This way for rigour…

It’s one of those words we didn’t use very much ’til four years ago but the Education Secretary is all for it. Whether you agree with his methods or not, you can’t fault him for his aim: more rigour. So why, I have to ask, is there less rigour in one fairly obscure but important corner?

The ‘rigorous’ judgement of secondary schools is now based largely on the extent to which they manage to move their children on ‘three levels of progress’. For the uninitiated, this means from the end of Key Stage 2 (that is, at the end of the primary phase) to the end of Key Stage 4 (that is, 16+, end of Year 11 and what used to be the end of compulsory schooling), schools are expected so to teach, motivate and encourage (or, if you’re Gove and Wilshaw, bully and threaten) students that they add three National Curriculum ‘levels’ in that time.

A few moments’ thought will reveal several problems with this. Forget for a moment that the end of KS 2 is measured as a ‘level’ but the end of KS 4 is measured largely in GCSE Grades (so we need some equivalence and conversion) and that a ‘level’ is quite a broad band so that there is a significant difference between a ‘top’ Level 4 (i.e.  nearly Level 5) and a bottom Level 4 (i.e. only just better than Level 3), so much so, in fact, that after the inception of the National Curriculum back in the eighties,  ‘sub-levels’ were devised so that children and teachers could see some indication of progress during a school year, although the reporting of gradings at the end of KS 2 is in whole levels. Forget all that. Clearly, it is absolutely vital that we can have confidence in the reliability of the Key Stage 2 result. I have talked about this before and discussed the pressures on Junior schools to do whatever they can (sometimes ‘gaming’, as Mr Gove might say) to maximise the KS 2 result because, after all, they are judged on how far they have moved children on from Key Stage 1, at the Infant school. I have to remind you that KS 1 levels are based solely on teacher assessments with a very light touch moderation regime and that the pressure on Infant schools and KS 1 teachers is also great.

Given all that, can we rely on the KS 2 results? After all, they are based on externally marked SAT examinations, aren’t they?. Again, I’ve suggested previously that a looser examination regime will have allowed some ‘manipulation’ but at least they are externally marked papers, right? Well, no, actually. The KS 2 Writing Task is, since 2013, internally marked. I have it on good authority (i.e. a current serving primary head teacher, who also reported what fellow heads admit to doing) that schools are now quite deliberately and consciously pushing through some students at a higher level than they know the child should receive, in order to achieve an overall ‘pass percentage’ that will keep them out of ‘Special Measures’. Teachers in the secondary school will look at the reported level, look at the first few bits of work from that child and be horrified, recognising that their task is now much greater.

It is, of course, unprofessional and I cannot condone it, but I can understand. If you set up a system that threatens livelihoods, reputations and communities unless certain benchmarks are reached; if the school would be ‘academised’ and given to a chain owned by a Tory-supporting carpet magnate (Lord Harris, do you recognise yourself?) and the head sacked if a second poor OFSTED grading is given,  and if you leave open a ‘loophole’,  then it is human nature for people to, well, frankly, cheat. Yet no one seems to have noticed. Secondary heads are castigated for legitimately giving students a second chance at achieving a decent grade: this is called ‘gaming’,  but primary heads can get away with it because of a loosening-up of the system.

But, maybe, just maybe, there’s something more sinister going on here. Gove is keen to have as many schools as possible in his little (well, not so little) band of state funded independent schools (academies or ‘free’ schools) for ideological reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. Most of the good or outstanding schools will, for their own reasons (either connected to money, ego-mania or a combination of both), have voluntarily converted, leaving a few ‘community’ or ‘LA schools’. Some of those are struggling around the ‘Requires improvement’ mark. They need a good set of results next time round to avoid the ‘drop’. Why not make it just that little bit harder for them? True, the over-graded Year 7s currently in secondary will take a few years to feed through, but it’s all making the job just a bit harder and a trifle more demoralising.

