Archive for February, 2011

Friday, February 25th

Just a quick blog now on two interesting stories in this morning’s TES.

First, Helen Ward wrote a piece about the Government abandoning plans billed as “league tables for five-year-olds”. This proposal, spotted by Helen in the small print of the Department for Education’s draft Business Plan last autumn, said data would have been published on the “achievements of children at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, by school”.

Today’s story reveals that the move is being abandoned, following serious opposition including a petition which garnered nearly 1,000 signatures. Those quoted in the piece were all opposed to the Government’s move, with objections including that it would load too much pressure on to young children.

This is very welcome news, of course. Government ideology would say that requiring institutions to publish results, and then encouraging them to compete to raise those scores, inevitability pushes up standards.

However, the widespread concern that, perhaps, the consequence of this would be to push early years providers to over-concentrate on early years foundation profile data, thus ratcheting up pressure on children with the government using the profiles for a purpose for which they were not designed, seems to have won the day.

Many will also have observed that other countries – including the oft-quoted success story that is Finland – don’t try to race ahead with pushing children towards formal goals at an early age at all.

A generalised sense – at least in most of the Government’s rhetoric – that transparency and data production is always a good thing seems to have been trumped, then, by concerns about the implications of this in the early years.

The petition organiser also fears, however, that change along the original Government lines might come back at some stage, so I will be watching for developments.

One thing I wonder, actually, looking back at the business plan, is a section earlier on in the document where the DfE pledges to : “Work with local authorities to develop a plan to increase voluntary and community sector involvement within Sure Start Children’s Centres, improve accountability arrangements, increase the use of evidence-based interventions, and introduce greater payment by results.”

Does “payment by results” mean payment by assessment results, I wonder? I will try to get some more information on this. For a longer blog I wrote on payment-by-result thinking at the top level of the coalition, see this piece.

The second story , by William Stewart, related to a suggestion by Isabel Nisbet, the outgoing chief executive of Ofqual, that computers should replace pen and paper in all exams, with GCSEs and A-levels taken in the traditional manner running the risk of becoming “invalid” for today’s pupils.

These were very interesting comments, and were seized upon enthusiastically by two of England’s three main exam boards. (The other, OCR, sounded more cautious),as well as being followed up elsewhere in the media.

Many would agree with the sentiments behind these comments– it will strike many as anachronous that teenagers still spend up to three hours hunched over a desk scribbling away, when longhand writing has next to no place in today’s workplace.

But the aspirations voiced by Ms Nisbet, whom I respect, by the way, have been around for years now. The question is not whether computerisation in this way would be a good thing in an ideal world, but how detailed practical problems facing anyone who wants to move the system in this way can be overcome.

As the article mentions, back in 2004 Ken Boston as head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority set out a series of detailed milestones which would have seen the system largely computerised by 2009. But none of these were achieved. (See an article I wrote on this here).

I can’t help wondering how much has changed in the intervening two years since I wrote that last piece. I asked the Ofqual press office if Ms Nisbet, or anyone at Ofqual, had any detailed plan as to how her objectives could be achieved, wondering also how exam boards might be helped with computerisation. I was told: “There is not [a plan] as such. It was just Isabel setting out what she thinks should happen in the future.”

I wonder how long we will be waiting.

- Warwick Mansell

1 Comment
posted on February 25th, 2011

Friday, February 16th

I found last Wednesday’s Second Reading debate on the new  Education Bill so hard to watch, I had to switch off in the end. The politicised, partial and sometimes dismissive nature of leadership being given to our education system, by the individual who now seems to be accruing huge powers to shape its future, really struck me as astonishing.

This is especially the case when one is aware of a fuller picture with regard to evidence than was presented at the dispatch box.

I just about got to the end of Michael Gove’s speech, but not beyond, having grown increasingly annoyed about a number of statements he made about various aspects of evidence behind the claimed need for education reform, on which much of the change which is set out in the bill seems to be being based.

Having caught up with the written record of the debate now on Hansard, I wanted to examine a few highly contestable aspects of Mr Gove’s speech quite closely. This is going to involve a fair bit of detail.

