Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Against continuous assessment

Yesterday Peter at The Apollo Project wrote approvingly of an Independent article by Johann Hari. He said the article questioned the role that continuous assessment now plays in the awarding of educational qualifications in schools.

Discussing Independent articles is difficult because it insists on charging you for reading more than the first couple of paragraphs. But Hari has his own website and you can find the full article there free, gratis and for nothing. Like Peter, I find its arguments convincing.

But then I have long been sceptical of continuous assessment. The demand that it should replace conventional exams was one of the central tenets of educational radicalism for decades. Now the radicals have largely won, but their victory seems to have helped the offspring of what Hari calls "middling Middle England parents" more than anybody.

This is not so surprising. When I was in the early years of secondary school, geography lessons seemed to be dominated by middle-class girls whose families encouraged them to write to foreign embassies for information about the countries we were discussing. Being male and coming from a one-parent family with a busy working mother, I was never going to compete with them. (And if you want real street cred, I got free school dinners.)

Yet a few years later, in the examination hall, I had every chance of putting my hand up and asking for extra paper before those girls did. In this way the conventional examination was a great leveller. If home background had been allowed to dominate the examination process too, I do not think I would have had such an equal chance.

Given the number of children who now spend one weekend with one parent and the next with the other, it seems perverse to put such a premium on a settled home background. I also suspect that the move from examinations to continuous assessment is one of the factors which explain why girls are now doing so much better than boys in school.

In many ways Hari's views on assessment echo Nick Cohen's exasperation with supposedly anti-elitist middle class parents who use their wealth to move into the catchment areas of exclusive comprehensives and then campaign against selection. In both cases what was supposed to be an egalitarian reform has had the effect of penalising the children of the poor. Yet if you say so you are in danger of being branded a hopeless reactionary.


Tom Barney said...

"now the radicals have largely won..."
Really? Don't you remember what John Major did to 100% coursework GCSE syllabuses?

"Being male..."
What had your sex to do with it?

"Yet a few years later, in the examination hall, I had every chance of putting my hand up and asking for more paper before those girls did."

"If home background had been allowed to dominate the examination process too..."
Can you really believe that it didn't?

Peter Pigeon said...


We stand shoulder to shoulder on coursework. But I don´t share your enthusiasm for grammar schools (although I could happily fight under a banner of grammar schools for all).

I don´t think the Cohen argument holds. I've put some of the arguments why not on a later post.

Jonathan Calder said...


1. I don't see that your point about John Major disproves what I say.

2. Because girls at that age tend to be more mature and better organised - see The Simpsons passim.

3. Because I was at least as bright as they were.

4. Not to the extent that it dominates education today.


I am not sure I am enthusiastic about grammar schools. And even if I were, there is no chance of a simple return to the old system.

My points are that I have a great deal of sympathy with Nick Cohen and Johann Hari. A lot of what passes for middle-class radicalism is very self-serving.

I also think that it ought to be possible to ask whether a variety of different types of school would serve children better.

Whenever a specialist establishment for sport or the arts it treated as an uncomplicated good news story. Yet to suggest that some people have more aptitude for or interest in academic study than others is beyond the pale.

I am afraid that education, more than most areas of our national life, is riddled with guilt and confusion about social class.

Why not post a link to your later posting here?

chris said...

If a pure exam system where to be proposed then people would just complain that Middle Class parents where paying for tutors to make sure that their children got good marks. Because they would. It comes down to what you say in your post "More on social mobility" on Monday, November 14, 2005. Those in or aspiring too the middle classes really care about education, since that is what made them middle class. They will therefore do whatever is in there power to game the system to give their children as good an education as possible, because they love them and want to give them the best chance in later life that they can. There are things that can help assist parents with the motivation but without the funds (such as Grammar Schools) but you are never going to get rid of all the distortions since people are clever beasts and when one is closed will just make a new one.

Peter Pigeon said...

I've returned to this subject here.