Category Archives: Parents

The Problem With Education…

In January, I wrote this post looking at the language applied to education, in particular by the media and the Government. I hoped that the negative language which seemed all pervasive in 2012 would not feature so heavily in 2013 – unfortunately, as we move through the final quarter of 2013, that does not seem to have been the case.

Crisis

Education in the UK seems to be in crisis – it’s a profession which seems to be in constant conflict with the Department for Education, sections of the media and, at times, with itself. This is a toxic situation which cannot continue without causing damage to all involved, in particular the children we teach. Why has the education sector come to this? Is there anything that can be done?

It’s Not Fair

Before we look at what may be at the root of the problem, I think it is important to make a key point about fairness. All may be fair in love and war but it certainly isn’t in education. Harsh it may be, but the brutal truth is that achieving ‘fairness’ for all pupils is a fantasy. The playing field will never be level.

This hit me forcefully when I was watching ‘Harrow: A Very British School’ on Sky 1. I find the program fascinating, a real insight into how a top private school functions – far distant from my own comprehensive school and the schools I have taught at. The grounds, the traditions, the facilities – it looks wonderful, and I am sure it is. What struck me, was the vast differences between the experiences of the Harrow boys at West Acre and some of the children I have encountered in my career.

Obviously, the best facilities that money can buy are part of the disparity, however, it was the little things that really struck me. Having a clean uniform ready for you, eating good quality food three times a day, having somewhere quiet to work, having someone checking that you are doing your homework, having a computer for your personal use – all of those little things that make a big difference to a child and their performance. The Harrow boys (as well as the majority of our  school children)  also don’t have to: care for siblings or parents, work before or after school, travel long distances to get to school, live with parents who are addicts etc. So, realistically, the children for whom these are everyday occurrences are never going to have a similar school experience.

It isn’t fair. Those who are most socially and economically deprived, those who are born with learning difficulties, those who are refugees from war torn countries (and a hundred other misfortunes), will not have the same opportunities as those who do not have these disadvantages. While we can do our best to mitigate against these disadvantages, they exist and we have to accept that, unfortunately, life isn’t fair.

What is Education For?

At the heart of the problem with education lies this question – what is the purpose of education? It seems a straightforward question at first, and I’m sure that most people will come up with a list of purposes which may include: qualifications, becoming a well rounded individual, becoming a useful and productive member of society etc. However, listening to the media and the DfE, the purpose does not seem to be clear:

  • Exams are too easy
  • Children are not achieving good enough exam results
  • Qualifications should reflect the needs of employers
  • Qualifications should enable the ranking of children and schools
  • A robust national curriculum is needed to ensure standards
  • Not all schools need to comply with the national curriculum
  • Teachers are professionals
  • Teachers don’t need to be qualified

the list goes on – contradiction after contradiction.

What Can be Done?

Before making any more statements, or changing any more policies, the Government needs to decide what the purpose of education, and in particular its examination system, is.

If it is important that, where at all possible,  all children should achieve a range of solid qualifications, then the examination system has to make this a possibility. Qualifications should be criterion referenced against a specific and public set of criteria so everyone knows that x grade means a child can do y at z level. If this is the purpose of education in the UK, then there should not be grade quotas or manipulation of results to avoid perceived grade inflation. Any child who achieves the specific criteria gets the grade.

If examinations are about ranking children (obviously taking into account that this will never be entirely fair, as I have discussed above), there needs to be a number of specific changes to the way children are assessed. Firstly, we would need to do away with the multiple exam boards and variety of qualifications in each subject – there should be only one exam in each subject which all children, from all types of school within the UK, take. How can children and their results be compared when the exams they take are different – for example the continuation of coursework for iGCSE? The nationwide results are then ranked and, perhaps a grade allocated according to norm referencing or some other formula. It may even be possible to combine the two – perhaps a grade and a national rank, or a percentage.

At the moment, however, it is not clear what the purpose is, at least from the Government’s perspective. It seems farcical to say that all schools should achieve a specific level of examination results and then make it impossible for all schools to do so. If you want an education system where all schools are ‘good or better’ then it needs to be possible – which means that the way schools are measured needs to change to reflect this. It is this pressure to achieve the impossible that seems to be at the root of many teachers’ arguments.

If Mr Gove and future Education Secretaries want to make a positive impact on education in this country, they need to think long and hard about what education in the UK is for. Then they can start to change the system for the better.

Performance Related Pay – Divide and Conquer?

