How my daughter’s silence woke me up to the need for educational reform

King Alfred School headteacher Robert Lobatto. Picture: Stephen Bates

King Alfred School headteacher Robert Lobatto. Picture: Stephen Bates - Credit: Stephen Bates

My children have always hated asking me for school help, so I was inwardly delighted when my daughter came to me with her history assignment on the French Revolution.

Treading carefully, I asked her to tell me about her question on the impact of the Terror. She proceeded to describe in impressive detail the difference between the criteria for two particular grades. I gently asked her to tell me about the Terror. I was met with bewildered silence.

She had a good teacher, in a good school, and was on track for “success”. But her education had come to be defined disproportionately by the acquisition of grades, and it was at this moment that I knew that our system had lost its way.

So how can we now return our education system to its true purpose?

First, we have to have the courage to ask what education is for. What do we as a society want for a young people at the end of 14 years of schooling?

Second, we have to design a curriculum that embodies this purpose, and put together an assessment regime that supports this. The role of assessment is both to judge standards and support future learning.

Third, we need everybody to value education beyond exam grades. They have a role but their limitations need to be far better understood. Politicians and parents, teachers and students, inspectors and heads need the courage and imagination to recognise a much greater range of qualities, attributes, skills, knowledge and understanding. It is wrong that schools are so often judged by these narrow and often unreliable indicators, and far worse that young people often end up defining their self-worth as they open their envelope on results day.

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But what should happen between Year 9 and 11? Do we follow the path that schools such as Bedales have taken of introducing, alongside GCSEs in core subjects, new courses that integrate different areas of knowledge, encourage collaborative working, and which are assessed creatively? Or, do we go further and recognise that in today’s world qualifications at 16 have a minimal role, and develop a new curriculum which better prepares our students for the World they will inherit, where assessment is via on-line portfolios and US-style transcripts? What we do know is that our students are going to need something more stimulating, stretching and empowering than the current set of sterile GCSEs introduced since 2015.

The pandemic has given everyone pause for thought. And if we can seize this moment, then I am optimistic that future generations will learn so much more than my daughter when it is their turn to study the French Revolution.

Robert Lobatto is headteacher of King Alfred School.