Category Archives: Politics

Dear Miss Truss – There Is A Problem With ‘Traditional Text Books’

As the end of the exam season arrives, unsurprisingly, government ministers are pushing forward to comment on the state of education and teaching. It is a pattern that, in the UK at least, seems to be repeated year on year.

In today’s Telegraph, Liz Truss announced that:

Teachers must stop “reinventing the wheel” by drawing up special lesson plans for children and revert to traditional teaching from text books – The Telegraph 26/6/14

Fair enough, so it seems based on the article – teachers spending too much time planning lessons and printing worksheets rather than teaching – it would be difficult to disagree…that is, if this was indeed the case.

However, Miss Truss goes on to refer to “strong core material” and that is at the heart of the problem – it doesn’t always exist. In my main teaching subject, English, the quality of text books for GCSE is rather poor. Lots of bright colours, text boxes, pictures, but very little decent content. These books are fine for a lesson or two, but any child whose entire English course was taught from the current crop of text books (or for that matter, some of those from the ‘halcyon days’ of O Level) would be short-changed indeed.

Many English text books follow a very similar format – a short text extract, several mundane questions based on the text and then an imaginative writing task – over and over again, without any real development in knowledge or challenge. As text books aim to cover all possibilities, and knowing that schools have increasingly limited budgets, they often cover most of the literature set texts in a page or two of surface level information.

The attitude Miss Truss reveals is one that suggests that if only teachers stopped faffing around and taught from ‘the text book’, all would be right with the world – it also suggests that this is all there is to teaching. This certainly seems to be the party line, that anyone, qualified or not, can roll up and teach a class. A job made laughingly easy when all you have to do is tell the class to ‘open your text book at page 23 and answer questions 1 to infinity’ while settling down with a coffee for a little gentle marking. Sadly, teaching is not that easy and the miracle ‘core’ text book is currently a fantasy.

In reality, things are not so straightforward. Good teaching means using the available resources and adapting them for the pupils in a particular class, which can take time. Yes, spending hours creating clip-art laden worksheets which achieve little is pointless, but so is getting pupils to work mindlessly from a text book without considering whether it actually meets their educational needs. I suspect that much of the time spent on ‘lesson planning’ is actually for the benefit of OFSTED or, more likely, OFSTED-obsessed SMT. The focus on differentiation and individually tailored lessons, criticised by Miss Truss, is a direct result of Government pressure for all schools to be ‘good’ or better. This in itself is based on Michael Gove’s flawed logic:

Q98 Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?

Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?

Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.

Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?

There is another problem, for decent text books to exist there needs to be several years of stability within the examination system. A text book is likely to take a year or so to create and publish – difficult to do well when as soon as it is published it is obsolete (remember all those text book chapters on controlled assessments?). In addition, there are currently multiple exam boards in England and therefore, unless there was a single board and a single syllabus, there would never be a single, definitive text book. Currently, the major publishers each tend to focus on a single exam board, knowing that schools teaching that board would be likely to buy their book. If we had a single board for each subject then some healthy competition might develop between publishers to produce the best text book – at the moment this is simply not the case.

A similar problem exists for English departments (and every other school department, I’m sure) – every time the syllabus changes or the set texts change, hundreds and thousands of pounds have to be spent on buying new stock, money which is increasingly hard to find. If I wished to teach, for example, Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (assuming it was on the syllabus) I would need copies of the text to use in class (for those who can’t or won’t buy their own copy) and perhaps additional clean copies for the final exam. This all costs money. There is no text book for ‘Emma’, so it would be necessary to create suitable tasks (something that I would do anyway, even if there was a text book as it is unlikely that one book could cover everything my class would need). Or should I be limited to teach only those texts with an existing text book? Hardly the challenge and rigour so favoured by the Government.

Now, I try not to be too cynical about education and politics, but is there, perhaps, a darker reason for this panegyric on text books? It may be interesting to note that the education secretary, Michael Gove who advocates a return to ‘traditional’ teaching, used to write a column for The Times (a NewsCorp company) and received an advance from Harper-Collins (a NewsCorp company) for a book which he has not yet written (listed on the Register of Member’s Interests)…and that Harper-Collins is a major publisher of educational text books. But, surely that is all just coincidental?

 

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.

Why Research SOLO Taxonomy?

This is the first in a series of blog posts based on my MA research into the use of the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy in English. I hope that  what I write proves useful and not just for English teachers.

A reasonably obvious starting point is: why did I choose to research the SOLO taxonomy?

