It’s all academic
Professor Alan Smithers began his working life as a plant scientist, but his career quickly sprouted in a very different direction: today, he is one of the UK’S most cited exam experts. Eleanor Busby meets the man who for 30 years has been challenging the
For 30 years, Alan Smithers has used research to challenge norms
THE PROLIFIC output of Professor Alan Smithers is apparent from the moment you step into his office. Rows of cardboard boxes, filled to the brim with reports, line each wall of the 79-year-old’s room at the Centre for Education and Employment Research, based at the University of Buckingham.
Smithers is the centre’s director, and his exam results day forecasts – added to his strident opinions on a range of topics – have made him one of the most cited education experts in the country. “I became a bit of a guru for a while,” he says.
The academic has continued to put his head above the parapet to forecast national exam results during a period of deep uncertainty for schools, which have struggled to predict how pupils will perform under the reformed A levels and GCSES. “If you are right, it is fine, but you are immediately falsified [if you are wrong],” he admits.
His shelves contain huge volumes of research carried out by the centre on areas including teacher supply and qualifications, as well as reports by the Commons Education Select Committee, which he helped to advise for 18 years. He can list his published work: 88 books and reports, 45 confidential briefing documents, 86 research papers and 51 chapters and forwards, as well as 290 articles for magazines and newspapers.
But it is his work on exams that Smithers has become best known for. Every summer, he is the academic who national education journalists turn to for predictions about what this year’s A-level and GCSE results will bring. Only last weekend, he was all over the press accusing Ofqual of perpetuating “a broken [A-level] system in which nearly all get prizes”.
He is, however, a fan of the controversial exam reforms brought in by former education secretary Michael Gove, which come into effect from this summer.
“He did a lot of good things in education, as it had got a bit soggy,” he says.“i think [linear examinations] are better but I was very good at them and I found project work very boring. So my own preferences are underpinning [my position] to some extent.”
Despite this, he is concerned about the extent to which exam results are being used to hold teachers and schools to account. “Exams at present have been driven by accountability,” he says. “And I think accountability has gone mad.
“I mean as tax payers and the general public, we want to know that our money has been spent wisely and that our schools are doing the best for children, but to try and do it through number crunching is not the right way.”
Using the exams as a measure of the quality of teaching, rather than as a sign of what a child is capable of, will “inevitably” lead to teachers “working to score the highest points possible” – ultimately making information on results less useful to parents, pupils, universities and pupils, he warns.
Smithers hasn’t always worked in education. His first PHD was in plant physiology. “It seems a very unlikely choice for someone from East London,” he says.
But it was, in fact, the housing estate he grew up on that helped him to discover his love of plants. “[The estate] was soulless. It was absolutely bleak. So I used to escape out to Epping Forest. I became fascinated by the living world. I thought there was something going on here that wasn’t going on in the housing estate.”
Smithers struggled in his first year at grammar school. “When I got there, I was completely off the pace,” he says. “I could not believe that at the end of the year you were supposed to remember everything you had done since you had been there. I came in as a stranger and I thought, ‘What are these kids at the top doing that I am not doing?’ So I buckled down and next year, I came top.”
However, a number of his primary school friends ended up in a school that he describes as a “breeding ground” for London gangsters. “I was enormously lucky,” he says. “But clearly, it was unfair.”
Smithers has never shied away from critiquing education policies favoured by the government of the day. In fact, staff at the University of Buckingham once nicknamed him “Comrade Smithers” after he criticised the Conservative government for its move towards taking schools out of local authority control. “The clerk at the [education] select
committee said, ‘God, if they think you are a socialist, what are they like?’,” he laughs.
Over the past 30 years, his aim has been to deliver research to policymakers, teachers and journalists as quickly as possible, to ensure that it is still topical by the time it is published.
“We have got to get our findings out there quickly because education is a fast-changing scene,” Smithers says. This has, at times, presented a challenge. He recalls: “I remember staggering down to the Department for Education one Christmas Eve, not having slept or having shaved, to enter an empty building, to meet the person I had promised a report to.”
But he insists: “It is no good writing this stuff over an 18-month period and lodging it in a library where nobody is picking it up. We want to put public results in the public domain.”
Smithers has now dedicated almost five decades to education, but he isn’t ready to retire yet. In fact, he plans to stay on at the centre for at least six more years. But what will become of all the boxes of reports that surround him when he does leave? “I will have to start putting all these things in the skip ,” he says.
All won’t be lost. Smithers already has plans in place to make sure all the reports are put online. “It will be a bit like Spotify. If people want to fork out for them then they will be available,” he says.
He is currently working on a book exploring the major changes to England’s education system since the Second World War. It will draw on his own personal experiences of education as well as his years of research.
“I am hoping that the highlight of my life is going to be this book. I hope it will say something important in an enduring form,” he says.
The book will focus on the tension between evidence and narratives. “In education, it is the narratives that hold more sway than the research, which is a contrast to science, where evidence is king.”
Although he has high hopes for his book, he won’t be keeping a low profile while he writes it. In fact, he is already preparing for his next set of exam forecasts – which we can expect to read in time for Thursday’s GCSE results.