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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Exam system 'diseased', claims former education adviser

I have already blogged here about the perilous state of the UK's education sector which can be found in my Blog Archives. Please see - Thursday, 12 August 2010 "What is happening to the UK education system?"; Saturday, 23 January 2010 "Worthless qualifications' give false hope to state pupils, says Harrow head"; Monday, 23 February 200 "If it looks like a duck…"; "Monday, 2 November 2009 "You are where you live"

It comes as no surprise to me that, with the exception of the Arts in general (which is always the first to have its funding slashed), education is always one of the areas where budgets are being cut across the world after a major economic disaster such as the Credit Crunch crisis of the last 2-3 years. There has been a clear and seismic shift from this global shortfall of money away from projects that inform or instruct and/or serve the soul of the ordinary citizen.

We saw this in America after Hurricane Catrina where new forms of schools, Charter schools, were created which in effect were privately funded schools. The government no longer had to pump money into them as they had effectively been privatised. I fear the same thing is on the cards for the UK. The present government is neither able to pay to maintain the present standards of education in the country nor seems to have the wherewithal to provide an adequate solution to the problem. Because of this, the UK is fast going to lose its pre-eminent status as one of the leading lights of the educational world which it has enjoyed for many years. Here are the top five reasons why this is so:

1. The reduction of the UK educational budget (from central government) by 35% over 5 years.

It's difficult to imagine the results of cutting an educational budget by 35% over 5 years. It is an un-imaginable idea, impossible to get your head around (like Descartes idea that you can imagine in your head a square (4-sided), a triangle (3-sided), a hexagon (6-sided), but there is a limit to how many sides we can adequately conceive of in our minds so that a shape with say 13 sides or 1,000 sides would be impossible).

That said, we have to try for the all too obvious reasons that to not do so would be to accept that the next generation of students, be they young children going through primary or secondary education, or young undergraduates hoping to polish off their formal educational experience in a UK university, won't get as much of an opportunity of a good education as others had in the past.

2. The reduction of a typical degree time period from 3 years to 2 years.

This in itself is a catastrophic acceptance that somehow UK degrees can't be all that valuable so "lets cut them down by 33%". In an era where most if not everyone agrees that knowledge economies are the way forward, why would a government reduce its education budget? Is there a contradiction at the heart of most relationships between elected officials and the people they are supposed to be representing? A certain dumbing down or "what they don't know can't hurt them" approach to education? This is a tactic used by many governments and since I have lived for a number of years in Thailand, I can tell you that it definitely goes on here, too.

3. The emphasis on an approach to education that promotes a "teach-for-the-test" method of teaching & learning

This has been going on for some time. As a teacher, I accept that it also goes on in many other areas as well, but in the UK, it needs to be stamped out and a focus on the creative potential of the students themselves supplanting it. Anyone who has read Sir Ken Robinson's amazing book, "The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything" will know what I mean here. UK children are categorised from an early age which stigmatises the most creative and scars them for life. It prepares them for tests that does nbot test their real abilities and which few teachers truly care about. Life is more than about answering questions to satisfy an examiner; it requires a truer grasp of the mysteries of the universe around us.

4. The acceptance of foreign students, mostly from Asia, onto UK courses primarily to rake in money at the expense of quality control

I have seen this first hand while teaching at two UK universities - the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Birmingham. Mostly, the students come to attend initially on CLIL(Content & Language Integrated Learning) based language and business related subjects through what are known as in-sessional and pre-sessional courses. There are also foundation courses and pre-masters courses.

What happens though is that these students, mostly from China, Taiwan, and other parts of S E Asia, pay up to 8 times more than a local student, on top of the astronomical fees they have to pay the Home Office for education visas to remain in the country and in return are allowed to get through teh courses with only minimal fail rates. In some cases, 100% of the students pass. I saw this at UEA and to a lesser degree at UoB although I'm willing to bet that these universities are nothing compared to other practices going on elsewhere in UK universities..

5. The running of education like a corrupt business as we've seen in Mick Water's interview in "Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching".

After all the negative data coming out about about the sector, we now hear from Mick Waters in an interview in a book called "Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching" that there is clear collusion between ofqul and the exam boards, organisations like Edexcel responsible for standards in UK schools.

"In it Mick Waters, formerly a director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency, accuses exam boards of being "almost corrupt" and claims they make profits by publishing textbooks that practically tell teachers what questions will appear in the exams the boards set. He says exam boards boast that their tests are the easiest to convince teachers to pick their syllabus, and they tell schools that their students will pass as long as they buy and follow the textbooks."

Waters also accuses the official exams regulator, Ofqual of being cowardly in not challenging the exam boards particularly where and how and by who exams questions are framed and posed.

"I fully support having a regulator who can ask awkward questions. So, what I'd now want to see is a regulator asking the questions ... I don't think they've got the nerve. They should immediately look up whether the chief examiner should be allowed to write the textbook with regards to pupils' questions. That's insider dealing. You shouldn't be allowed to do that."

The are pretty strong words from what most would deem a former UK education insider. Whatever happens within the term of the present government, assuming of course that it lasts 4 years, is for it or any successor to do something to stem the tide and improve the overall standards of UK education.

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