A quick glance at the TES or Twitter will reveal that teachers are under pressure. The need to achieve year on year improvements in results, as well as a dearth of time available, means that it is not surprising that many teachers are looking for a ‘magic bullet’– something that is effective and involves little additional work. The danger is that schools and teachers are not appropriately critical when selecting and promoting techniques in the rush to achieve the desired results.

Over the past few years a range of different ideas (e.g. Brain Gym, VAK, de Bono’s Thinking Hats) have been promoted in schools, often supported by ‘a thriving commercial industry’ (Coffield et al., 2004:118). While some of these offer useful techniques which can easily be incorporated into the teachers’ everyday lesson, others can become overly burdensome without empirical evidence that the technique actually works (Harrison et al., 2003; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006). Key here is the fact that, while scientific research may indicate a result as suggestive, all too often the results are distorted or overstated (Swaffield, 2009).

How many of us have sat through a CPD session run by an expensive expert, or an enthusiastic member of SLT, and questioned whether it is actually worthwhile? How many have spoken up to challenge ideas that we know are not proven, or (often more likely) sat squirming and wishing that we had the nerve to speak up? In budget conscious and results-driven schools, staff buying into ineffective techniques and strategies (physically and metaphorically) can drain money from where it is most needed.

It is, however, important that teachers are proactive in trialling and using techniques which they believe may be of benefit. Levin (2010:90) explains:

If data from students could be linked to changes known to be effective – for example, improved assessment practices or greater student choice in assignments – we might start to see some lasting and worthwhile changes in the way students experience our high schools.

It was with this in mind that I became cautiously interested when discussions  on Twitter mentioned something called the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy. Initially, it was mentioned by a small number of UK based teachers who provided more detailed examples on their blogs (Tait Coles, David Didau, Lisa Ashes).

While willing to try new teaching ideas, the key question for me is: what evidence is there that this works? A brief search of academic journals (via the wonderful Google Scholar) identified a number of articles, mostly focusing on the use of the SOLO taxonomy in geography, science or at university level (Munowenyu, 2007; Biggs & Tang, 2009; Brabrand & Dahl, 2009; Prakash et al., 2010).

I was also aware that the use of the SOLO taxonomy was widespread in New Zealand (Hattie & Brown, 2004), being linked to assessment and curriculum models, and through a number of New Zealand Tweachers’ contributions to Twitter discussions. However, it became clear that there was very little research on its use in the UK education system, and little available on its use in teaching English literature beyond blog posts and anecdotes. I therefore decided to try a relatively simple technique – the use of hexagons to link ideas. The results from this initial foray were genuinely surprising, however, could easily have been a fortuitous coincidence. Therefore, I decided to base my study on the effectiveness of the SOLO taxonomy in GCSE English Literature. I hoped to be able to demonstrate whether or not the SOLO taxonomy was effective in improving student results and clarify whether this technique was worth adopting at departmental level and beyond.

References:

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) ‘Applying constructive alignment to outcomes-based teaching and learning.’ Training Material. “Quality Teaching for Learning in Higher Education” Workshop for Master Trainers.  Ministry of Higher Education. Kuala Lumpur. 2010. http://drjj.uitm.edu.my/DRJJ/MQAGGPAS-Apr2011/What-is-CA-biggs-tang.pdf [accessed 19 August 2012]

Brabrand, C. & Dahl, B., (2009) ‘Using the SOLO taxonomy to analyze competence progression of university science curricula.’ Higher Education, 58 (4) pp. 531–549.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004) ‘Learning  styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.’ Learning and Skills Research Centre. Report No. 041543.

Harrison, G., Andrews, J., & Saklofske, D. (2003) ‘Current perspectives on cognitive learning styles.’ Education Canada. 43 (2) pp. 44-47

Hattie, J. & Brown, G. (2004) ‘Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy.’ University of Auckland/Ministry of Education. asTTle Technical Report 43. http://e-asttle.tki.org.nz/content/download/1499/6030/version/1/file/43.+The+SOLO+taxonomy+2004.pdf [accessed 6 March 2013]

Krätzig, G. & Arbuthnott, K. (2006) ‘Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: a test of the hypothesis.’  Journal of Educational Psychology. 98 (1) pp. 238-246.

Levin, B. (2010) ‘What did you do at school today?’ Kappan. 91 (5) pp. 89-90. http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/about/centres/uacel/docs/InCanadaWDYDIST1002lev.pdf [accessed 8 April 2012]

Munowenyu, E. (2007) ‘Assessing the Quality of Essays Using the SOLO Taxonomy: Effects of Field and Classroom-based Experiences by “A” Level Geography Students.’ International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. 16 (1) pp. 21–43.

