Sir Anthony Seldon: Historian says test obsession wrecks education

Vice-chancellor wants an end to a Victorian fixation with grading

Thomas Gradgrind, the notorious school-board superintendent in Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, is alive and well and running education systems around the world, it has been claimed.

That is the view of Sir Anthony Seldon, historian, biographer and vice-chancellor of the UK’s only not-for-profit private university, Buckingham University. Even in the UK, he said, too many schools are adopting the fictional character’s “exams-factory” approach to education and neglecting students’ wellbeing and character development. He is embarking on a project to bring Hard Times to the stage to show what a catastrophic effect a “Gradgrindian” education can have on a human being.

Gradgrind, fans of Dickens will recall, insisted that only facts, maths and the measurable were important for children at school. He banned emotions and creativity from his classrooms and made sure his own children were taught according to his theories.

Gradgrind has his come-uppance when he discovers that if you don’t teach morality, pupils won’t learn it. His daughter makes a terrible marriage and ends up separated and childless; his son becomes a thief and frames another man for crimes he has committed. 

Sir Anthony believes that, by bringing the book to the stage, he can help expose the pitfalls of a Gradgrindian approach to schooling. Gradgrind, he thinks, would be salivating today as he contemplated a world dominated by Pisa tests, the international system that ranks nations’ educational performance.

“We have a situation where Gradgrind is running most education systems around the world,” he said. “Anybody who says you can reduce the purpose of education to the passing of tests is guilty of adopting that approach.

“Exams and tests matter but they’re not all that matters and the problem is they are seen by many to be all-embracing.”

The Gradgrinds of the world, he said, are adopting a “sinister” approach to educating “vulnerable” children and should be stopped in their tracks. However, he exempted Education Secretary Nicky Morgan from his criticism. 

During the general election campaign both she and her opposite number, Labour’s Tristram Hunt, sought to move the focus away from testing. They championed the idea, first promoted by the Confederation of British Industry, that employers needed more focus on character building, problem solving and communication skills. 

“I think that Nicky Morgan has done more than any other Education Secretary to advance the idea that character and well-being of students really matter,” said Sir Anthony. 

“Absolutely, school improvement really matters – and it is distressing for those students who are in under-achieving and low-aspirational schools – but she is also saying that these other things matter as well.

“She is, on the whole, behind the school-improvement agenda [of her predecessor Michael Gove] but she is also saying that the well-being and character of young people matters too. Focusing on these will result in more successful schools and better test results too.”

Sir Anthony has just completed his first term as vice-chancellor at Buckingham University after a stint at two schools – Brighton and Wellington Colleges – during which both institutions soared to the top of the exam-performance tables.

He has set in motion a review of the university’s work, due to be completed by March. He will also preside over expansion of its London centre, which at present recruits only post-graduate students but is set to take in undergraduates soon.

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