­requirement to get the right answer every time, and it’s OK to make mistakes and learn from them,” he said.

Mr King said that many independent schools had switched from GCSEs and A-levels to alternative qualifications such as the IGCSE, International Baccalaureate (IB) and Pre-U. Those schools were unlikely to switch back if the reformed qualifications were “narrow” and based too heavily on “the learning of facts for regurgitation in tests”, he noted.

He said he supported the move from modular to linear assessment, and that he was a “traditionalist” in some respects such as on the importance of good grammar, but if the reformed qualifications contained an “overemphasis on [the] knowledge base” they would “not equip our children for the future”.

Navigation skills

Tricia Kelleher, principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation – which received the UK’s best IB results this year – told TES that she shared Mr King’s concerns.

“It’s important that you have a body of knowledge because you can’t develop the skills you need without that,” she said. “But the new system does seem to be about filling [pupils] up with as much content as possible then putting them in an exam hall, under conditions that they won’t be sitting in at any other time in their lives, to regurgitate it.

“The idea that children are receptacles and you’ve got to fill them with this knowledge in the classroom is ignoring the fact that knowledge is everywhere and they can get it 24/7. We’ve got to teach them how to navigate it, analyse it and be selective about it,” she said.

Ms Kelleher added that her school used the IB because it ­assessed pupils’ collaboration and presentation skills as well as teaching a core body of knowledge.