Prakash, E. S., Narayan, K. A., & Sethuraman, K. R. (2010) ‘Student perceptions regarding the usefulness of explicit discussion of “Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome” taxonomy.’ Advances in physiology education. 34 (3) pp.145–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20826769 [accessed 6 March 2013]

Swaffield, S. (2009) ‘The misrepresentation of Assessment for Learning – and the woeful waste of a wonderful opportunity.’ Work in progress paper. AAIA National Conference. Bournemouth. 16-18 September. http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/lfl/current/papers/swaffield_aaia09.pdf [accessed 30 March 2013]

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.

CPD and Randomized Controlled Trials

Evidence based ideas in education has been a hot topic over the past week or so – and not before time, in my opinion.

Whenever new ideas are brought forward, some teachers will always refer to the ‘tried and tested’ methods they prefer (some of which are actually just tried rather than ‘tested’). Equally, there is the counter issue where some teachers, or school leaders, come up with some new idea and proceed to insist that everyone else jumps onto their bandwagon. Both situations are less than ideal and, believe it or not, Michael Wilshaw appears to agree:

We, and in that word “we” I include OFSTED, should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth. We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense.

Michael Wilshaw’s speech – via @oldandrew teachingbattleground.wordpress.com

It should be the teacher’s decision which methods they use in their classroom, based on their professional judgement and available evidence. The availability of this evidence is, in itself, an issue – one which I will look at in a little more detail below.

However, sadly, this freedom to teach, according to our own professional judgement, does not seem to be the reality of OfSTED or of many schools. Schools seem to be obsessed with OfSTED these days. What data does OfSTED want to see/expect you to know? What sort of lesson do they want to see? Which teaching methods? Sometimes this obsession seems to be almost to the exclusion of whether this actually helps the students who are in front of us for the 180-odd days that OfSTED are NOT in school. The Telegraph’s article about ‘mock’  inspections highlights my point. Surely the focus should be on improving teaching and learning, rather than identifying which hoops a possible inspector may want us to jump through? In any case, as highlighted in this blog post, how does OfSTED help schools improve the actual teaching and learning?

We, as teachers, need to return the focus in our schools to our core purpose, to teach our subjects to the best of our ability and prepare young people for life beyond school. One area we could start with is CPD.

We could use CPD time to enable teachers in school, or across a local area, to collaborate on research projects, work on randomized trials and present the findings  for other teachers.  Ben Goldacre‘s (@bengoldacre) recent report suggests that:

By collecting better evidence about what works best, and establishing a culture where this evidence is used as a matter of routine, we can improve outcomes for children, and increase professional independence.

But no! CPD tends to pander to the latest perceived OfSTED desire, or fads supported by colourful brochures and expensive external speakers. It is strange that, in a profession full of postgraduates, our in-school CPD so rarely takes that into account. Instead, we are given watered down ideas, gimmicks without solid evidence, or worse: we are expected to relive a lesson through card sorts and role play. Stay in teaching any length of time and it is likely that you will sit through similar presentations without new input – not exactly differentiating for your audience.

When I started teaching, about 12 years ago, we had a departmental day at the start of the term, no agenda from above, no mention of OfSTED, no death by PowerPoint – we were trusted, as professionals, to know what needed to be done. One of the sad things is that, as accountability and OfSTED come to the fore they are accompanied by, what could be called, a ‘dumbing down’ of the profession. We can’t be trusted to work on our own on projects, almost as if we were a naughty bunch of year 10s who will nick off to the toilets for a fag as soon as the teacher’s back is turned.

The opportunity to make informed decisions about what works best, using good quality evidence, represents a truer form of professional independence than any senior figure barking out their opinions.  A coherent set of systems for evidence based practice listens to people on the front line, to find out where the uncertainties are, and decide which ideas are worth testing.

Ben Goldacre

To raise the profile of the profession externally, and encourage a sense of this professionalism within schools, we need to be more aware of evidence and research – if school leaders want teachers to use a particular strategy, give us evidence as to its effectiveness, suggestions for further reading, or a chance to be part of a randomized trial perhaps.
For a profession that exists under almost constant change, education can be very resistant to change and the idea of randomized trials can cause tension, as Goldacre says:
most people start to become nervous: surely it’s wrong, for example, to decide what kind of education a child gets, simply at random?
This may certainly explain some of the negative reactions that Ben’s  Guardian article received. But if we are honest, this happens all the time: the make up of a class, timetabling that creates split classes, a new syllabus, the new idea you choose to use, a teacher on long term sick leave, a PGCE student on a placement. We are not talking about throwing out everything we do to replace it with something else. Instead, the idea is to “decide which ideas are worth testing” and start there.
I have found Twitter an excellent starting point for this type of discussion, the sharing of ideas and sources of information with teachers across the globe is fantastic. I would hope that some of this turns into concrete academic research.