So, Mr Gove, where’s your rigour at Key Stage 2? If we have to have this farce, at least make the playing field, if not exactly even, at least not riddled with potholes.

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Pisa : leaning to the right?

When the OECD/PISA tables and results were revealed in October, I felt uncomfortable. They appeared to show that the education system I had been working in for so many years wasn’t doing very well at all. In fact a former student  contacted me on Facebook and asked me for a comment: I had nothing. Somehow, the story is in the news again and this time Gove and Hunt are arguing with each other over whose fault it all is, whilst Michael Wilshaw is using it to promote his latest call, for testing to be reinstated at 7 and 13 (indeed, every year, as far as I can make out).

Originally, I felt uneasy about the validity of it all and now, it seems, I was right to be. Whilst the right-wing commentators are having a field day, lots of others have just swallowed it all and are spouting grotesque caricatures (“none of our children can read or add up,” was one insulting snippet I came across in a so-called ‘quality’ paper the other day), but, if you look, there is a body of thoughtful criticism building up.

Please take a look at Peter Wilby’s piece from the Guardian. He firstly critiques the methodology and even the integrity of the tests and how they were administered. He then goes on to question the conclusions being drawn, even if the results are an accurate reflection of which education regimes are better than others. Do we really want our children to effectively lose their childhood and be as miserable as those in South Korea? And how good is the narrow focus of such education?

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/01/dont-let-pisa-league-tables-dictate-schooling

The ‘failure’ of our system, as ‘evidenced’ by the PISA outcomes appears now to have become accepted ‘fact’ so it is important for us all to continue to make these points. Our system isn’t perfect, but by using this so-called independent evidence, those in the current government, and their  supporters, will try to justify all their crazy ideas for ‘fixing it’.

Fighting back

In a recent post I suggested that headteachers might be so incensed by Gove’s decree on so-called ‘early entry’ that they might decide, in the interests of their pupils, to ignore him, enter pupils as many times as they saw fit and, crucially, publish their own exam stats based on children’s best results rather than, as Gove has decided, the DfE ‘Raise-Online’ stats based only on the ‘first attempt’. Evidence is now emerging that not only will many heads do this, but that, most importantly, they will have at least the tacit support of OFSTED in doing so.

I’ve been privileged, through my contacts in education, to have seen a confidential document from an OFSTED inspector on this matter. As I am sworn not to quote, I must paraphrase as follows:

OFSTED inspectors, it appears, are unhappy with Gove and what he has done. He didn’t consult them and, if he really is concerned about schools suppressing student achievement through ‘early entry’, OFSTED inspectors are sufficiently on the ball to pick this up and to use the 3 and 4 levels of progress measure to bear down on schools who have misused early entry in this way. The inspector recognises that pulling the November entry at the last minute, as heads were being urged to do, would undermine the confidence of students – as a former head, this inspector recognises also that heads have a moral duty to do the best for their students: it isn’t just about maximising exam results for the school. The inspector goes on to say that inspectors s/he works with will be interested to look at the real results the schools will have as well as the bogus ones which will appear on the government’s Raise-Online.

This is really dynamite and, although I understand the reluctance of this particular inspector to ‘go public’, it’s a great pity they did not. Gove is beginning to be under pressure from powerful and influential people in education for his constant and inconsistent meddling in the examination system and, it has to be remembered, he cannot bring about any reforms unless those ‘on the ground’ acquiesce. The only threat Gove can use is that, if a school’s results fall below a certain level (the so-called ‘floor’), OFSTED can judge the school inadequate. However, it is clear from the above that inspectors will be very reluctant to do this if the unofficial (ie real) results are ok and it’s the official results only that fall below floor.

By the way, I appear to have reached a milestone 100th post to this blog in less than 11 months. Coincidentally, I happened yesterday to run into Alan from the WEA who taught me all my blogging skills so, many thanks to him and to you out there for sticking with me. I’m sure I will have plenty more to say in the coming months!

Heads to fight back?