- First, there was the suggestion, which Mr Gove and other members of government have made frequently in recent weeks, that change is essential because this country is slipping down the international league tables of education performance.

Mr Gove began by saying that one of the three challenges facing “our country” (it was never specified if this meant England, which is Mr Gove’s responsibility as Education Secretary, or the UK), was “educational decline, relative to competitor nations”.

He then quoted a set of statistics which showed, he said, that “all our children were failed by Labour”. (What: every single one of them? I wondered. That’s quite a remarkable reach, for any political party). Quoting from the well-known OECD Programme for International Student  Assessment (PISA) tests, the latest results of which came out in December, he said “we moved from fourth to 14th in the world rankings for science, seventh to 17th in literacy and eighth to 24th in mathematics by 2007”.

He added: “By 2010, we had moved from fourth to 16th, from seventh to 25th and from eighth to 28th in those subjects.”

These rankings are all correct, the first set relating to tests taken in 2000 and reported in 2001, Mr Gove’s 2007 figures relating to tests taken in 2006 and his 2010 stats based on assessments taken in 2009.

He added: “The only way that we will generate sustainable economic growth is by reforming our education system so that we can keep pace with our economic competitors.”

Ok, well leaving aside the fact that the notion of a direct link between performance in international education tests and a country’s economic output is highly contested  – Mr Gove’s adviser on vocational qualifications reform, Alison Wolf, devoted an entire book to criticising the link between investment in education performance and economic output – the Education Secretary left out a large chunk of the evidence on how England actually fares in international comparisons.

I will return to PISA shortly. But first we have to consider that there is another major international testing study, the results from which Mr Gove did not mention and which presents an entirely different picture, for England, than PISA currently does.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (better known as TIMSS) is based at Boston College in the US, has been going longer than PISA and while not quite as large in terms of the number of countries taking part, is still very substantial: the last round of TIMSS, in 2007, was taken by the largest number of pupils of any international test (these have been taking place since the 1960s) until it itself was surpassed by the PISA tests of 2009.

The last TIMSS study produced what looked like unalloyed good news for England. TIMSS tests are given in maths and science, to 10- and 14-year-olds. Between 1995 and the last tests in 2007, England’s primary maths performance improved by a greater margin than that of any of the other 15 nations which had pupils taking tests in the two years, including Singapore, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

 Its score went from below the international average to comfortably above it in that time, while its ranking improved from 12th out of 16 countries in 1995 to 7th out of 36 in 2007.

The other tests in the last round of TIMSS also brought good news. In secondary maths, England was the joint third most improved of 20 countries over the 1995-2007 period, rising from 11th out of 20 to 7th out of 49 in the rankings.

In science – which is traditionally England’s strongest subject in international tests – the country was seventh most improved out of 16 in primary (its ranking moving from 6th out of 20 countries in 1995 to 7th out of 36 in 2007) and fifth most improved out of 19 in secondary (its ranking improving from seventh to fifth between these two years, even though the number of countries taking part increased from 19 to 49). In these science tests in 2007, English pupils finished ahead of, in primary, countries including the United States, Germany, Australia and Sweden; and in secondary, ahead of these countries plus Russia, Hong Kong and Norway.

It was therefore surprising to hear Mr Gove telling Parliament that “the statistics produced by the OECD [ie PISA] are ungainsayable. I would love to be able to celebrate a greater level of achievement, but I am afraid that this is the dreadful inheritance that our children face”.

Well, if he was looking for some figures to celebrate, he really did not look very hard.

Remarkably, Mr Gove actually mentioned the existence of TIMSS, though not any of the results it has recently generated, towards the end of his speech, in highlighting plans to force schools which are selected to do so by the tests’ sampling systems to take part in future rounds. So omitting to mention England’s results looks doubly serious.

Some may want to dismiss this omission as to expected in a political debate. But it goes further than a non-mention in one debate.  Actually, international evidence is being used as the justification for the government’s entire reform programme. And, again ministers and civil servants are simply ignoring the findings of TIMSS.

Last November’s white paper, setting out the Government’s plans for the education system, began with the following statement, in a forward written jointly by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. It said: “So much of the education debate in this country is backward looking: have standards fallen? Have exams got easier? These debates will continue, but what really matters is how we’re doing compared with our international competitors.”