Teaching and education are emotive subjects – we all remember the teacher who inspired us, just as we remember the one who did not. In our rush to do the best we can for the young people in front of us, we need to take a little time to reflect, and question, whether what we are doing really allows us all to reach our potential.

 

The Language of Education

Over the past year or so, there has been a subtle (and at times, not so subtle) drift in the language used in education. There have been references to attainment, progress and achievement for some time – and, although measuring these can be fraught with difficulty, this is no bad thing. All teachers, I’m sure, want their students to make progress and to improve.

However, the change recently has been more insidious, more negative in its tone. We have heard of ‘the race to the bottom’, ‘cheating’, ‘dumbing down’. The implication is clear, education is in a mess and the Government need to ride in and take swift ruthless action before it is too late.

The Powers That Be

A brief look at some of the loudest voices illustrates my point. Ofqual‘s press release regarding the problems with the Summer 2012 GCSE results included the following:

Glenys Stacey said: “It is clearly hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe that there is a widespread loss of integrity elsewhere. No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.”

A barbed little comment – is it ‘clear’? Are teachers being ‘forced to choose’? Although conciliatory in tone, the underlying implication is that lots of teachers are cheating – but where is the evidence? Which teachers have had to choose to cheat or risk their career? If this is true, then it is a scandal…if. The implication is enough to fuel sensationalist headlines, even without evidence.

Wordle: Ofqual

In his ‘Good to Great’ speech, Michael Wilshaw said:

“we need radical improvements to the education system”

Is this really the case in most schools? Or is it a man, who has a passion for education, overstating the case – a rhetorical device?

If the system was so bad where did all these “brightest and best graduates” come from? That in itself is an unpleasant myth – writing off pretty much everyone already in the profession at the moment – a quick glance at twitter will show that new teachers don’t have the monopoly on innovation, motivation and passion for the job.

Wordle: OfSted

The current Education Minister (current, as we have had 8 different ministers in the past 10 years – this in itself could explain some of the problems in education, as each one wants to make their mark), Michael Gove, in his speech to Brighton College said:

“And because we recognise that Governments must take sides in debates – we must be for aspiration, ambition, hard work and excellence – for success based on merit and a celebration of those who do succeed.”

Truly a comment worthy of Orwell’s Squealer – disagree with us and you want the opposite. The image of the rabid, stike-ready, trade unionist teacher, who cares only for their pension and doing as little work as possible, is lurking in the background. No grey areas, no acknowledgement that we may want the same but disagree with the methods, especially the methods espoused by a man with no teaching experience, a love of the independent sector and little experience of the English state system.

The Truth?

The real situation is probably somewhere between the extremes. Some schools, some individual teachers, some students may well cheat; some may look for the easiest route to tick the boxes on the performance tables. Realistically, most schools will push the boundaries as far as they can, while still staying within the rules.

What is the motivation for this? We have to look at the way schools are judged/ If we don’t want a system where each school focuses on league tables, then we need to remove them – or change the way the tables work. Schools are not created equal, so judgements made on the numbers of top grades will only reveal what we expect to see – selective schools and those with a more affluent intake doing better than those in deprived areas. Teaching alone is not sufficient to change this pattern. Looking at value-added impact gives a more balanced view, but again is fraught with problems – not least who this information is for and how understandable it is.

There are no easy solutions here, but the bottom line is that schools will do their best to meet the standards set for them. It is churlish for ministers to criticize schools for trying to meet standards that they, or their predecessors, have set for them.

Schools

Beyond the Government and the press hounds slavering for a juicy headline, the language used within schools also seems to be taking a disturbing turn. Now, these are my personal bug-bears (right up there with the usual culprits of BS bingo). I can live with the shift from ‘Teaching and Learning’ to ‘Learning and Teaching’ – obviously little learning took place until this semantic change! The BLP ‘learning muscles’ set my teeth on edge, however, the two phrases that I find the most poisonous are ‘customer service’ and any reference to ‘getting them their C grade’.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that poor quality teaching should be accepted, I have issue with the language itself. Both phrases have the suggestion of something being ‘done’ to a ‘customer’ – a customer who doesn’t have to put in any effort themselves – rather like an expensive massage.

