Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative Prime Minister who won more elections than any other in history, was once asked what was the most significant thing that he had ever learned about politics.
He paused, a faraway look entered his eyes, and he began to tell a story.
It was, he confessed, not in Westminster, but in Cambridge, that he had learned the most significant single thing about political life.
Baldwin had been walking along the backs, the verdant gardens which border the river Cam and link different Cambridge colleges, with the distinguished father of jurisprudence Sir Henry Maine.
“At the end of the walk,” he explained, “Sir Henry turned to me - and he explained that the most important thing in the development of modern politics had been the move from status to contract.”
And then Baldwin paused,
“Or was it the other way around? D’you know, I can never remember”.
Baldwin’s artful absent-mindedness is proof in its way of political genius.
The British have never trusted intellectuals, and certainly not with power. So any thoughtful politician with ambitions for a long stretch at the top would do well to disguise any intellectual or academic leanings. From Arthur Wellesley to Willie Whitelaw, Ernest Bevin to John Prescott, a certain anti-intellectualism is seen as proof of trustworthiness in political leaders. We prefer to be led by practical men of affairs who have won their honours in battle rather than
those who have grown pale as the midnight oil has burnt out in the lamp-lit library.
This anti-intellectual strain in British life, and thinking, may have protected us from following the sort of ideological fashions that captured continental minds over the last century. As has been pointed out before, both fascism and Marxism were ideas so foolish only an intellectual could have believed in them. But I fear the anti-intellectual bias in our way of life has, at times, become a bias against knowledge and a suspicion of education as a good in itself.
The bias against knowledge was displayed when MPs argued against raising the school leaving age, when trade unions argued against demanding higher qualifications for teachers and when teachers demanded that texts in literature classes be relevant rather than revelatory for their readers.
This bias against knowledge manifested itself most recently when the otherwise saintly inventor Sir James Dyson had a crack at people who want to go to university to learn French lesbian poetry rather than applying themselves to matters technical.
Having devoted as much of my department’s discretionary budget as possible to attracting more teachers into maths and science subjects, including computer science I am certainly no enemy of equipping people with the skills required to master technology.
But I am certainly an enemy of those who would deprecate the study of French lesbian poetry.
Because the casual dismissal of poetry as though it were a useless luxury and its study a self-indulgence is a display of prejudice. It is another example of the bias against knowledge.
As was the recent argument mounted by the Leader of the Opposition that 50 per cent of the population would never make it to university.
He was, effectively, saying that we should ration access to knowledge.
We should believe our society capable of ensuring many more than half our young people are capable of going to university.
He was effectively saying we should ration access to knowledge. I disagree.
When there are still so many schools which are simply not educating children well enough, and where students still aren’t stretched properly, there are clearly many more children capable of enjoying what university has to offer, if only they were all properly taught.
I was recently in Poland - where 73 per cent of young people go on to university. In South Korea, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, 60 per cent, 55 per cent, 55 per cent, 51 per cent, 51 per cent, 50 per cent and 41 per cent of the population go on to university. [The equivalent figure for the UK is 37%].
There are schools in our own country - many of them represented here - where many more than 50 per cent of students will go on to higher education even though many more than 50 per cent of the students arrived at or below the national level of expectation in reading, writing and arithmetic.
The fatalistic assumption that we cannot ensure all schools are that good is another example of our failure properly to value the transformative power of education. As Andrew Adonis says in his superb new book Education, Education, Education: “How many good schools do you have to see to be convinced of the educability of every child?”
We should demand every school is a good school because of the potential of education to power economic growth, advance social mobility and make opportunity more equal.
But it is also important to emphasise that education is a good in itself - beyond - indeed above - any economic, social or political use to which it might be put.
Because education properly understood - a liberal education which includes the disciplines of language, literature and mathematics, science, geography and history, music, art and design - introduces children to the habits of thought and bodies of knowledge which are the highest expressions of human thought and creativity.
Education - properly understood - allows children to become citizens - capable of sifting good arguments from bad, the bogus from the truthful, the contingent from the universal.
These intellectual capacities are vital if we are to keep democracy healthy, social relations civilised, economic behaviour honest and cultural life enriching. But these abilities can only come from the initial submission of the student’s mind to the body of knowledge contained within specific subjects. And these traditional subjects are the best route to encouraging the techniques of thinking which mark out the educated mind.