It is clear that the coalition has not been looking very hard, or very thoroughly, at what it says is a vital question, as it goes on to say: “The truth is, at the moment we are standing still while others race past.”

This selective reading of the international evidence also formed the basis for the Government’s “Impact Assessment” of the education bill, published earlier this month, which sets out the rationale for ministers intervening in the schools system in this way.

It said, on page one: “The Schools White Paper set out how we are falling behind in the international league table of educational performance compared to competitor countries. The most recent PISA survey – the international league tables of school performance – reported that since 2000 we have fallen from fourth to sixteenth in science, seventh from twenty-fifth in literacy, eighth to 28th in maths.”

Again, there was no mention of the alternative picture reflected by TIMSS. This is also ironic given that TIMSS is a closer test of pure curricular knowledge of the sort about which Mr Gove often enthuses – ie the problems could be seen as more “traditional” – than is PISA, which tests application of reading, maths and science understanding in “real world” scenarios.

To seek to base your reform strategy on international testing evidence, and yet ignore the conclusions of the world’s second largest testing study because they don’t fit the political picture you want to paint is, to sum up, ludicrous.

Returning to the PISA figures themselves, they certainly are not good news for the last Labour government. However, David Blunkett, the former education secretary, rightly pointed out in the bill debate that it was, obviously, misleading for Mr Gove to quote out of context the UK’s sliding raw rankings figures between 2000 and 2009 when the number of countries taking the PISA tests expanded dramatically over that time.

Indeed, the OECD itself has said that comparing the UK’s results directly between 2000 and 2009 is not statistically valid, because of problems with the sampling in 2000, as this blog by “Fullfact” points out, although some general, unofficial comparisons can still be made, I think, by looking at the underlying data for the UK from the two years. There is also a strong case to be made that the differences in average test scores between western countries around which nations obsess, in both PISA and TIMSS, are relatively small, and therefore using such comparisons as your main basis for reform is unwise. If you are going to use them, though, it would be wise to use all the evidence, rather than just some of it.

Finally, Mr Gove said: “How can a country that is now 28th in the world for mathematics [in PISA] expect to be the home of the Microsofts, Googles and the Facebooks of the future?”

As my former TES colleague Helen Ward has pointed out, this might not have been the best example to choose. For the United States, the home of the Microsofts, Googles and Facebooks of the present, actually finished just below the UK in the latest PISA maths tests. (And has a fairly mediocre record in previous PISA rounds, as measured by average test scores).

- Second, Mr Gove told the House of Commons that “Inequality worsened under Labour and the education system exacerbated it”.

I think I have heard the second part of this claim from the Education Secretary before, and it is very fishy.

He went on: “If we look at the gap between children eligible for free school meals and their more fortunate and privileged counterparts, we can see that as those children moved through the eduction system and progressed under Labour the gap between rich and poor widened.

“At age seven, the gap in reading scores between those children who were eligible for free school meals and those who were not was 16 points. At age 11, the gap was 21 points in English and maths. At age 16, the gap was 28 points at GCSE.”

The argument is pretty clear, then. These statistics show that the achievement gap between those children eligible for free school meals and the rest increases over time, as they get older and move through the school system (or at least it did under Labour). And therefore the schools system “exacerbates” the problem of social inequality in achievement.

Leaving aside the question of whether test scores achieved at different ages are directly comparable in the way suggested here, the assertion that schools are actually making the problem worse is highly questionable, and probably actually very insulting to those working within them.

For these figures offer no conclusive evidence to back Mr Gove’s claim. If pupils’ achievements really are moving apart in this way, schools may be to blame in part. Or they may not. To blame them entirely for that situation – as Mr Gove does here – is simply to write off the huge advantages that some better-off children will have at home over their peers eligible for free school meals. (All other things being equal – and this is, of course, a big assumption – one would expect a child who had more resources at home to pull away, educationally, from one who had fewer.)

To put it another way, it may be that the “schools system” is doing all it can to make up for huge differences in parental or cultural support for education, and not succeeding to the degree of wiping these differences out entirely when they are picked up by testing statistics. (Which it would be doing, by implication, if these test score differences did not widen over the school years). This is very far from showing that schools are “exacerbating” inequalities: making them worse, rather than having some effect in counteracting them.

