Sunday 26 August 2012

Asking Questions

The fact that it is nigh on thirty years since I last set foot in any secondary school and in that time have only entered primary school halls to vote allows me an independence of mind when it comes to discussing school examinations.

Mine are but a distant memory when the prime minister was an old man with a big cigar who liked to wave two fingers at the photographers.  In recent years I have made use of universities for their halls of residence for low cost travel, to find the cheapest beer in London and to attend some meetings of interest but again this does not really qualify me to comment in detail.

So what am I blathering on about then in the middle of the current row over UK school examinations?  It is that they really all should go back to basics such as the statistics and their implications.  Quite simply in any examinations system for any purpose there are endemic problems that cannot be avoided.

Long ago when the debate began rolling over the introduction of various forms of comprehensive education one major problem was that in areas of increasing child population where the number of grammar school places was relatively fixed a smaller proportion of the intake would find places.

The supporters of grammar schools, naturally, would ask for more schools or increased size of existing ones to meet this but some would go further.  As there were perennial problems over the selection many people felt that increasing the number of grammar school places would solve them. 

They did not like it when I pointed out that statistically this would push the selection bar up the curve to a point where the numbers at the margin would be greater and hence the issues of choosing one child against another at that point would at least remain or even be exacerbated.

Moreover, in a comprehensive system the problems of selection and giving direction to pupils would simply become internal.  If you eliminated this by avoiding “streaming” or its equivalents you still had the issue in any schools with a large enough intake of how you separated one class from another and again as they got older about who were going in what direction.

The idea of sending half the secondary school population onto university meant that the bar would have to be around the peak of the bell shaped curve where the issues at the margins would be at their greatest. So it is not surprising that the introduction of a national qualification based on a national curriculum has triggered huge rows over results.

Necessarily because they were “national” and heavily influenced by all sorts of ancillary demands together with a clash of ideologies they would be both political and divisive with any real purpose of education or preparation of the future working population driven to the sidelines.

More important the uncomfortable and unwelcome considerations posed by issues arising from any basic statistical analysis of any of the possible policies that might be adopted for school leaving examinations are lost in the fog of battle.

My family memory goes back to the days not long after the introduction of the 3R tests; payment by results for state grants, in elementary schools in the 1860’s when also a number of examining bodies were being founded for a variety of purposes. 

One grandmother who I knew well was listed as a pupil teacher in the 1891 Census.  Her uncle, eleven years older than her, who I knew, was listed as such in 1881.  Since then there have been many changes and many different ideas of what school and other examinations are for and for whom and for what purpose.

In every phase since then and at every stage the essential issues and problems remain and they arise from the figures, demographic changes, the many and various children to be dealt with and the changing world we all live in.

Our problem is that we have persistently allowed vested interests and politicians to visit us with structures and obligations that have often been out dated at the time of their making.  Also, that to select and classify the young is not a science and not even an art; you travel in hope and often do not arrive.

At best it is a hit and miss business and there are no right answers.


  1. "At best it is a hit and miss business and there are no right answers."

    Spot on.

  2. What has changed is the great number of types of employment that exist now.
    When I was coming on line in the 50s there were quite a limited range of choice compared with today. (Ignoring the hazard of being given a rifle etc at age 17-18)
    Another hazard wa that nobody had forseen some jobs just disappearing.