And even apparently frivolous exercises - like the study of French lesbian poetry - can develop the mind in a way every bit as rigorous and useful as any other study.
Not, of course, if the study of these tests are faddish exercises in rehearsing sexual politics. But if the study of poetry occurs within the discipline of proper literary criticism, with an understanding of metre and rhythm, an appreciation of the difference between sonnet and villanelle and a knowledge of the canon so we know where influences arose and how influences spread then there are few nobler pursuits.
And the study of what great and original minds have thought, expressed in forms designed to capture the sublime, the beautiful and the original can awaken sympathies and encourage reflection in a way which nothing else can. It can ensure we live lives more full and see human existence in all its multi-coloured richness.
So - having come out - through the medium of French lesbian poetry - as an unapologetically romantic believer in liberal learning - education for its own sake - let me now explain why the best way to advance this liberating doctrine is through… regular, demanding, rigorous examinations.
Now some people will say that if I believe in the adventure of learning and the joy of discovery, how can I possibly be a fan of testing and examining? It’s like professing a love of cookery - hymning the beauty of perfectly baked souffles or rhapsodising over richly unguent risottos - and then saying the most important thing about food is checking the calorie count in every mouthful. Isn’t an obsession with measurement the enemy of enjoyment, the desire to assess and examine the death of learning for its own sake?
I understand the argument.
There is - always will be - something forbidding about the examination hall. The stern invigilator, the merciless march of the clock hand as the seconds tick away, the series of escalatingly difficult questions some unknown figure has designed with the specific aim of judging us - these are not what we would normally think of as agents of liberation.
But they are, just as much, if not more so, than any aspect of education.
Firstly, exams matter because motivation matters. Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges. And our self-belief grows as we clear challenges we once thought beyond us. If we know tests are rigorous, and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning.
One of the biggest influences on my thinking about education reform has been the American cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham who has published the definitive guide to weighing evidence, especially scientific evidence, in the debates around education reform.
In his quite brilliant book “Why Don’t Students Like School”, he explains that students are more motivated to learn if they enjoy what he calls “the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought”. And that is what exam success provides.
Second, exams matter because the happiness I have described sustains future progress. We know that happiness comes from earned success. There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep, or sustained, as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which as the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence. The craftsman’s contentment in an artefact fashioned more elegantly than he could ever have hoped, the singer’s joy when she has completed an aria which stretches the very limits of her range, the athlete’s joy at his personal best, all of these are examples of the deepest human happiness which any of us can achieve for ourselves.
Third, exams help those who need support to do better to know what support they need. Exams show those who have not mastered certain skills or absorbed specific knowledge what more they need to practice and which areas they need to work on.
For all these reasons exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it.
The fourth reason exams matter is that they ensure there is a solid understanding of foundations before further learning starts. And it is important that we appreciate that exams cannot simply be exercises in displaying skills or techniques divorced from mastery of a body of knowledge. Subjects are nothing if they are not coherent traditional bodies of knowledge, with understanding and appreciation of basic facts and simple concepts laying the ground for understanding of more complex propositions, laws, correlations and processes.
Daniel Willingham again makes the point powerfully in his work when he points out that, “research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students - such as the ability to analyze and think critically - require extensive factual knowledge”.
I can think of no better development of this argument than the case made by Professor Lindsay Paterson to the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association in 2010.
“Why,” he asked, “do we test students on their knowledge of quadratic equations? It’s not because they are like a sort of Sudoku puzzle, sufficient in itself and pointing to nothing beyond itself. It’s because quadratics relate in several ways to more general principles; to the properties of all the higher order polynomials, to the properties of graphs, to the workings of calculus. And these, in turn, lead to the highest reaches of the mathematical discipline, to measure spaces and topology and functional analysis.”
“In other words,” Professor Paterson goes on to say, “quadratic equations are propaedeutic, a way of starting on important paths that have no intrinsic limit even if most students will choose not to go very far along them. Worthwhile assessment of a student’s knowledge of quadratics will therefore have to make sure that these principles are laid down.”
Professor Paterson is right in my view that assessment must not be seen as an end in itself - it must prepare the way for future learning - and that is why it is so important that the assessment we conduct at the beginning of primary schools prepares students for the rest of their time in primary, why the assessment at the end of primary schools must be credible in the eyes of teachers in secondary schools why the assessment at the end of secondary will depend for its success on the approval of those engaged in higher or further education and why the success of any technical or vocational assessment depends on satisfying the requirements to practice trade or profession.
