The Perse School

Small is Beautiful

I have very much enjoyed Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC 2 series ‘The 1970s’.  Often ridiculed as the decade of ‘Bagpuss, black forest gateau and Blue Nun’, the 1970s are popularly portrayed as a time of socio-economic breakdown, three day working weeks and the Winter of Discontent.  Sandbrook’s reappraisal reminds us that the 1970s were not all bad.

In 1973 the distinguished Economist E.F. Schumacher coined the term ‘appropriate technology’ for small scale, pragmatic, reforms which delivered substantial socio-economic benefits.  Schumacher championed small scale irrigation projects using hand powered water pumps run by local people, over large scale dams built by multinationals using automated technology.  Small scale pump irrigation systems created lots of jobs, were controlled by the immediate community, and could readily be fixed, whilst large dams cost lots of money, yielded few jobs, were controlled remotely and could not be operated by local people.  Despite the socio-economic advantages of the small scale option, politicians favoured large prestige projects because of their ‘glamour’ and the resulting media attention.  Presidents lend their names to dams and not hand pumps.

Fast forward to the present day, and politicians are still favouring ‘prestige politics’ over ‘appropriate politics’.  ‘A’ level reform is a case in point.

‘A’ levels are basically sound and fit for purpose.  If they weren’t the drift to alternative qualifications such as I.B. and the Pre U would be greater.  Rising standards at ‘A’ level are matched by rising standards at university where the percentage of first class university degrees has risen from 7% in 1974 to 15.5% in 2011.  This suggests that improvements in school education are genuine, as they are matched by similar advances in higher education.  This does not mean that ‘A’ levels are perfect.  They are not, and they could be improved by some small scale, appropriate, reforms.

Simple measures such as ending January sittings and inverting the AS and A2 timetables would create far more teaching time in the highly pressured Lower Sixth.  An extra month of teaching prior to AS exams should raise genuine attainment levels, whilst allowing teachers to explore topics more fully rather than just teaching to the test.  With no January resit opportunities, students would be keen to get it right first time, and any grade inflation associated with multiple resits is negated.

The much publicised problems with the accuracy of some results can be part resolved with simple measures.  Examiners are human and even with the most stringent quality control checks some errors will occur.  The error rate can be reduced by using computer marked multiple choice tests to assess some components of a course, and the best examiners can then be concentrated on the remaining papers.  With fewer human examiners, pay rates could be increased to tempt more top teachers and university tutors into marking.

Unfortunately I fear such simple and appropriate measures will not be big and bold enough for politicians.  Mr Gove prefers a radical overhaul of ‘A’ levels led by Ofqual (whose board is very light on practising teachers) and universities (many of whom confess to not fully understanding school based assessment).  A large political sledgehammer is about to be applied to a small educational nut….

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