Has Gove finally over-reached himself? Things worthy of comment have been coming thick and fast: the teachers’ strike on Tuesday and the Govester’s comment  beseeching teacher unions not to visit their ideology on pupils (excuse me?); but out of the glare of national publicity was the announcement that in future, only a student’s first attempt at an examination would count in the league tables.

Hard to know where to start on this one. As has been seen in the past with ‘back-of-the-fag-packet’ ministerial announcements, the details were unclear but it turns out that if a student in Year 10 took an exam in, say, English last year, a retake this year would count, but if a student in the same year group took the exam in November, with a view to retaking in June, only that November result would be registered on the league tables. Not very fair, is it? Not that Gove cares. He has decreed that heads and schools need to be free to do all sorts of things: decide on term dates, employ unqualified teachers, decide which bits of the National Curriculum to apply but HE is the only person qualified to decide that it is not in ANY child’s interests to sit an exam early and resit that exam if they don’t do as well as they’d hoped. Why? There are clearly debates to be had and it is not in the interests of all students to repeat exams but heads should be able to leave it to the professional judgement of English and maths colleagues as to whether this works for an individual.

But here’s the thing: nothing has really changed. Students CAN be entered a second time and, if  that earns the best result, they get a genuine certificate saying so and can use it on their CV which will be recognised by employers and FE/HE colleges. The only change is that the school that worked with them for five or more years and who helped them ‘over the line’ cannot claim any credit.

Here’s what heads should do. Use professional judgement to re-enter students as they think fit and, in the summer, publish their own figures using each student’s best results, whichever ‘sitting’ these were achieved at. Parents will probably only see those figures and local papers will be confused, perhaps even publishing alternative tables. I know heads in at least one Local Authority are seriously considering this. It’s a simple way of calling Gove’s bluff which is legal and cost free. Come on headteachers, do what you know to be right in the interests of your children.

Stand back, goalposts moving again…

My English teacher colleagues return to the fray next week with the GCSE rules changed without consultation or forewarning. OFQUAL has decided that Speaking and Listening should now play no part in the final GCSE English grade. The excuse once again hints that this is because teachers have been cheating (though they can never quite bring themselves to use that word). Teachers are used to a having to implement new schemes with insufficient warning,  that have not been properly trialled and for which scant resources are available, but changing the scheme partway through is a new one on me. It shows contempt for the teachers (nothing new there, then) and for students moving through from Year 10 to 11 and who are, therefore, halfway through the course.

Speaking and Listening are vital skills for anyone, in work and in everyday life. In the day to day life of many, I suspect, it is the prime means of communication. But apparently, it’s too difficult to assure consistency of assessment.  In reality, it comes down to money. Years back, the exam boards sent a moderator to schools to assure that the marking of Speaking and Listening conformed to agreed standards across schools. In Languages and in some other subject modules, such as Music Performance, recordings are made and sent off for external moderation or marking. That’s obviously too expensive or too much trouble for a core subject with a mass entry. Much easier to say, “We can’t be bothered!”

Now they’ll reportthe Speaking and Listening grade separately, which I’m sure will be of little interest to employers and will not, of course, register on those blasted ‘accountability tables’ for schools. In the end, it’s just another subtle (or not so subtle) way of further depressing the exam outcomes and, by the way, of saying, “We don’t give a fig for the teachers and pupils.”

This time it’s personal!

The publication of the A Level results a week ago, was something in which I had a deeply personal interest: two young people under my roof anxiously awaited the outcome. Nobody got much sleep but by 7.30 it was all over bar the shouting. One got their ‘first choice’ university place, the other the ‘back up choice’, the only outcome that really matters for those who are planning a Uni career.