That is why we need to ensure that students at the end of year one in primary are able to decode fluently so they can read for pleasure - and the phonics test provides that guarantee.
It is also why we need to ensure that students at the end of primary are numerate and secure in the basics of English. Which is why my colleague Liz Truss rightly removed calculators from Key Stage 2 maths tests to ensure facility in arithmetic and why we must have a test of spelling, punctuation and grammar in Key Stage 2 English tests to guarantee basic literacy. Otherwise progress in the next stage of education will be fitful and fragile
And the same principle applies to any replacement for GCSEs and for reformed A levels. Both need the involvement of those subject experts, learned societies and university academics who understand and appreciate what is required to make progress in any subject area.
And of course the same principle applies to vocational and technical courses - which is why Doug Richard’s forthcoming review of apprenticeships will emphasise the vital importance of an external assessment of competence in a practical field.
And that takes me to the fifth reason exams matter - they signal to those who might admit an individual to a position of responsibility that the individual is ready to take on that responsibility. Whether it’s the driving test that allows an adult to take to the road or a completed apprenticeship which allows an electrician to rewire a building or the pre-U examination that confirms a candidate is ready for the rigours of a physics degree, the examination is a guarantee of competence.
Now I’m aware that some will argue that the problem with exams as a preparation for deep thought and rounded study is that exam preparation involves dull memorisation, stress and an excessive concentration of mental effort and at the end we forget everything we learned the moment the test is over.
But the precise opposite is the case.
Which brings me to my sixth reason to support exams. They facilitate proper learning and support great teaching.
As Daniel Willingham demonstrates brilliantly in his book, memorisation is a necessary pre-condition of understanding - only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory - so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles - do we really have a secure hold on knowledge. Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.
And the best way to build memory, as Willingham explains, is by the investment of thought and effort - such as the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing.
Because tests require students to show they have absorbed and retained knowledge - and can deploy it effectively - they require teachers to develop the techniques which hold students’ attention and fix concepts in their minds. That will mean deploying entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths. Tests drive creativity at every level.
And more than that - they drive equality. The seventh reason we need exams is to ensure our society is ordered on the basis of fairness. And merit.
Whether or not Stanley Baldwin was paying attention, Sir Henry Maine was right. The most important political development in modern times - indeed the hinge point at which a society becomes modern - is the move from status to contract.
In pre-modern societies power, and access to power, depended on status. Rank was a matter of birth. Patronage was dispensed via clan or feudal ties. Offices, administrative responsibilities, even university positions, were handed out on the basis of who you knew not what you knew. Before our great period of domestic social reform in the reign of Queen Victoria, army commissions were bought and sold between men of wealth and connections, English universities were clerical closed shops which allowed noblemen to indulge in dissipation and dons in politicking but contributed almost nothing to learning while public administration was an exercise in dividing spoils between clans and clients.
But in the 19th century the importance of status gave way to the primacy of contract. That meant power and patronage were dispensed on the basis of due process and the rule of law. And that meant a basic contract between the state and individuals was established - access to positions of influence depends on objective measurement of merit.
Thanks to army and university reforms, and indeed to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the civil service, entry to positions of responsibility became dependent on ability. Indeed on tests. To this day promotion in the army and entry to the civil service depend on examinations - and that is why we still have the best officer corps and the best civil servants in the world.
Examinations are, we can see, a key weapon of progressives everywhere. In place of privilege they supply talent, rather than office being dispensed by arbitrary and unfair means, it is distributed to those who show application and merit.
In the case of universities, entry by competitive examination dissolves the power of patronage networks and establishment connections.
In America the use of scholastic aptitude tests opened up access to colleges which had in the past arbitrarily blocked minority students. The academic test was a tool of the civil rights struggle.
Colleges which had uses quotas to limit, say, the number of Jewish students or placed undue reliance on lineage and connections in allocating places had to accept students on the basis of test scores and real ability.
And in this country, over the last few years, tests have also helped overcome prejudice and advance equality.
Many people would accept that - in broad terms - assessment can achieve all the things I’ve listed - it can motivate, convey a sense of accomplishment, identify weaknesses that need support, lay the foundations for future study, guarantee competence in a field and acknowledge application and real merit.
