Divided and Conquered?

So I was on Twitter.

@TeacherROAR – who I follow – retweeted an item from @NUTSouthWest – who I don’t – which in turn quoted figures from an article in the Independant.

I followed the conversation and was struck by this tweet to another tweeting teacher.

followed by:

I responded in turn and a not particularly pleasant slanging match ensued. I had two main issues, one about Twitter and the other about teacher solidarity. Maybe I didn’t express myself well in 140 characters – but more on this limitation in a moment. EDIT: And this is without even considering the actual figures incolved, of which more added at the end.

Firstly, I don’t think anyone assumes that a retweet means total support of the original message. In fact, sometimes it’s intended as mockery! But if you quote figures, and someone asks you about them, it’s reasonable to justify or explain. I think. If it turns out they’re wrong, I’d see it as only fair to tweet a follow-up. Accountability, yes? Online we only have our reputation as currency. Challenging figures or opinions isn’t the same thing as an attempt to censor opinion, and for what it’s worth, I agree that if we only have exaggerated figures to use as propaganda we’ve got no chance. As I tweeted to @sidchip64, a ‘roar’ without anything to back it up is just bluster.

Secondly, I can just imagine Gove or his minions rubbing their hands together and laughing, watching those who teach fighting with each other instead of him. Dismissing a challenge from another teacher is rude. I expect my students to question what I say – often I demand it. But I expect better of any professional who works in a classroom. Solidarity means we work together to get it right, and that includes good statistics. It doesn’t mean we unquestioningly back a colleague who’s wrong.

Maybe it’s about a limited medium. I often find this on Twitter – great for tips, bad for clear ideas. Soundbites, not critical debate. So I suggested to @TeacherROAR that it wouldn’t be hard to clarify what they meant – and justify it – in a blog. For some reason this was seen as a demand and so I decided to do it myself. Half an hour later, here we are. I feel better for it, anyway.

So what I didn’t include last night – and, believe it or not, woke up thinking about at half-five this morning – is a point of view on the numbers. They got attention, obviously. That was the point. But I think it was poor of the Independent to quote from a report by the Sixth Form Colleges Association – a report I haven’t yet found, but that may be due to lack of caffeine – which makes a direct comparison between the annual funding for their students and that spent on setting up free schools this year.

Now, it would be fair to say that I’m very dubious about free schools, in particular the application and set up process. Laura McInerney explains these concerns much more eloquently and expertly than I could. But that doesn’t mean we should misuse data in this way. Making the last year’s nine free schools (some or all of the total?) and their current 1557 students liable for the entire cost of setting them up – when the assumption is that these costs would actually be spread over the foreseeable life of the schools – is wrong. If I can be forgiven a physics example, it’s like working out the kWh cost of electricity from a nuclear power station using all the commissioning and decommissioning costs but only a single year of electrical output.

Picking numbers out of the air, if each of those nine free schools costs £3m to run this year (which would make the set up costs £35m) then the cost per student comes to a little over £17000. If their costs are £2m annually, then the figure is £11500 or so. Now, these figures are still too high – but they’re more realistic, unless each of those schools is to shut down after a single year being open.

Yes, I agree that free schools haven’t always been set up where they’re actually needed, so you could argue the costs are wasted. Yes, I know that this year a lot has been spent, potentially to the detriment of sixth form colleges. But I’d be prepared to bet that back when the colleges were set up, some people claimed they were a waste of money. And I’m sure they were justified by looking at the benefits over time, not just costs in the first year. If we want to be taken seriously – and this goes back to my first point – then we must justify the numbers we use, or we are building our argument on very weak foundations.

A final quote, this time from much longer ago.

If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.

Benjamin Franklin

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?

Compare and Contrast

I’d just like to contrast two parts of the speech that Gove made (taken from the online document, not sure how closely he stuck to the script) at the Spectator Conference. I promise, after this I’m sticking to pedagogy for a bit, I’ve had enough of politics.

Michael Gove faced criticism from an unexpected source yesterday; his own speech to the Spectator Conference. In this he condemned those who used ‘alternative’ qualifications to exaggerate claims of performance or improvement, before quoting them himself.

For a decade now we have steered hundreds of thousands of young people towards courses and qualifications which are called vocational even though employers don’t rate them and which have been judged to be equivalent in league tables to one – or sometimes more – GCSEs, even though no-one really imagines they were in any way equivalent.