Anxiety turned to elation in a moment but it’s a strange little moment, different from my own experience in that, now, the key information is there, on line, from about 6.30 am. However, the actual results are not. One exam board offers on line access with the appropriate PIN number, assuming you have had the foresight to put it somewhere handy,  but not many youngsters will have taken all their subjects with the same board. A trip into school or college is therefore required, academic (so to speak) in our case but supposing the UCAS message had been negative? Another anxious wait to find out how close the results had been to the ‘offers’ and whether it was worth ringing one of the two ‘offer’ unis or instead to jump into the scramble that is ‘clearing’. Fortunately, we were spared that and it does sound like it was extra chaotic this year with a ‘bidding war’ for some of the better candidates to persuade them to ‘trade up’.

Standing back now I do wonder if this is the best system. It leaves all perilously short of time to organise finance, accommodation and so on and, generally, to get your head round one of the most significant  turning points of your life.

Best wishes to all who are off to uni this time round!

If only it wasn’t for those flipping teachers…

Like you, I’ve been following the many comments on the GCSE results with interest over the last few days. Let me see if I’ve got this right: the problem with the system, the one which needs most urgent attention, is the way those teachers and those schools have tried to get the best results for their students and their schools. Apparently, they’ve been following the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again” when in fact, if children fail an examination once they should be told to give up. Taking an exam several times with the aim of getting a better grade, including the illusive grade C,  is now called ‘gaming the system’, which sounds very much like ‘cheating’ to me.

The same goes for all those children who schools have made sit the same subject lots of times with different exam boards. Of course, all the exam boards are exactly the same, OFQUAL having ‘maintained standards’, so what are you whinging about, Mrs Stacey? Stories of young people taking eight different exams in the same subject sound a bit dodgy anyway, since there are only four exam boards in total. They also all agree to have their exams for the same subject at the same time so quite how you manage to sit, say, GCSE Maths with AQA and OCR I don’t know. I agree, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me but if schools, who, after all, are now trusted to know best what best suits their pupils and parents (well, as far as deciding term dates is concerned) think it’s a good idea, then why not? It’s not in the best interests of children, eh? Well, let the schools decide that, thanks Mrs Stacey. The same ‘caring’ argument is suddenly being used for children taking subjects EARLY. Coincidentally, I was today reading the OFSTED report for a school which was PRAISED for doing this. It clearly can be in the interests of certain children, in the right circumstances – as before, it’s up to the schools to decide.

‘Freedom for schools’ is a ‘good thing’, until the ‘powers that be’ don’t like the outcome. What I don’t like is the clear implication that schools, trying, as I say, to do the best for the kids and, yes, trying to get the best results for themselves so they avoid falling into Mr Gove’s trap door and re-emerging as an academy, are cheating. Let’s get back to discussing the very real problems with the accountability regime that have grown up under successive governments and which are not being addressed. After all, I think we all know who has been ‘gaming the system’.

Those pesky exam results!

Glenys Stacey

Glenys Stacey, Head of OFQUAL

Just a day before the A level results are due out and not much more than a week before the GCSEs and we’re bracing ourselves for the inevitable war of words: are they better or worse, demonstrating dumbing down or improvement, vindication for the Coalition’s policies? Whatever, you can be sure they will justify Michael Gove’s plans for reforms!

I see my old chum Glenys Stacey (Mrs OFQUAL, to you) has waded in, criticising schools for entering students for more than one exam board for the same subject. She may have a point. It can’t be sensible to confuse children in this way but it’s the inevitable consequence of an accountability regime that relies heavily on one set of results. The impression has been – and is being — created, that schools are somehow scamming the system whereas what they are desperately doing is looking for some legitimate way of improving their exam performance. Who can blame schools for ‘early entry’, another strategy being used to maximise potential, or multiple entry? Why is entering something again somehow wrong? Should we deny a second bite of the ‘driving test’ cherry? Of course, the guiding principle should be what’s in the best interest of the child but schools will have been convincing themselves that their strategies are designed to do both. In my experience, entering ‘borderline candidates’ early so they can have a second chance if they miss out, is a sound strategy but it isn’t good for the candidates with higher potential as there’s a danger they might ‘settle for’ the Grade C when, with a bit more time and tuition, they might get a top grade.