But some will say that continuous assessment, teacher assessment, internal assessment, controlled assessment can and do provide all the benefits I seek without any of the demoralising, depressing and distorting effects of external examination, let alone the further problems generated by league tables.
I am as it happens a huge fan of teacher assessment - properly designed and administered - but teacher assessment alone cannot bring the benefits proper external testing can secure.
We know that external tests are integral to balanced assessment.
The evidence shows that in teacher assessment of English achievement there is a tendency for ethnic minority children to be under-marked and students from non-minority backgrounds to be more generously marked. With external testing there is no opportunity for such bias - the soft bigotry of low expectations - and tests show ethnic minority students performing better. So external tests are not only a way of levelling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice.
We also know that the sorting of test results into league tables is another progressive development in education.
In the past, before the clarifying honesty of league tables, schools were judged on hearsay and prejudice. Schools with challenging intakes in disadvantaged communities were written off as sink schools. But many of them were performing well - better than other schools with more privileged intakes which were coasting. But their success - particularly at primary level - could not be effectively established. Now, thanks to Key Stage Two league tables, we can see that there are many primaries - Durand Academy in Lambeth, Cuckoo Hall in Enfield, Conway Primary in Birmingham, Hope Primary in Knowsley - which have very challenging intakes but which outperform most other schools. The children in those schools - and the teachers too - are now recognised as huge and unambiguous successes thanks to league tables. Testing has overcome prejudice.
And testing and league tables don’t just help us to overcome prejudice - they actively advance equality. League tables enable us to identify high-performing schools and the factors that generate their success. They allow us to capture and then disseminate innovation and good practice. They allow us to identify those schools which are falling behind and failing their pupils - as we have this week - and provide them with the support they need to do better. More often than not that support is coming from those schools we have identified - through testing and league tables - as successes. Without tests and league tables we would have no effective means of helping poor students succeed - we would be grappling in the dark for tools whose design we could not replicate to solve problems we could not identify for students we did not know how to locate.
Now, I know that league tables can be corrupted. Too much reliance on one measure as a target - however well-designed that single target may be - will mean gaming can occur.
But we can limit - if not entirely eliminate - gaming by reforming our exams and accountability system.
Which is what we are doing.
We’ve already diversified the ways in which schools can be judged, by publishing more and more data allowing new league tables to be constructed so all schools can be ranked on their performance in - say - art, music, drama and dance.
We’ve developed our own measure in the DfE - the English Baccalaureate - which has helped counteract the temptation schools faced simply to offer the easiest subjects available to maximise the number of students getting five good GCSEs. It has created a parallel incentive to offer students those subjects which facilitate progress on to higher and further education.
But there are still nevertheless problems with the concentration all these measures generate on the C/D borderline. Which is why we will be consulting soon on what a future - more intelligent - accountability system would look like. And I would welcome as many views as possible as to how that might develop.
But I would say that - in my experience so far - intelligent accountability - and good teaching - are not served by over-reliance on modular assessment, coursework and controlled assessment. All are subject to gaming and all take time away from teaching and learning. Teachers tell me that controlled assessment can take up to six weeks out of GCSE English teaching - to no-one’s benefit.
If we develop a more intelligent approach towards accountability - and exam design - then I think we can reap all the many benefits that exams can bring.
And I know - of course - that there is more - much more - to education than the academic learning that can be assessed in examination.
I am passionate about music, endlessly interested in the visual and dramatic arts, convinced of the power of sport to transform lives, an unapologetic fan of dance - classical and modern - as well as an advocate for greater involvement in social action by young people.
But there is no evidence that those schools which excel academically - and get good exam results - neglect any of these activities. Quite the opposite. The more impressive any school’s academic results the more certain I will be when I visit it that it will have a great choir, orchestra or band, a superb arts department, successful sports teams, a wealth of after school clubs, regular student productions and an impressive commitment to the broader community.
Critics sometimes talk about certain schools as exam factories - dull Gradgrindian institutions which churn out great GCSE and A level passes but which are otherwise joyless prison houses of the soul where the cultivation of whole child is neglected if not actively scorned.
But I have to say I have never encountered such a school - either in visits or Ofsted reports. Because they don’t exist. Schools which are academically successful are invariably successful in non-academic areas. Whereas the converse - sadly - is not always true.
And that brings me to my final argument. Schools that take tests seriously take students seriously. Schools that want exam success want their students to succeed. And schools that pursue academic excellence give their students the potential to beat the world.