When in doubt, reform the examination system.

‘Mr Speaker – after years of drift, decline and dumbing down, at last we are reforming our examination system to compete with the world’s best.’

With these words Mr Gove introduces his radical reforms of our examination system. To be frank I don’t recognise the ‘years of drift, decline and dumbing down‘ – certainly not in art education. By and large, my experience over 40 years, is of schools continuously, incrementally and determinedly improving the education for each new generation of pupils.

But I recognise that after 30 years and with a few overhauls the GCSE may be ripe for replacing. I can recall my experience of modular exams over 25 years ago (when I was chief moderator of one such). They did not really deal with the issue of maturation, assessment dominated programmes of study and the algorithms for grade awarding masked an obvious lack of rigour and quality in final outcomes. I do think art students are still over assessessed and that the needs of assessment dominate learning and define teaching in ways that are not always beneficial. And anyway change means debate and reflection and every generation (of teachers) should be able to shape their own destiny.

I suspect that the pursuit of ‘academic’ success as the primary aim of education will inevitably lead to many students becoming disenfranchised and disengaged. It was to resolve precisely this issue (the elitism of ‘O’ levels) that they were reformed in the first place. If you haven’t already seen it this presentation by Ken Robinson makes the case brilliantly. It also begs that question whether the ‘academic’ skill set is actually right for the 21st century. We have never successfully resolved the issue of ‘vocational’ education and I am unconvinced by Mr Gove’s assertion that he has.

I have read the statement this afternoon and it seems to me that:

  • There is little point in fighting a rearguard action to preserve the past. You can achieve more by going with the ‘political’ grain than against it.
  • The statement suggests that subjects which involve practical work will be treated differently. Let us hope that this allows us to  preserve the heart of the subject – for without a national curriculum the examination syllabus will define the subject – just as the ‘O’ levels did.
  • It is worth taking stock now to make sure that the core of the subject is recognised, retained and embedded in the new examination. If only to guard against the tendency of assessment practice to define educational values.
  • The earlier policies, practices and curriculum, no matter how worthy, will probably have no traction in the debate. But underpinning them was the basic and simple principle that art education should be about children developing their own ideas, realising them is some tangible form and being able to talk knowingly about what they have done and why. These three simple concepts can be mediated by further words such as ‘research and perception’, craftsmanship and skill’, ‘knowledge and judgement’. It would be good if these simple concepts could continue to underpin the subject regardless of new vocabularies and assessment methods.
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About Dan

Senior Advisor, Art Inspector, Member of the Expert Advisory Group for Art, Consultant working with NSEAD, IOE, QCA, UCE, UOG. Currently lecturer at UCL working on a project in Kazakhstan to develop text books for a new art curriculum.
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