Enemies of Promise

This will be a short post, partly because I’ve got lots of other things on the go and partly because I’m too angry about what appears to have happened. I say appears because I truly hope things aren’t as they seem, for the sake of our students.

In January – and at points since then – Michael Gove has labelled teachers and others who criticise his plans as ‘enemies of promise’. This has been used despite the criticisms often being valid and fair, based on data rather than ideology, and often from those who clearly know far more about educational theory and practice than him.

It appears, from lots of conversation on twitter and in the press, that this year’s GCSE results show some unexpected features. Overall, they seems to be a little lower than in previous years, and one exam in particular seems to have affected English results. Students who completed the foundation controlled assessment papers in January needed a lower score to achieve a C than those who sat the equivalent exam in June. (This issue is one we have seen many times with the AQA Science equivalent, ISAs.) The difference is significant and means that many students nationally have failed to reach a Grade C despite being on track for it up until this point.

There are two issues here, one of which is immediately significant. Students who have failed to achieve a grade C in English will find that their next steps – college or sixth form courses, apprenticeships and so on – are now barred to them. This matters now. Many of them will have been expecting to confirm their education and training places in the next week or so. There is little time to address this problem, if things are really as unfair as they seem.

And things are unfair. Most teachers, most people, accept that more challenging courses are worthwhile. Students may not be happy with the idea, but the difficulty of achieving particular grades is effectively an arbitary choice. Changing it from year to year, or between exam boards, obviously makes comparisons and target setting much harder, but it is not unfair. Changing the grade boundaries, between the students sitting an exam and being given their grade – for students doing one particular course – is clearly very different. The press today have suggested it is like moving the goalposts not just during a football game, but after a penalty has been taken and before the ball crosses the line.

A cynic would suggest that the government see moving goalposts after the numbers are known is a standard political tactic.

The other issue – and today of all days, this must be seen as secondary to the plight of affected students – is that schools are judged on their results. Gove and the Department for Education can take greater steps to control what happens in a school if GCSE results drop below certain levels. A significant indicator are the the number of 5A*-C grades, including English and Maths, and the EBacc. Both of these will drop in schools which have had students marked down from a C to a D grade in English due to these eleventh hour changes.

I’m trying very hard not to be cynical. I don’t teach English, except in the sense that many teachers share favourite books, correct spelling or help with grammar. But like many others, I struggle to see the fairness in changing how students are graded, after they have studied and sat the exam. Their lower results will now make it easier for unpopular, non-evidence-based and rushed changes to be pushed through, including forced academisation. This means it is even more important to find out who ordered these grade boundary alterations.

Who are the enemies of promise now, Mr Gove?

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6 thoughts on “Enemies of Promise”

  1. Given that we will be dropping modular GCSE’s in England, is the discrepancy between Jan and June not to do with penalising those who have taken longer to sit the same exam?

    1. Different schools will organise their timetables differently – if for no other reason than to share copies of set texts, and allow different groups access to computer facilities for research and supervised production of controlled assessments. We do the same thing in science due to constraints of technician time and equipment for the ISAs.

  2. Are timetables arranged to suit different groups of students or is this an entirely unbiased process? What do the early sitters do after January, focus on a different subject? All asked out of ignorance ….

    1. usually the early sitters are those borderline C/D pupils. It gives them a second chance if they need to retake in June.
      The mainstream I taught at they kept doing English until results arrived in March, then those that got the magical C were often (but not always) able to be released from English lessons to do coursework/extra maths lessons

      1. The GCSE C/D borderline seems to dominate everything in education in England, due to the pressure of performance tables and employer requirements for mastery of a core subject – make it criterion referenced and then use discretionary referencing on other grade boundaries? Let’s see what the Select Committee, Ofqual and Gove say about this over next few days …

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