We have been hearing much confusing nonsense about exams in the last few months and we’ll have to endure a lot more in the months to come. I’m intending a more in-depth exploration of examinations in the near future.

How they do it in the independent sector

As a teacher, ever felt envious at the outstanding results achieved in private schools? As a parent, ever longed for your child to go to such a high-achieving school, if only you could afford it?

A friend of a friend who works in just such an institution tells how they do it. Apparently, if a child looks unlikely to achieve the highest grades, the parent is made to pay for the examination entry. That way, the child can be written off as an external candidate and therefore won’t ‘count’ in the school’s examination statistics.

Neat, eh?

Beats getting the parents to write the coursework essays (something else they do) or get the parents to pay for private tutoring (ditto).

Have teachers REALLY been failing their brightest students?

When the chief inspector of schools says this, as he did a couple of weeks ago (you may have forgotten, so quickly do things move on), most people will not have the time to explore what he has said in order to contradict him. It’s a serious charge and — if true — one we should take seriously. He claims that secondary schools have consistently been letting down the brightest students and he quotes some compelling evidence to back up what he is saying. However, he is more than wrong – he is also deliberately contributing to the ongoing narrative about teachers with low expectations and an examination system that is not rigorous enough.

It’s difficult to know where to begin. Wilshaw has taken the Key Stage 2 test data and compared what the highest performing pupils in those tests (at the end of their primary school education) went on to achieve at Key Stage 4 (GCSE). The ‘fact’ that so many failed to achieve their ‘potential’ seems to be compelling evidence that something has gone wrong in the intervening five years. But there are other ways of interpreting this ‘evidence’ and, of course, arguments that undermine the ‘evidence’ itself.