Adults who wanted to keep their positions, and keep their schools’ league table positions, used these qualifications to inflate their schools’ performance in these tables.

Later on, Gove praised several academies as part of his lead up to launching a funding boost for groups that take on ‘sponsor’ status.

…another Harris school – South Norwood – where 29% of pupils reached that measure [5 GCSEs at A*-C] in its last year as an LEA school; 100% last year.

The figures for 2011 he didn’t mention tell a very interesting story.

  • 75% of students achieved 5 GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths.
  • 2% of students achieved the English Baccalaureate.
  • 46% of students achieved 5 GCSEs if we exclude ‘equivalent’ qualifications.

So if you discount the qualifications which Gove stated are in no way equivalent, his example is rather less impressive than he would like.

I notice that at the quoted school, the ‘average student’ is entered for 6 GCSE subjects, but has a total of 13.9 entries – that’s a lot of equivalents. These figures are from the BBC website, checked where possible at the DfE listing for the school (which interestingly does not list percentage results without equivalents.)

Please let’s be clear, this is not a condemnation, or even a criticism, of a specific school. Many schools have been encouraged – effectively forced – to change their entry patterns in order to boost league table scores, due to political pressure. This has also been seen with the EBacc so Gove can’t blame it on previous governments.

Gove’s Resit

I was already planning to type up a few more developments in the #govelevels saga. Reading that Gove is to blame pretty much everyone except politicians for the difficulties in the exam system just means I’m finding it a little hard to be balanced. I’ll do my best, because I partly wonder if his intent is to push teachers to react angrily rather than rationally to his proposals. The more we respond with rhetoric and ad hominem attacks – as tempting as it is – the harder it is to seem professional.

Basically, this is going to be a short post with links that I’ve already shared on twitter. I’d like to flag them up again for anyone who missed them the first time, and to take the chance to comment in a little more than 140 characters. If there’s time, I’ll also address some of the comments from my previous post, which got a lot more attention than I expected.

First of all, I’d like to direct you to @miss_mcinerney‘s blog, where she explains why Gove is wrong on the ‘bottom 25%‘. The calculation goes some way to address my concerns in terms of ‘borderline’ students. It looks as if the 25% figure was plucked out of the air, perhaps to appeal to the very Daily Mail readers the story was leaked to. Laura’s calculations suggest an absolute maximum of 10% of students would be best suited to not doing O-levels, unless Gove is planning to make them even more challenging than even he suggests. (Of course in Science we’ve already seen OfQual decrease student grades, demoralising students and making targets fairly useless: information here and here.)

This smaller proportion will potentially stigmatize the students even more, as well as making the cost per student of implementing them – in terms of teacher time and money – even greater. Of course, maybe Gove just can’t tell the difference between 25% and 10%, in which case a resit is needed. (Oops – they’re not allowed any more!) I’ve already linked to her original post but if you haven’t yet read it, I’d like to recommend it once more.

If I’d read this post by @dukkhaboy about why O-levels aren’t the issue before I’d written up my piece, it might have saved me a lot of time.  In particular it mentions something I passed over; each change in the specification means teachers can spend less time being innovative because they have to sort out the teaching scheme. Politicians seem oblivious to the thought that we might not be able to do this kind of thing as paid overtime.

Lots of interesting, reasonable responses, at least some of which are from people who know what they’re talking about, at the Guardian.

Warwick Mansell (@warwickmansell) has written a scathing critique of the National Curriculum review – it appears some of the same issues are present as with the ‘proposals’ for 14-16 exam changes. In particular, it seems ministers are ignoring the advice of professionals, the demands on teachers for writing local schemes, and the difficulties of implementing the changes in a short time. It’s as if the politicians haven’t a clue about the real world of education. The contrast between the evidence found and quoted in this article, and the very vague attempts at justification by Gove, Gibbs et al, is striking.

Thoughts, comments, ideas? Is Gove leaking such dramatic changes, as some have suggested, that more reasonable ‘official’ ones are accepted more easily. I suppose we’ll find out in time whether he has some evidence-based suggestions or if this has just been a way for him to bolster political support for a future leadership bid. I’ll leave you with that scary thought: that instead of being about children’s qualifications, this could all have been for political advancement. That’s the real weakness of having a Secretary of State who is a politician not an educator.


