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

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

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.

‘Com­rade Smithers’

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.

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