  1. Adolescence : the bright, enthusiastic 11-year-old may lose that enthusiasm as the hormones kick in although, of course, it is part of the teacher’s job to work with that and use teaching techniques that encourage and motivate. Not sure how easy that’s going to be with Gove’s new curriculum and exams!
  2. Expectations : Wilshaw’s argument is based on what pupils are expected to achieve. Quite recently, schools learned that students were ‘expected’ to achieve ‘three levels of progress’ which means that a pupil gaining Level 5s at Key Stage 2 (the highest possible at that age) ought to achieve at least Grade Bs at GCSE and, for the very  brightest, a grade A or A* is expected. Quite what these ‘expectations’ are based on I’m not sure. Not evidence, certainly. And which of these grades should it be? Again, not clear unless you are privy to the data indicating which pupils gained ‘5a’ (towards the top of the mark range) or ‘5c’ (at the lower end, nearly Level 4) which, as far as I can see, is not easy to obtain on a national scale. If a child does not fulfil this ‘expectation’, the secondary school is deemed to have failed. It is actually becoming clearer that A grades are now firmly expected of Level 5 pupils. [I’m told that there is a world of difference between a 5c and a 5a and the suspicion is, that primary schools are nudging the results so that pupils who should get a 4a are ‘tipped’ into the 5c category – see next paragraph].
  3. Reliability : but, let’s for the sake of argument accept that a child gaining Level 5 at KS2 ought to go on and achieve Grade A at GCSE: how reliable is that Level 5? The answer is, not very. The Key Stage 2 tests are different from GCSE in that they are sat on one day as opposed to consisting of coursework tasks and tests set on an examination day. We also know that Year 6 teachers report starting the preparation for the tests, to be taken in May, as early as the previous September, with students ‘hot-housed’ for months in how to get the highest possible marks. The other thing I have, sadly, to report, is the many anecdotes I have heard over the years of practices that amount to cheating. Not only are primary schools unused to setting up examinations but teachers and headteachers are so desperate for their school to do well that they go way beyond what would be possible in a secondary school where invigilation is done by paid outsiders and teachers are not even allowed in the examination hall. One Year 11 student was told a few months back what grades she was expected to get. Somewhat aghast (she’s a bright student) she asked how these ‘targets’ had been arrived at. A senior member of staff patiently explained to her about KS 2 SATs, three levels of progress and so forth, whereupon she just laughed and described how, back in Year 6, the headteacher had gone round the exam hall where SATs were in progress, looked down at the pupils’ answers and, where he didn’t agree, grunted, took the pen from the pupil and amended the scripts. It’s hard to believe Wilshaw, Gove and their acolytes are unaware of these stories but what have they done to investigate and tighten up? The same is true further back down the line. Why are Year 6 teachers and heads so desperate to do well? The answer is that THEIR results too will be judged against how far pupils have progressed since the Key Stage 1 SATs at the end of infant school. There the reliability is even more suspect, since the work is not externally marked nor even externally moderated. Teachers attend moderation training and, providing they ‘pass’ (ie ‘moderate’ examples in accordance with the guidelines) the marks they award their pupils will be accepted. The whole edifice is constructed on unreliable premises, but Wilshaw wants secondary schools to stream their pupils on the evidence of highly suspect KS2 data. Most secondary schools DO stream from very early on in Maths and English but gave up using the KS2 results a long time ago. Instead, if they can afford it, they’ll use the NFER Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) which are thought to give an indication of ability and attainment that is untainted by context or background. These USED to be used as the measure by which GCSE targets were set and judged but, guess what, they weren’t ‘rigorous’ enough so we had to start using the far less reliable SATs.
  4. Catch 22 : having said all of that, does the evidence indicate that in secondary schools, students at the highest level fail to make those three levels of progress? Well, if it genuinely is three levels, no. The evidence I found on line was for the years 2007 – 2011. At Key Stage 2, the percentage of children gaining a Level 5 in Maths and English was fairly level at around 21%. The percentage gaining a GCSE Grade B or higher in Maths over the same period was a little lower, averaging around 16% and for English it was almost the same, at just over 20%. Although results are ‘steady’ there has been a general agreement amongst experts that GCSE English and Maths have got harder over time so that ‘stagnation’ of results is actually improvement, Of course, these were not the same cohorts of children (eg the 2007 KS2 SAT group would have taken their GCSEs in 2012) but does suggest that vast numbers were not being ‘failed’ as Wilshaw has suggested unless, that is, all those Level 5s were ‘expected’ to achieve an A ort A* at GCSE. In that case, he may have a point: in English, over that 2007-2011 timescale, students achieving A or A* were around 11.5 %, in Maths a little lower again at around 10.8% average. However, if Wilshaw is saying the 21% of pupils who got a Level 5 should have gone on to get As or A*s, can we imagine the commentary about ‘dumbing down’, ‘race to the bottom’ and so on if they had actually managed it? This really is a ‘Catch 22’. Teachers are accused of failing their students by not getting them the highest grades in the sorts of numbers that would have had them accused of having dumbed down and ‘failed’ their students!

If you have managed to follow my arguments thus far, well done! No doubt someone much cleverer than me can delve deeper into the statistics and use them to prove me wrong and Wilshaw right – I fear that is the nature of statistics. In summary, however, what I have tried to show is that

  • the system is set up to be so competitive between key stages and their teachers that we cannot, in all conscience, claim the KS1 or KS2 results are reliable;
  • even if we could, and the expectation that children will make ‘three levels of progress’ is reasonable, the evidence suggests that, looked at one way, they may not be far off doing that;
  • looked at another way, if schools HAD managed to get all their ‘Level 5s’ A or A* grades at GCSE, the government and its ‘fellow travellers’ like Wilshaw, would be crying ‘foul’ and claiming the system was letting down our ‘brightest’ in a different way.

So, by all means, let us use the data generated by what is by now decades of tests and results but let the teachers and schools use that data to guide them as to a child’s potential and, by all means, let us have high — but not unrealistic — expectations of all our children. But let’s NOT have politicians or chief inspectors using the data to make inflammatory and inaccurate remarks about teachers.