Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wacky BaccE?

With the resumption of the political football season, education is getting the usual kicking around. Michael Gove's announcement of the scrapping of GCSE's for an exam-based EBacc (if it's English, why not use an English word for it?); Nick Clegg's apology over tuition fees, and strong words from the Bishop of Oxford about the marking fiasco this summer.

An O-level style, final exam system bases success on a number of skills:
 - accumulating knowledge
 - short term memory
 - ability to think clearly under stress
 - exam technique (e.g. spotting questions)

one friend at theological college went into his exams armed with 6 7-letter words, an acronym for each question which was likely to turn up. It worked, he got a first.

I've been mulling over whether continuous assesment or a final test is more Biblical. Probably neither/both: the bible does talk about a final judgement, some kind of test where everything is evaluated. At the same time there is continuous assesment - Jesus continuously reviews his ministry and priorities in prayer, the Psalmist asks God to search his heart.

More Christian thinkers and leaders are writing about discipleship, and best practice in discipleship - for the development of skills, character and holiness - is about 'a long obedience in the same direction'. The church has centuries of experience of 'continuous assesment', though whether the confessional, or the daily examen of Ignatius, produced the fruit of holiness is questionable. Methodists had their class meetings to help one another grow in Christian virtues.

It all depends what we want to happen in education. If it's merely about knowledge and fact retention, exams are fine (up to a point). But what about growth in skills and character? Instruments are learned through regular practice, tutorials, and a series of grade exams, it's the same with sporting skills like swimming and gymnastics. Together with those go the character qualities of patience, perseverance, coping with success and failure. On the one hand it will be good to remove from students the pressure of continuous assesment, some learning is best done in a more leisurely way, rather than cramming facts in order to pass a test/assignment. But continuous assesment also gives the opportunity to develop skills and character in a way that exams don't.

I've recently become a 'Training Minister' on STETS, a local training course for church leaders in the CofE, Methodists and elsewhere. I've been impressed by their course structure - the academic is integrated with personal spiritual disciplines and growth in character. All three are addressed together. This is a million miles from the segmentation of my own training in the 1990s, where character and holiness issues were hardly ever addressed. And guess what? Most of the ministers dropping out of parish life, year in year out, are doing so not because they can't do the job, but because of character and personal issues.

One other thought: as a political football education is now much bigger than it was, as successive governments have tried to wrestle children from their parents at an earlier and earlier age. This is partly to get parents back into the job market, and partly to offer a better environment for growing up than some of the more troubled homes. Parenting is being progressively nationalised. But children still go home at the end of the day, and parents are still the prime educators. There shouldn't be a rigid division of labour between home and school (facts at school, character at home), but it's hard to build a partnership approach without a shared public ethos of what a good life and a whole person actually looks like.


  1. I am the friend who used the acronyms in exams. Another friend would spend 40 hours revising for one exam, but would get bad marks (in essays he got high 2is or firsts). I helped him with technique, and his marks soared back to this level.

    I was so disgusted with how much exams depend on technique and memory rather than understanding that I wrote an article about it for the college magazine at the time. I now teach theology, and ensure that no assessment is done by exam.

    I should point out (in defence of my theological college) that most of the assessment there was through extended essays or other assessment techniques.

  2. Interesting final comment regarding joint approach - school/parents. My wife is currently working in a school where a seven year old has been excluded for the third/fourth time in the past twelve months and, in this week's one, was noted running round town with no obvious adult with him. And, Wednesday saw me at a school, at the invitation of local vicar, helping them devise a strategy to enable the breakfast club to continue because many parents won't pay the 40p charge yet if kids are barred for non-payment they have no breakfast.