It may be I am wrong, and it really is as bad as Mr Gove makes out. State schools, even though they largely educate children according to the same curricula and with teachers largely trained and inspected to a common template, may actively be making inequality worse, for all teachers’ best efforts.

But the statistics he presents are unconvincing as evidence one way or another.

- Third, Mr Gove talked about the bill enhancing teachers’ professional freedom. He talked about this in relation to giving them more powers over how to discipline pupils but also, more interestingly, in relation to the curriculum.

He said: “I am happy to reassure my honourable friend [the Conservative MP Edward Leigh, who had asked a question which worried about Labour proposing the introduction of compulsory sex education in primary schools] that I will not accept amendments in Committee [the next stage of the bill] that seek to make the curriculum any more prescriptive or intrusive.

“The Bill will enhance professional freedom and autonomy, because we recognise that it is only by doing that we can ensure that our economy and education system are fit for the 21st century.”

Yet Mr Gove’s curriculum reforms are, rightly or wrongly, certainly not only about enhancing teachers’ freedoms. Indeed, their defining idea is probably that teachers’ latitude over what to teach needs to be reduced, at least in areas deemed by Mr Gove and his advisers to be central. That is, the curriculum under the latter years of Labour gave teachers too much freedom over what to teach, because it was not specific enough in its requirements, is the clear implication of what Mr Gove has said on other occasions and again, here.

This much is clear from another section of Mr Gove’s bill speech. In this, he was attacking staffing arrangements at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which I will go on to talk about. But first, we should just focus on what he said about the curriculum.

He said: “Let us take the QCDA…which has 393 employees. Can any Member of the House tell me how many of those work in the QCDA communications department? ….The answer is 76 out of 393. How can it possibly be an effective use of public money to have 76 people involved in communications at a curriculum quango, when that quango has been responsible for a secondary curriculum that mentions not a single figure in world history apart from William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano? How can it be right that we have spent money – so much money – on that curriculum authority, when its geography curriculum mentions not a single country other than the UK, and not a single river, ocean, mountain or city, but finds time to mention the European Union?  How can it be right that we can find money to employ 76 people in communications – 76 spin doctors – when our music curriculum does not mention  a single composer, a single musician, a single conductor or a single piece of music?”

The contradiction should be obvious. If Mr Gove really believed in enhancing teachers’ professional autonomy in every aspect of their working lives, he would not say this. A geography teacher trusted to exercise professional discretion would not need to be told what countries pupils needed to be taught about. Nor would a history teacher need to be told that coverage of World War 2, for example, which is mentioned in Labour’s current secondary curriculum, is likely to include references to Churchill (alongside Hitler and Stalin, of course).

It would be perfectly coherent, in my view, for the Secretary of State to say he thinks teachers should be given professional freedoms in some areas, such as over discipline, or over specific areas of the curriculum, but that in others – particular areas of the national curriculum – there is a public interest in being more prescriptive. This, after all, was largely the rationale behind the introduction of the national curriculum in the first place: that some structure needed to be in place to ensure that pupils in different schools had a common experience in terms of what they were taught. That view has not been uncontested, but it is not illogical.

It is, I think, the true rationale behind Mr Gove’s current curriculum review, which wants to be more prescriptive about the teaching of what it will define as core knowledge and concepts in selected subjects.

However, the party political suggestion that one party is on the side of “freedom” and the other is not, when a central plank of the coalition’s reforms depends to a large extent on this reduction of freedom, just makes the government’s position look ridiculous.

-  Mr Gove suggested there was no alternative but to side with the government on its reform programme, as the rest of the world was heading down this track and therefore not to follow was to risk being left behind.

He said: “We must all recognise that the reforms we are talking about, including the creation of free schools, are the sorts of reforms that we are seeing across the developed world.

“Ministers such as Arne Duncan [US Education Secretary] and John Key in New Zealand and Julia Gillard in Australia, and countries such as Sweden, Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong, Alberta and South Korea all recognise the need to reform their education systems, and we cannot afford to be left behind.”

