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Exam reform: can it help deliver a rounded curriculum?

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For our latest debate, The Key welcomed Peter Slough and David Driscoll to our office to talk about exam reform. Does reform promote a well-balanced curriculum – or does that debate need to be turned on its head?

You may well know David if you've read articles on our websites for members, or have attended our conferences; he's an experienced school inspector, who's helped us with expert input on lots of our articles. Peter visited fresh from the end of his headship at Small Heath School, which was recently praised by Ofsted. Inspectors visited Peter's school following the 'Trojan horse’ affair, and found leadership at the school to be excellent. Clearly someone who can keep cool under pressure.

The debate started off by getting historical about changes to exams. For as long as written exams have been around, there's been a suspicion that the system's being gamed. We looked at a letter to The Times from 1872, when the Oxford and Cambridge exam boards were being criticised for undercutting each other by making exams easier to pass.

Now, Peter said, floor standards and league tables add another level of stress for school leaders. School leaders can find themselves designing a curriculum to lift them above the floor standard, rather than deliver a rounded education. They can end up emphasising subjects that count in performance measures to the detriment of others: the arts, vocational courses, careers education, and so on.

We agreed that there is a need to hold schools accountable, and league tables can do this effectively. However, if league tables aren’t going away anytime soon, how can schools be discouraged from teaching to the test at the cost of a broad curriculum?

Richard Jewell, who heads up our events team, shared some lessons from our data on how school leaders use our services. Members in ‘outstanding’ schools spend more time looking at topics like careers guidance – this suggests they can afford to worry about subjects that don’t show up in league tables, while other schools can’t. Schools struggling to hit floor standards must prioritise core subjects.

Peter wasn't so sure. He thought that some may ask “why bother?” about other subjects when too few of their pupils are hitting 5 A-to-Cs, but the reality is that schools with a well-rounded curriculum will see their performance improve. Targeting exam performance in the subjects that count in league tables will only take you so far. Even schools in challenging situations can benefit from the engagement and enthusiasm that pupils can develop from a broad curriculum. And a shallow aim – hitting a floor standard – will make for shallow learning.

Peter and David both remained optimistic that upcoming changes to exams and performance tables could lessen pressure on schools, and encourage teaching aimed at the best education for pupils, rather than teaching to the test.

Members of our school leader service can read more about the exam reforms here, and governor members can read more here.

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