Until recently, education leaders have looked to traditional metrics and benchmarks to communicate educational excellence, value and “identity” to prospective and current pupils and parents.
However, it’s not just the cancellation of public examinations for two years’running, but also of open days, sports fixtures, concerts, performances and prize-givings that have caused us to explore what it is we truly value about independent education and how we communicate that.
The independent sector’s ability to adapt, innovate and deliver during the pandemic has shone a light on best practice in our sector and with the public and policy debate gathering momentum, now is the time to champion what we do and the ways in which we can share our achievements more widely.
We are acutely aware that communicating the value of what we offer to parents and pupils is increasingly important in the current climate. The independent sector continues to face accusations of elitism from without, and a growing pressure from fee-paying parents from within, to continue to live up to its reputation, achieve the results and offer the experiences that define independent schools. How then should we communicate value when traditional benchmarks of success have been replaced by an uncertain assessment landscape?
Our most valuable asset
At ISEB, we think that independence is our most valuable asset. We believe that the independent sector can lead the way in the emerging national debate about the future of education, playing a vital role in providing examples of teaching, learning and assessment best practice.
We are an exam board with a heritage stretching back nearly 120 years. This means we have a unique perspective and an intuitive understanding of not only our member schools, but also of the wider impact that best practice and innovation from within the independent sector can contribute to the national dialogue.
“We want to work to shift the perception of independence in the emerging educational debate.”
In light of the recent conversations around the future of assessment as we emerge from the pandemic, we can see that educational innovation is embedded not just in curricular and extra-curricular activity (eg EtonX) but also in assessment (eg Bedales’ Assessed Courses, the Benenden Diploma and PSB). We want to work with all our independent education partners to shift the perception of independence in the emerging educational debate to a position where it is recognized that our sector doesn’t just offer value to the few but is in fact a key asset in the development of national and international education more broadly.
When GCSEs and A-levels were cancelled in March 2020, and then for a second time in January of this year, it became clear that reliance on end-of-curriculum examinations to mark the conclusion of one educational stage and the transition into another would be under scrutiny.
During the summer term, teachers and leadership teams worked under the additional pressure of providing the grades for public examinations. We know that teachers are excellent at giving accurate and carefully considered marks and feedback, but wider assessment services are still required, including moderation, standardisation and quality assurance. As an exam board, the ISEB has a unique vantage point and a range of skills and can support independent schools and teachers further as the results of the wide-ranging consultation within and between the associations and government on the future of assessment start to surface..
Thinking about the future
The response to the cancellation of public examinations has shown us all the value that schools, parents and pupils continue to place on traditional exam-based assessments. As an independent board, we were able to make our Common Pre-Tests, Common Entrance (CE) and Scholarship exams available in the summer and autumn of 2020 and again at the beginning of this year.
The continuity of these exams played a key role in giving schools and parents certainty at a time of great uncertainty. It meant that pupils’ endeavours and achievements continued to be recognised and to support the transition into senior school. But we need to look to the future.
“The continuity of our exams played a key role in giving schools and parents certainty at a time of great uncertainty.”
In the independent sector, teaching, learning and assessment have always evolved, exploring curriculum innovation and new pedagogies. Now is the time to bring that expertise to the table as thinking about the future of assessment and education are at the forefront of public and policy debate.
Common Entrance, for example, one of the sector’s oldest qualifications, was released with new specifications this year. As a board, we understand that changing the exam has a positive impact on teaching and curriculum. The new specifications balance the exploration of concepts and demonstration of academic skills with secure subject knowledge, meaning that pupils can apply what they know to new situations. Exams like this offer reassurance that working towards an examination such as CE encourages a broad range of skills that provide a key milestone to success at GCSE and beyond.
Creativity, diversity and individuality
To complement more traditional and established examinations, schools have embraced other qualifications too. Research projects have been shown to encourage deeper thinking and greater enjoyment of the learning process by enabling pupils to connect study with their personal interests. This model offers pupils the freedom to explore a wide variety of project forms, including written reports, podcasts, presentations, videos, business plans and creative work.
The ISEB Project Qualification emerged from the thinking behind the EPQ, allowing pupils and schools to reflect, present and represent their individual and diverse cultural settings too. Qualifications like this can encourage collaboration between sectors, provide opportunities for schools to widen participation and reflect the diversity, creativity and individuality of their pupils.
“Research projects have been shown to encourage deeper thinking and greater enjoyment of the learning process.”
When the Government announced the appointment of an education recovery package overseen by an appointed commissioner in February of this year, it became clear that there would be more pressure than ever on schools and teachers to identify and then bridge the gaps exacerbated by distance learning and online teaching.
As well as navigating a “catch-up curriculum”, it also fell to teachers to assess their pupils and provide grades for GCSE and A-level examinations. Independent schools were justifiably confident about the fact that their digital teaching provision and the continuation of learning they delivered during the pandemic was of very high quality. The splendid public examination results announced in August have proved this. As a sector, we had the infrastructure and resources to transition teaching and learning online swiftly.
Bespoke educational identity
However, as a board, we appreciate that just providing summative “snapshot” examinations at the end of a course of study can no longer be enough. Although Common Pre-Tests and Common Entrance have always formed just one aspect of the ways in which schools make decisions, teachers, parents and pupils need much wider support through training, resources and assessment tools that meet their needs.
By acknowledging this, we can help schools validate the quality of their provision beyond summative exams, recognising teaching excellence and proudly offering a range of formal and informal assessments that represent the bespoke educational identity that fee-paying parents expect of their chosen school.
“Through facilitating valuable discussion between schools, teachers and policymakers, the independent sector is able to demonstrate the value of its role.”
Situated at the heart of the sector, we think it’s our role to support this challenge and consider now what the curriculum and assessments of the future might be by crystallising best practice and innovation into assessment tools, resources and services that reflect the thought-leadership inherent in the independent sector.
Through facilitating valuable discussion between schools, teachers and policymakers, now more than ever, the independent sector is able to demonstrate the value of its role and give back to wider education by testing and piloting new ideas and exploring innovative approaches.
To provide a broader picture of all the different ways in which pupils garner value throughout their education, the ISEB is looking to start conversations with prep and senior schools about what new developments in assessment could look like. Not only do we want to facilitate conversations, we want to create both formal and informal assessments, resources, content and training which will help demonstrate value not only to prospective pupils and parents, but also make a wider contribution to best practice in education.
Recently we have heard calls for confidence in our independence from Barnaby Lenon, Chair of the Independent Schools’ Council. We aim to demonstrate the wider value of the independent sector as we all adapt to digital and blended approaches that are likely to continue to form part of an education for the future. Independence doesn’t have to mean exclusivity. We should be proud of the ways in which we can stand at the forefront to influence, impact, innovate and inspire.
This article was first published in the latest edition of School Management Plus Magazine, out now.