Mr Gove‘s plan to introduce performance related pay has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. @oldandrewuk‘s excellent blog post gives some well explained reasons why the plan is not a good idea. These are my thoughts on the subject.

The Truth About Teachers’ Pay Scales

Whenever the topic of teachers’ pay is written about in the press, annual pay progression is mentioned. Yes, in the early part of their career, teachers generally receive a pay increase each year – up to point 6. Then, providing they pass threshold, they move onto the upper pay scale spending two years on each of upper 1 and 2 before reaching upper 3. So, assuming a start on point 1 of the main scale, that is 10 years of pay progression and then nothing unless you move into management. Potentially, if you start teaching at 25, that could be 30 years without a pay rise – hardly the year-on-year increase we keep reading about.

Does Mr Gove’s new plan for pay intend to change this? If so, schools’ already overstretched budgets are going to have a real problem – and some difficult choices to make. If not, is the assumption that all longer serving teachers will move into management or leave?

How will performance be measured?

This is the big question. Who will measure your performance as a teacher? What criteria will be used? What right to reply will you have? Imagine the following, fictional, situations:

  • It is your annual pay/performance review, you are told you won’t be moving up the pay scale as you don’t teach any exam classes and therefore there is no effective way to determine whether you made sufficient progress.
  • At your review you are awarded a pay rise – what your manager doesn’t realize is that your KS3 results are a work of fiction – you boosted every student by a level knowing that the department head was so busy with GCSE that they would not have time to check.
  • You and your head of department don’t exactly see eye to eye. At the start of the new year you find yourself with a timetable filled with every difficult class available. When you don’t receive a pay rise you decide to take the school to a tribunal for unfairly damaging your chances.
  • Due to timetabling issues you find yourself sharing several classes with a weaker teacher – their  poor teaching means that you won’t get a pay rise.
  • The head holds a whole school meeting. They explain that, as the school budget is less than expected, due to falling intake at 6th form, no one will be receiving a pay rise – the only other option would be redundancies.
  • You are an experienced teacher with a good reputation. You spend a lot of time creating excellent class resources, which you share with your department. Another teacher in your department has less challenging classes, they use your resources, rarely create any of their own and never share them if they do. They receive a pay rise and you don’t – you decide that you will no longer share any resources and will work only for the benefit of your own classes.
  • You have worked yourself into the ground with a challenging group. You planned excellent lessons, offered after school extra tuition, did everything in your power to help the class . Your head is apologetic, although you have had excellent lesson observations you won’t be receiving a pay rise. It turns out that the class did not achieve their 3 levels progress – Student A refused to write anything on their exam paper; Student B slept through the exam as they had been playing their X-box until 3 in the morning; Student C didn’t turn up for the exam – their mum explained over the phone that she couldn’t get them out of bed; Student D tried their best but, due to a range of learning difficulties, they were unable to make 3 levels progress; Student E was a school refuser who had not been in school since January, but they are still on the school roll so count towards your figures…and so on.

Obviously, these scenarios are fictional, but chances are that some of them sound familiar. Issues similar to these may be the reality in schools at the moment but, as frustrating as they may be, at the moment they are unlikely to affect your pay.

Students Are Not Products

The increasing tendency to apply business models to schools seem to forget the key point – students are not products. Even if you are a brilliant teacher, if the student does not want to work there is little that you can do. Contacting home, setting detentions, referring to senior managers may work, but equally may not.

In business there are a number of things you can do to promote sales, for example: offer incentives, reduce costs, lower prices. It is hard to translate these into teaching – should we offer students financial rewards for working in class? From our own pocket? Make the exams easier so they pass? Only make them take subjects they like? It is not so clear cut.

Why is Mr Gove Doing This?

In part, I think that Mr Gove is trying to make a name for himself – in a party that supports privatization, it would be a coup to manage this with schools.

Secondly, by taking away many of the terms and conditions, teaching becomes less attractive to qualified staff and therefore it will be possible to hire unqualified, cheaper staff. This would make the education ‘business’ more likely to make a profit and therefore more attractive to investors. Unqualified staff may also be less likely to challenge the Secretary of State.

Finally, performance related pay creates competition and therefore divisiveness – in education the ideal is that we all do our best to help our students do their best. By setting staff against each other for pay, perhaps Mr Gove hopes that teachers will not work together, that unions will lose members and that he can divide and conquer?