The danger is that all language contains messages – and sometimes the message received is not the one intended. Phrases like ‘getting them their C grade’ suggests the student is entitled to the grade, there is no suggestion of work, of effort, of mastery – and, sadly, this is a message that is received loud and clear by some of our young people. They believe the hype and headlines, and their chances are negatively affected (admittedly, largely through their own lack of work). We are failing our ‘customers’ if we let them think this, but that is the message of this type of language, as well as those easy to pass exam equivalents.

So, what is my point? Really, that language is powerful. It is easy to accidentally, flippantly or deliberately create a damaging impression. This was where education in the UK seemed to be at the end of 2012 – hopefully 2013 can be more positive.

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.

The Exam Season – A Plea

This is a bizarre time of the year. The majority of the controlled assessments are done, there is the usual scramble for those who arrived part way through Y11 or refused to complete work to have a finished folder. Students are demanding revision sessions where they expect their teacher to impart pearls of wisdom, while they sit passively, or don’t show up at all. Rivalries between departments reach breaking point as the key marginal groups are pulled in multiple directions at once. The whole thing seems to create a sense of sliding down a massive helter-skelter with nothing to stop you.

This is also the time of year that teachers become wild around the eyes with the pressure of too many tasks in a finite amount of time. The only thing keeping us going is the thought of a little gained time to tweak and improve for the next year.

However, this is also the time of year that two very different groups seem to go out of the way to make things as difficult as possible.

Exam Boards and Estimated Grades

At this busiest of times, and I know that those with a negative view of teachers will no doubt scoff, we have marking and annotation of coursework samples, preparation of in class and after school revision sessions. I just don’t understand why the requirements of the exam boards are quite so onerous.

I deal with KS4 English, currently made up of 3 different qualifications being taken by 240 students. I have to enter coursework marks, estimated grades for those marks, estimated exam grades for each module and for the qualification as a whole – this amounts to almost 3000 separate entries, either numbers entered onto a website or little boxes on an OMR sheet being coloured in.

Why? How much of this is actually necessary? If the students are taking the exams that is the grade that will count, not a ‘best guess’ from a teacher, why ask for estimated grade for coursework when I have already given you the actual mark I have given it? Surely my time as a teacher is best spent in the class or preparing excellent lessons?

The Press

However, the group I feel is most distructive at this time are the press; each year as the exam season looms, we see multiple stories about how easy the exams are, how they are dumbed down, how it is all teaching to the test (occasionally spiced up with an ‘aren’t teachers awful’ piece).

Now, I am not going to focus on the bracketed point – there are enough blog posts that have dealt with that issue, and I am sure there will be many more – my real concern here is the message we are presenting to those taking the exams. Those who rarely have a voice in the face of all of this criticism.

For the brighter, keen students, there is the pre-exam slap in the face: all your work is pointless, anyone can pass these exams as they are so easy, talk bandied about of ‘easy’ or ‘soft’ subjects…it is pretty demoralising to hear. Every year we loose one or two to ‘why bother then if they are so undervalued’, or those who fall into the trap of believing the hype and doing little work.

Yet the most destructive impact is on those at the other end of the scale; the students who don’t find school easy – whether it is because of home or social issues, low literacy levels, SEN. How much more distructive is it if you have worked your way to an E or a D grade, if you have tried your hardest, revised and then hear sneering news reports that say anyone can get a C grade or above? Or that vocational subjects are pointless? How hard is it to get those students motivated in the first place? To get them into school on a regular basis (any trawl through school data will show that lower ability groups have worse attendance, on average than those above)? To build their confidence that taking the exam is worth while, that there is a chance that they will achieve that magical C grade? How much more damaging are these stories and comments  to our most vulnerable students?

A Plea

So my message to the press, and politicians looking for a quick story or a memorable sound bite – please think of the impact your words have, exaggerating the negative and twisting the positive does not help the students you claim to be most concerned about. When we look at how other successful countries (and we are a successful country) organise their schools  and exam systems, we should also look at the press and Government messages in those countries, do they run down their own exam system, fill their papers with stories of how bad the teachers are and how easy the exams have become?

Teacher bashing has always been a popular media topic, and I am sure it will continue to be so, however, we chose this career, many of us choose to stay despite working in challenging schools and coming across soul destroying situations and choices – but ultimately we chose this career because we want to make a difference.

However, the students you denigrate with these stories have no choice. They have only one chance at being a Y11, they can’t control whether they attend a privileged private school, an outstanding school, an inner city school. This is their opportunity to do well, and having large parts of the population criticise and downplay the massive effort that most of our young people put in does not help. Unfortunately, many of our most vulnerable listen to that message and think what is the point.