Well, it’s probably best to take a few of these countries in turn, beginning with the reform movement being led by Mr Duncan for Barack Obama in the US.

It is true that there are several elements of Mr Gove’s plans that have similarities with those going on over the Atlantic; some of the English reforms are borrowing explicitly from American policies.

Mr Duncan is building on the work of George W Bush’s administration, which launched the controversial test-based No Child Left Behind school accountability programme, and he seems likely to receive support this year from the Republicans in Congress.

But despite this bipartisan support, the reforms being spearheaded by Mr Duncan are actually at the head of a hugely polarised debate in the US.  The reform effort centres largely on viewing value-added test scores as the final word on teacher quality, backs test-based performance pay for teachers and sees changes to school structures – charter schools – as a panacea to America’s education problems, which are not the same as England’s, by the way. Failing teachers and failing schools are the dominant note in criticism of state education by reformers in the US at the moment, and the idea is largely that schools would be run better if they operated according to the model used in corporate America.

For a powerful critique of this position, see the book by the former assistant Education Secretary under George Bush (the elder), Diane Ravitch, which I reviewed here. A recent article by three well-known US educationists who are supportive of the reform agenda also makes the point that its advocates need to show a bit more “humility” in the face of mixed evidence for the success of the changes they back, including the seemingly not-much-liked-by-the-US-public No Child Left Behind act.

 Turning to the other countries, well Sweden’s recent lack of progress in the PISA tests Mr Gove now lauds (as well as in TIMSS), is well-known, despite  the country having allowed the creation of a type of  independent state school on which Mr Gove’s “free schools” policy is based. Hong Kong has reportedly indeed launched reforms, but according to a recent TES report these are in the opposite direction from what is due to happen here.

There are elements of the English model in the Australian and New Zealand reform programmes currently taking place. But politicians in both main Australian parties have said they do not support league tables being used to rank schools, while in New Zealand as I understand it a minister could never simply order exactly how a school’s structure should change, a power Mr Gove is suggesting in the bill should be given to him.

Finally, any attempt to link the English system with what happens in Finland is…well highly disingenuous. Whatever one thinks about the two systems, they are hugely different. Finland has fully “bog standard” comprehensive schools before upper secondary begins, with absolutely no setting and streaming. Formal schooling does not start until the age of seven. There is no English-style accountability system, with no inspection system and no published national test data.

The only area in which Mr Gove might realistically be said to be borrowing from the Finnish experience, from my understanding of it, is in relation to, ironically given his statements about enhancing professional freedoms, the prescription within the Finnish national curriculum about what should be taught.

Different countries, then, take differing approaches to reform and there is no inevitability to any one model. They all need to be debated on their individual merits, rather than trying to close down that debate by suggesting that there is a common reform model and that it is inevitable.

- Finally, I want to turn to Mr Gove’s claim about staffing levels at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

You will remember that he presented figures purportedly showing that the QCDA had 393 employees, out of which 76 worked in the communications department. “How can it possibly be an effective use of public money to have 76 people involved in communications at a curriculum quango…How can it be right that we can find money to employ 76 people in communications- 76 spin doctors – but…” etc.

On hearing this, I immediately smelt a rat. From my dealings with the QCDA and its predecessor the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority over the years, I suspected that it was stretching things, to put it mildly, to suggest that all communications staff working in an agency such as this were “spin doctors”, the implication of which is that they were all concerned mainly with bolstering the organisation’s image with the media and thus, as far as a government keen to safeguard the public interest was concerned, were clearly a waste of money.

In fact, there were only ever a handful of people working in the press office at the QCA/QCDA, I remembered. I thought some others were likely to have worked in internal communications, ie helping the organisation to communicate with its staff. But how did Mr Gove, or whoever gave him the information, arrive at the larger figure?

In fact, the “communications” department at the QCDA embraces a far larger number of jobs than could ever be classed as those for “spin doctors”. On Wednesday, I received a statement to this effect from the organisation’s chief executive, Lin Hinnigan.

According to Ms Hinnigan, the figures for people working in the QCDA’s communications department relate not just to those in the press office, but those who could not be called “spin doctors” at all, including those staffing its helpline services which communicate with schools. They also seem to relate to more than one organisation.