Pay Is Not The Real Issue

Although this is a post about performance related pay, pay is not the real issue. Most teachers will say that they are not in the job for the money; there are other motivations at work. However, why is it wrong to want to be paid a reasonable amount for a tough job that (currently) demands a degree and a postgraduate qualification? I don’t see lawyers, architects and doctors being criticized in this way.

In this country, rightly or wrongly, pay often confers status and respect. If you don’t believe that, look at how many times calls to curb the enormous bonuses of bankers are met with the claim that we can’t because they will leave the country. They are somehow immune to any cuts, even when they business they work for is making a massive loss. By repeatedly attacking teachers’ pay and conditions, Mr Gove appears to be sending out the message that the profession is not valued in our society. That education, and a qualified and motivated teaching profession, is not key to the success of the country. Sadly, this attitude will cause damage which will affect generations to come.

Lies, Damned Lies and GCSE English Results

The exam results period is never short of controversy, each year there seems to be a new issue with marking, supposed ‘soft’ subjects, the BTEC v. GCSE debate…however, this year is different and not in a good way.

You would have had to have been in a cave for the past week to avoid all the news stories about the drop in GCSE English results, or, in my case, in Egypt. There have been other articles written about this, an excellent one by @RealGeoffBarton for example, many focusing on the AQA qualification. I am writing this post partly to get my own head around the situation from the perspective of someone teaching the OCR qualification, but also to cut through some of the media misunderstanding of the situation, and – let’s be brutally honest here – to prepare myself for the oncoming storm from SMT and parents.

So, there has been a drop in the number of students achieving a C grade GCSE  or higher in English – so much we know. A quick trawl of the Internet will show that this drop varies from school to school from a few percent to shocking figures of 16-20%. Following Gove’s repeated grandstanding (minus hard evidence I hasten to add) about ‘falling standards’ and claims from some parts of the press about how easy the qualifications were to pass (anyone heard the myth that if you write your name correctly you get a grade?), it was not surprising that there was going to be some fall out and that grades were likely to take a hit. However, as Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ suggests, all students and exams are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The press have reported in varying levels of accuracy and froth, the Daily Mail for example reported: “claims that pupils who took the exam in January found it easier to gain C grades than those who sat it in the summer”. Others reported exam boards explaining that the difference was due to the new syllabus. I hope state the case as I see it and explain, hopefully in layman’s terms, why this deflation of grades is unfair.

The New Syllabus

This summer marked the first cohort going through the new GCSE syllabus. The syllabus was introduced in September 2010 and included several changes to the previous exams – the introduction of ‘controlled assessment’, a type of coursework being completed under exam conditions, being the most notable one. Yes, you would expect a few teething problems as students, examiners and teachers get to grips with the changes, but these should be fairly minor as the core of English remains the same – reading, writing, speaking and listening.

The mark schemes for the new exam ‘controlled assessments’ changed, due to the insistence of the now-defunct QCDA (Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency), descriptions of students’ skills being matched to bands rather than grades. This was a more complex change (something many of us are used to at A-Level), but the description of C grade skills for teachers experienced in marking C grade work, and guidance via exemplars from the board, meant that, although the boundaries were a little fuzzy in places, ultimately the skills and quality needed for a C grade were pretty much the same as under the old syllabus.

Obviously, it would be unfair if, because of an accident of birth, you needed to achieve a much higher range of skills in order to get the same C grade as previous years, wouldn’t it? Surely that is the point of the grading, and exams of this type, if you get a C you have X range of skills, so colleges and employers can compare applicants fairly? If this is not the case, why do we bother with the exams at all?

The Harder Summer Exam

Much of the press reporting focuses on the assertion that the summer exam was much harder than the January one. This may well be the case. I would not be surprised if the mark schemes were more stringent and that, where a student was previously given the benefit of the doubt, this was no longer the case. This does need to be investigated and, if it turns out to be the case that the exam was much harder than previous sessions, adjustments should be made to ensure that there is consistency and fairness.

As each exam series has a new paper, you expect there to be a little movement in the marks needed to achieve particular grades – we as teachers expect this, a really tricky paper will generally have a lower grade threshold than an easier one to ensure parity. We expect the grade boundary for a paper to shift by a few marks – that is fair. What seems unfair is a sudden shift of grades by 10 marks or more, suggesting that it is harder to achieve a C grade than before – as I said above, if a summer 2012 C grade is not the same as a Jan 2012, summer 2011 or 2008 grade, then the whole point of assessing students via GCSE exams is flawed and unfair.

