Exam reform: Focusing on facts ‘won’t equip pupils for modern life’, says leading independent school head

A leading independent school headmaster has warned that the greater focus on facts and knowledge in reformed GCSEs and A-levels may fail to equip pupils for the modern world.

Christopher King, the new chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference representing top private schools, raised the concerns in an interview with TES.

“To say that the acquisition of facts should be the overwhelming priority of the education system is to look backwards, not forwards, in my view,” he said. “There’s a point at which if you don’t liberate [pupils] to be able to explore and undertake individual independent research, you’re not equipping them for the modern world.”

His comments come as schools begin teaching reformed GCSEs in English and maths, which contain more factual ­content than their predecessors and place increased emphasis on teaching a core body of knowledge.

Schools minister Nick Gibb told a conference in London in July: “We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake.”

But Mr King said that although subject knowledge was important for students, they should also learn to “think laterally, think creatively, take risks and be confident in themselves”.

Pupils should also be taught that “there isn’t an absolute ­requirement to get the right answer every time, and it’s OK to make mistakes and learn from them,” he said.

Mr King said that many independent schools had switched from GCSEs and A-levels to alternative qualifications such as the IGCSE, International Baccalaureate (IB) and Pre-U. Those schools were unlikely to switch back if the reformed qualifications were “narrow” and based too heavily on “the learning of facts for regurgitation in tests”, he noted.

He said he supported the move from modular to linear assessment, and that he was a “traditionalist” in some respects such as on the importance of good grammar, but if the reformed qualifications contained an “overemphasis on [the] knowledge base” they would “not equip our children for the future”.

Navigation skills

Tricia Kelleher, principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation – which received the UK’s best IB results this year – told TES that she shared Mr King’s concerns.

“It’s important that you have a body of knowledge because you can’t develop the skills you need without that,” she said. “But the new system does seem to be about filling [pupils] up with as much content as possible then putting them in an exam hall, under conditions that they won’t be sitting in at any other time in their lives, to regurgitate it.

“The idea that children are receptacles and you’ve got to fill them with this knowledge in the classroom is ignoring the fact that knowledge is everywhere and they can get it 24/7. We’ve got to teach them how to navigate it, analyse it and be selective about it,” she said.

Ms Kelleher added that her school used the IB because it ­assessed pupils’ collaboration and presentation skills as well as teaching a core body of knowledge.

Julie Lodrick, principal of The Mount School in York, an independent girls’ school, said that the increased emphasis on subject content in the reformed A-levels had already started to restrict schools. She feared this would only escalate with new GCSEs.

“We want to do interesting and innovative things alongside the curriculum and provide as broad an education as possible, and that is becoming difficult,” Ms Lodrick said. “The focus is shifting more and more towards getting through the content.”

She added: “At the end of the year we like to come off timetable and have a creative arts festival. These kinds of activities, as well as qualifications, give people the skills needed in a job. But there’s so much core content to get through we can’t even contemplate having the time for it.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We make no apologies for placing high expectations at the heart of our schools, with a rigorous new curriculum, world-class exams and an accountability system where schools are recognised for the progress all pupils make across a broad range of subjects.

“Alongside this we are investing £5 million in character education to help pupils develop the grit and resilience they need to succeed in school and later life, while giving teachers freedom to develop lessons that will excite and inspire their pupils.”

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