Ms Hinnigan’s statement reads: “The figures [used by Mr Gove] show QCDA’s spend and staffing between 2008 and 2010, during which time the organisation was funding the set-up of Ofqual as well as relocating both organisations from London to Coventry.  So the figures represent the total costs of two organisations running across dual sites, recruiting a new workforce and establishing new systems.”

She added: “This figure (76) [used by Mr Gove under the ‘communications’ heading] covered all staff in the communications and QCDA and Ofqual customer services departments, including switchboard and helpline operators; web and publishing editors; people who support schools and local authorities in delivering national curriculum tests, and those who deliver communications to employees.  In April 2010, prior to the announced closure of QCDA, there were 15 staff at QCDA dealing directly with communications, including three in the press office and one in internal communications.  The remaining 11 were people liaising with schools, college and employers to support them in delivering the Diploma; general qualifications and National Curriculum Tests, as well as the consultation around the primary curriculum.”

In other words, many of these QCDA employees have been exercising a “communications” function, but communicating with schools (and others) directly, helping them, rather than with the media. There were, erm, three people working in the QCDA press office at the time Labour handed responsibility for the organisation to Mr Gove.

I know that people at the QCDA have been dismayed, if not enraged, by his comments. It may seem like an intellectual exercise in culling needless “back office” functions to Mr Gove, or of making party-political points, but these are real people who are losing their jobs. (It has been pointed out to me that Mr Gove was reported to have told head teachers before the general election that he would have a new piece of paper for QCDA staff: a P45, which also went down a treat, I understand). They should have been shown more respect.

By the way, I have searched for a comparison between the QCDA and Mr Gove’s own department in terms of how much they spend on “back office” functions. In a sense these comparisons are slightly moot, as you could term all of the work carried out by both organisations as “back office”: none is frontline in the sense that it involves direct interaction with pupils, and so might be said to be vulnerable to politicians seeking cuts. So trying to label certain functions as “back office” within the Department for Education or the QCDA, and certain others as not, seems slightly perilous. However, the Labour government did do this, just before the election last year, the Cabinet Office producing a document called “Benchmarking the Back Office”. This found that the QCDA actually spent considerably less on the strictly “back office” functions it charted for all organisations of finance, human resources and procurement than did the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It also lost an average of 3.2 days per employee per year to sickness absence, compared to a figure of 7.9 per cent for the DCSF. There was only one area where it was more expensive than the DCSF on the categories listed as non-frontline in this document: the cost per square metre of its office space, which was just over double that of the DCSF. It is unclear from this document whether this related to the QCA/QCDA’s former home in Green Park, west London, or to its current base in Coventry.

That is it, on the specific points. It should also be said that, during the session in the House of Commons, Mr Gove also responded on occasion dismissively to questions about the bill from his political opponents. In some ways this is surprising, as he is known to be courteous in private.

Some might observe all of this and see it as the natural rough-and-tumble of the Parliamentary process. Politicians being not entirely straight with evidence is hardly news, you might say.

But the position the Secretary of State takes to such evidence, and to presiding over this debate with a sense of fairness, does matter, and particularly at this time.

It is true that, in some aspects of education, this government is taking a more hands-off position than was the case in the most controlling of the Labour years. For example, there are now no national teaching strategies, much of the targets regime is being dismantled, and the inspections system is being loosened dramatically for schools said to be doing well.

However, in other areas this is a very centralising bill, vesting yet more powers with the Secretary of State. Examples of powers given to the Secretary of State in this and recent bills include the ability simply to order schools to become academies, and to be the ultimate arbiter as to whether a local community would benefit or not from having a free school or academy set up in its midst, whatever local people think.

Labour has protested that the bill gives Mr Gove 50 more powers, but the reality is that power over what happens in English education has been becoming increasingly centralised over a period dating back 30 years, under both parties. For an example of how it increased under New Labour, see this article I wrote a couple of years ago here. It often seems as though, in the way successive education bills have been written in recent times, that those drafting legislation are of the view that “the Secretary of State” is now synonymous with “the guardian of the public interest”. Because he has some kind of very indirect democratic legitimacy – through being appointed as Secretary of State by the leader of the largest party following a general election – the Education Secretary is seen to be the holder of the public will, nationally and locally, in relation to many aspects of our schools system.