 The Controlled Assessment

This is the element marked in school and samples sent to the exam board for moderation. Typically, 60% of the GCSE is made up of internal assessment and 40% by the exam. The exam boards set the tasks, we teach the skills and content and the students complete the task under exam conditions. We can’t mark drafts or give feedback on the piece until it has been completed. The teacher then marks the assessment piece using the mark scheme provided by the exam board, this is split into bands and marks, not grades. We send these marks to the exam board, as well as an estimated grade (based on our professional judgement and previous experience). So far, so good.

I teach the OCR course for GCSE English Language, I have been to the board training sessions, we have moderated the work as a department, we have sent off our sample and (post-results) received confirmation that there has been “no adjustment” needed, that is that we have applied the exam board mark scheme accurately – matching work to bands and the relevant marks. So no problem there…well, yes! The controlled assessment is a huge, and, what I think is, a key part of the unfairness of this summer’s exam results.

This is where it gets a bit technical. Each exam series, the boards produce a list of grade boundaries for the marks awarded for each module, these ‘raw’ marks are then converted to UMS (Uniform Mark Scale) – this allows for adjustments to the boundaries, for example the differences in exam papers I mentioned above. While the public exam boundary may change within the same series, the controlled assessment boundaries should not (although they may change slightly from year to year) as the tasks are the same, can be completed at any point over the two years and are marked using the same mark scheme. The only difference with the controlled assessment is that the marks could be submitted to the exam board in either January or May (depending on which elements of the course were being counted towards the 40% terminal rule).

Following me so far? Good.

The controlled assessment tasks and mark schemes have not changed over the two-year course, so there is no variation in content that we might see in the external exam. Our moderator reports (and, I expect, many other schools’) state that there is ‘No Adjustment’ to either CA unit, so they agree our marks and our application of the mark scheme. As the qualification is criterion referenced, the grade equivalent for the mark awarded for the CA units (certainly within a single cohort) should not change – if they do, it suggests that C grades from different years and sessions are not actually the same which is obviously unfair and makes the whole exam system a farce.

Ah, I hear some of you say, the boundaries have been changed to avoid ‘dumbing down’, to increase ‘challenge’, to make the exams ‘harder’. Ok, so, if that is the case then surely we will see a similar increase in the boundaries for all grades?

No! The changes to the marks are not equitable, they hit the C/D and lower grades rather than the B-A*. Across the two English Language CA units (A651 and A652) the difference in marks (for OCR) to achieve a particular grade are as follows:

  • A* – 1 mark less than January
  • A – the same as January
  • B – 4 marks more
  • C – 8 marks more
  • D – 8 marks more
  • E – 9 marks more
  • F – 9 marks more
  • G – 9 marks more

I suggest that this is a political move, as if it were about rigour and ensuring challenge then surely all grades should have been affected? It seems to suggest that those in selective or high achieving schools (hmm, the children of many of our politicians perhaps?) are less likely to be affected. Perhaps the powers that be don’t wish to upset their privileged friends? Those students who are most in need of the C grade for college, apprenticeships or jobs, who need a good education to improve their chances in life seem to be the target of this change. It smacks of social engineering at its worst. This is unfair.

The second issue is the change within the same exam series depending on when the CA marks were submitted – if we had submitted the controlled assessments in January  the same pieces of work, by the same students, marked by us and given the same raw mark which was agreed by the exam board, were worth up to 9 marks less if we submitted in the summer rather than January. This unfairly penalizes  students, as in other schools, those who had the same or slightly lower raw score would have been awarded a higher mark if they were entered in January. The scaling for UMS makes this even bigger, so some students are 10 or 11 UMS worse off.

 What Should Be Done?

Firstly, the summer exam for all English exams should be reviewed to check that those who sat it in the summer were not unfairly penalised due to political pressure. Basically, would a response in the summer exam have achieved a higher grade in January? If so, they should be amended.

Secondly, the grade boundaries from January for the controlled assessment grades should be applied to the summer entry – ensuring that all students have been treated equally.

Finally, an urgent review of the whole situation with clear recommendations in plenty of time to avoid this situation next year. I am not advocating ‘giving’ students grades they don’t deserve, but be fair. If the exams are too easy – make them harder for all. Tell us what each grade is and give us examples to illustrate it – that will make it clear for everyone. Otherwise we are in the bizarre situation, to use an Olympic analogy, of a high jump final where no one knows how high you need to jump to win or even qualify.

I will be following Ofqual’s investigation and the outcome very closely.

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Ofqual’s less that fab report here.