EBC: Consultation or PR for a foregone conclusion?

The Department for Education (DfE) is consulting on changing examinations taken at the end of Year 11.

This may be a surprise if you read certain newspapers who have already reported the introduction of “rigorous” final examinations and the scrapping of other forms of assessment. Don’t we already know that GCSEs will be replaced by the “English Baccalaureate Certifcate” for a newly defined set of core subjects? Apparently though the consultation into reforms is still in progress and only closes on December 10th.

I am not going to take you through the proposed changes and their implications because as someone with no teaching experience I don’t feel qualified to do so. I prefer to read the recommendations and opinions of experienced professionals, particularly those with a distinguished track record as school leaders, and consider how education may be improved as a whole.

This is where my approach differs to the DfE.

For those who wish to know about the consultation and its proposed changes, the Head teacher of King Edward’s Grammar School (KEGS) in Chelmsford, Mr Tom Sherrington, has written an excellent, and very readable, blog on the case for change and if the proposals meet that case. It also contains a link to the DfE’s consultation page:

http://headguruteacher.com/2012/09/16/reaction-to-ebc-why-im-not-jumping-for-joy/

I have first hand experience of the DfE’s version of “consultation” and I am fascinated, and frankly concerned, that it appears to be applied in the same way on such an important decision that will affect my children directly.

In common with the approval process for “free schools”, the coverage in the press seems to indicate that the outcome seems to have been largely decided before the consultation takes place. At the very least it makes it more difficult for policy to be announced that differs greatly from it.

Our local experience of this approach has been documented in “The Becket Keys Consultation: Accountability Denied”

http://wp.me/P2dr6s-g.

To my mind the initial approval of a free school proposal makes it effectively a fait accompli. The Secretary of State is legally obliged to assess whether proposers have met their “duty to consult” before giving final approval and signing a funding agreement for the school but the proposers themselves dictate how they “consult” and, crucially, present their findings.

There does not seem to be any check on the accuracy of the contents or any obligation on the proposers to engage the wider community. Confirmation that the “duty” has been met and how has not been forthcoming.

An impact assessment is supposed to be carried out for each of these proposals but no-one outside the DfE has ever seen one published as successive Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have been refused. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) continue to press for their release and we have passed on our experiences as evidence.

I have had to conclude that the “consultation” in this process has little or no effect on its outcome. The decision has been made. By appearing to engage the local population and interested parties they seek to legitimise the decision rather than seeking information on which to make it.

I see disturbing similarities in this case. As Mr Sherrington explains far more clearly than I could, politicians, with no more experience of the classroom than me, have decided that reform of the examination system is the key to “raising standards” in education. This ignores the fact that exams are the end point of the process and not the process itself.

Instead of engaging professionals at the sharp end to inform their required reforms, they have drawn their own conclusions. They have invented their own alternative to the GCSE, decided how they are going to be assessed and even set out a timescale for their implementation.

However, as in the case of free school approvals, by appearing to “consult” they can claim post-December 10th that an opportunity was provided to comment on (not shape) their proposals for change. Very handy when appearing on the radio to announce your policy.

The accuracy of any such claim could only be judged by releasing all submissions to the DfE consultation paper and the conclusions that they have drawn from them. The free school experience does not give me much confidence that this will happen but maybe the intervention of Headteachers Roundtable may force them to .

This is a group of high profile professionals who have organised to try to ensure a more qualified voice is heard before final policy is announced. By launching their own parallel consultation they have sought to broaden the remit of the discussion so that it does not just focus on the examination system but desired educational outcomes for all students.

The timely launch of this group was covered by The Guardian last month:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/oct/22/education-reform-twitter-heads

Their consultation can be found here:

http://headteachersroundtable.wordpress.com/please-complete-our-counsultation-document/

Submissions from professionals and non-professionals are welcomed. Such a high profile exercise makes it much more difficult to just implement the desires of politicians backed by a cosmetic consultation.

It also promotes accountability to the taxpayer.

Which should be a central concern of the DfE.

Stephen Mayo

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