The demise of agencies such as the QCDA – for all its problematic history – will also concentrate power more directly in the hands of the person who is head of the Department for Education, which will take on its work: Mr Gove.

This degree of unfettered power is exceedingly rare, in other countries.

Especially given the huge power he now wields, the Secretary of State needs to act fairly, in the national interest, rather than simply pushing forward a particular party political agenda which often seems to have the prime aim of making the other side look bad.

Schools, parents and pupils deserve much, much better than this.

- Warwick Mansell

posted on February 18th, 2011

Wednesday, 16th February

Two papers published this week by respected science education organisations make radical suggestions for fundamental changes to England’s exams system. Both make comments of relevance to the arguments in Education by Numbers.

First, buried in a letter to Michael Gove by the Campaign for Science and Engineering – which asks some seriously probing questions about the education white paper, suggesting problems with it – is a very interesting recommendation for dealing with a regularly-made criticism of the English education system.

This is the allegation that competition between exam boards can force down standards. The criticism is well-known, and runs as follows:

Awarding bodies have to compete for schools’ and colleges’ business.

Schools and colleges are motivated, especially under the modern system of hyper-accountability, to get the best results for their students.

This can therefore have the effect of lowering standards, because each board cannot be seen to be offering tougher exams than their competitors, for fear of losing business to their competitors.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) letter backs up this criticism, saying: “Examination boards currently compete against each other to offer examinations to schools. They are therefore incentivised to offer schools attractive packages. Schools, via league tables and other mechanisms, are incentivised to achieve the best examination results for their pupils. If one way for schools to achieve this is to choose a more attractive examination package, they may well do so. Over time this may lead to degradation in standards.”

I have written about this a fair bit over the years, including in chapter 13 of my book. For a particularly vivid example, I think, of the possible downsides of the current system, consider a discussion on a history teachers’ website I wrote about in the Guardian a couple of years ago, in which teachers discussed switching boards in a search for more predictable exams.

Although many people would agree that this is a problem, one obvious alternative which is often mooted as a solution – the replacement of the boards with a single “national” body – also has downsides, it seems to me.

While this would get around the problem mentioned above, in that competition between boards would be eliminated, it also would negate some benefits of the current scenario. First, having spoken to teachers aggrieved on occasion by their treatment at the hands of a board after having been left highly dissatisfied with seemingly erratic marking systems, I know that many professionals value the chance to take their custom elsewhere when things go wrong.

Second, and more positively for the boards, there is certainly a case that competition between awarding bodies may have both spurred innovation and given schools a wide range of syllabuses from which to choose.

Third, I think one national awarding body would run the risk of being seen as too close to the government, especially given that the same government still insists on having its education policy judged by results in national exams.

But the CaSE letter was original in making the case not for today’s system of competition between boards for the business of schools and colleges for each subject; nor for a single examination board; but for a kind of “third way”.

The CaSE letter argues that “One suggestion…is for Ofqual to award different exam boards multi-year contracts to set the exams in specific subjects. This would mean that all pupils in a given year group sit the same exam for a certain subject, improving comparability of qualifications, whilst ensuring that exam boards are kept efficient through competing against each other for contracts.”

This is a very interesting idea, in that it would mean that only one board would set exams in any one subject at any time. There would be no incentive for any awarding body to even give a hint that teachers should choose to opt for it for particular subject simply because it is likely to give their students a better chance in exams, because there would be no choice for the teacher at individual subject level.

I can see problems with this suggestion. First, at a more practical level, it would mean markers having to move from one board to the next every time the contract changes. More substantively, though, of course, this would mean a reduction in choice for schools and colleges. While it would remove the chance of teachers opting between boards on the search for better results, it would also cut out the traditional search for better syllabuses for their pupils.

Politically, it would also require a major reduction in market freedoms which many will doubt this government would want to countenance.

Against that, though this would go against the tradition in the English system which has favoured many boards offering many types of qualification, perhaps it makes more sense to the public to have only one version of what a GCSE in each subject is, rather than several.

The idea is also interesting in that it seems to be swimming with a recent tide which says the huge amount of choice over curriculum and exams options in the English system, which may be peculiar to it, is a problem.

Mr Gove’s controversial introduction of the English Baccalaureate GCSE performance measure is an attempt to discourage schools and pupils from taking advantage of that choice by opting away from the traditional academic subjects defined as important in this measure.

But the second paper published this week makes a similar point. The document, the fourth and final “state of the nation” investigation into science education by the Royal Society, calls for radical changes to A-levels predicated on the idea that too few students are opting for science subjects post-16.

Only 17 per cent of UK 16- to 18-year-olds took science A-levels in 2009, the latest figures which it analysed, the investigation found. It was particularly exercised by the fact that 17 per cent of schools and colleges in England had not a single student opting for physics A-level.

The number and complexity of options within the qualifications system might help to explain why students are not choosing science subjects beyond the age of 16, even though such subjects will be demonstrably valuable to pupils in university entry and in the labour market, the report suggests.

In a very powerful section of the report, the society argues that exam data itself is not particularly useful in trying to understand what is going on in the English education system.

It says:  “The methodology we adopted for our investigation has shown that annually published results reporting the number of entries to, and broad attainment in, individual subjects in public examinations are neither a reliable indicator of, nor a sharp enough tool for, understanding the performance of a nation’s education system.”

Data without background qualitative understanding can be misleading, is the implication.  

Although the paper does not, as far as I can see, go into any great detail about how this alternative would work, it suggests that A-levels be changed so that students study a broader range of subjects in the sixth form, including sciences. This A-level system could even be called a baccalaureate.

Pressure seems to be building for a post-16 Bac, as I mentioned in an article for the Guardian before Christmas.

Yet we have, of course, been here before in terms of suggestions that study should be widened post-16. As the Royal Society paper acknowledges, the introduction of AS levels in the Curriculum 2000 reforms was supposed to widen the choice of subjects taken by students, with the half-way house AS exams supposedly giving young people who favoured arts to try a science course, and vice versa.

It did not seem to work out like that, however, as people tended to concentrate on what they were good at.

The Tomlinson diploma plans also started out amidst talk that England could have a baccalaureate system in which students would have to take a broader range of subjects. It did not happen.

 Although the Royal Society would seem to be an influential body, and the investigation was painstaking, this notion of free choice, amid the huge array of options now available for young people from the age of 14, seems very powerful in our system.

Both papers are well worth a read. CaSE’s is here.

The Royal Society paper is here.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on February 16th, 2011

Tuesday, February 8th

Right, I am interested in the impact of the Government’s new “English Baccalaureate” performance measure in schools, which was introduced in last month’s GCSE league tables.

I wrote a piece in the Guardian  on this last month, amid widespread predictions that there would be a big effect on the curriculum offerings of at least some schools.

The TES also covered the story that week, but there was some speculation (see TES analysis here ), that the true impact might be limited, with schools continuing to focus much of their energy on the established (mouthful of an) indicator measuring the proportion of children achieving five or more A*-Cs including English and maths, or vocational equivalent.

However, since then, the TES has carried stories here  and here predicting major changes to school curricula because of the publication of this new indicator. The Guardian  also had a piece this week on this. Disturbingly, I think, the first of those TES stories included claims in relation to an anonymous school which was said to be getting pupils to abandon GCSE courses they had already started, in favour of subjects within the EBacc, simply because of the new measure.

I put a message on twitter describing that as “scandalous”. If schools are taking pupils out of courses mid-way through, it does look as if their own need for good results statistics is being put ahead of doing the right thing for the individual. I had a couple of interesting responses from people responding on twitter. One said: “I know several [schools] talking about changes for 2012 [GCSE] entries.”

Another said: “I’ve been working with some schools this week & they say many are trying to get kids through GCSE in 5 months so they count.” Another said: “School already have. Need more backbone.”

We’ll get a very good picture in the end on the EBacc’s effect, of course, when exams results data start to come through, starting this summer if there is truly to be any impact from schools trying to rush pupils through courses in…five months, but then from 2012 and 13 as the new indicator starts to bed in. In any case, watch this space for more on the EBacc.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on February 8th, 2011