Well, it’s been an interesting few days. I offer no apology for my
knee-jerk reaction
to the news that our Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was proposing a return to two distinct tiers (caution, DailyMail link) at age 16. I’ve spent the last few days trying to track the story, as much as a fulltime teacher with no political or journalism contacts can do. This is my more constructive response to his ideas, as far as we can understand them.

The ‘plans’

  • students will start new courses from autumn 2014
  • two tiers, to be modelled after but *not* called O-levels and CSEs
  • between 2/3 and 3/4 of students will do the higher level exams, presumably terminal, including English, Maths and Science
  • ‘less intelligent’ students will sit simpler ones, with no threshold of 5 GCSEs A*-C
  • no National Curriculum
  • a single exam board per subject

Context of the leak

Nick Clegg was totally unaware of the ideas and has declared that he will stop them coming into force. Of course, we know how effective the LibDems were with the NHS Bill. It seems unclear whether David Cameron was briefed – if so, it raises interesting questions about the cosy relationship between the Prime Minister and his coalition deputy. In many ways, it seems as if this has all grown out of Gove’s department – the chair of the Education Select Committee also seemed to be in the dark about the proposals. And that Gove has apparently failed to ask education professionals is hardly a surprise, considering the revelations from the Expert Panel.

According to Google, a leak is ‘an intentional disclosure of secret information’. The question here is who would have leaked material about something which is paradoxically so defined, and yet so vague. A civil servant in the DfE, perhaps? Or, as Andrew Neil suggested in the political programme ‘This Week‘, Michael Gove himself may have explained it to the editor tof the Mail himself. It makes me wonder if his intention was to test the waters ‘unofficially’, or if he hoped to force Cameron to support him against political opponents. If either of these is true, it has certainly been unsuccessful on the face of it. But then, I’m sure I miss the political nuances. Let’s get back to the practicalities.

The Reality

These are not all ridiculous ideas. It’s important that educators accept and recognise good ideas from politicians, even if they are uninformed, because otherwise our criticisms of the rest are less credible. So let’s deal with each aspect separately, starting with those I (personally) would consider less problematic.


We are already in the process of moving to a terminal exam in most subjects. How coursework and controlled assessments – like the absolutely horrendous, badly designed ISAs in Science – will work is not yet clear. In fact, like many teachers I’d really like to know how the exams will work for students starting courses in less than three months.

  • Will the content be ‘substantively’ the same, or really the same?
  • When will the terminal exams be?
  • Will students be able to resit the terminal exam for Science A (year 10ish) at the end of their year 11?

So a terminal exam is not necessarily bad, as long as politicians and the media understand this will inevitably lead to students getting lower grades. I’m currently looking for research comparing recall and understanding of students who sat module and terminal exams, afterwards. It seems likely that, like the O-levels Gove seems to remember with such fondness, this will mean relying more on memory than understanding. Some of the pressure is probably linked to universities’ claims that students lack depth of knowledge having done modular A-levels, even though degree courses are now almost entirely modular. Thanks to @prid09, who tracked down this paper from the IOP which suggests a link between skills decrease and the introduction of modules. (Of course, evidence that multiple choice tests may favour male candidates shows that any assessment method has difficulties.)I’m still reading through this huge paper from Cambridge Assessment, kindly found for me by @begration/@LearningSpy.

From a selfish point of view, I like the idea of having more teaching time, and less disruptions due to exams and resits. How this will affect student morale is yet to be seen. And I’m very curious about coursework/ISAs etc, which by definition are not terminal. I really hope that if we do move this way, we get much more in the way of sample papers. A single example is nowhere near enough, as we’ve found out each time. I still like my idea of a crowdsourced exam board. But we’ll see.

Goodbye National Curriculum and ‘GCSEs’

This is a complete red herring, as many have pointed out already – in particular I’d again recommend Chris Cook’s analysis in the FT. If there is to be only one exam specification per subject (discussed below) then this effectively sets the national curriculum, arguably more clearly than at present. It would be interesting to see what effect this has on subjects at KS3, and on non-examined subjects between 14 and 16 such as PSHE and PE. As far as I know, there’s no information about this so far – perhaps Gove hasn’t considered it?

The change of name is also a red herring. What he’s suggesting are not the same as the O-levels of the past. He’s just invoking their mystique without examining the very different aims and outcomes of those exams a generation ago.

Single Exam Boards

According to the Daily Mail article, existing boards will be invited to bid for the right to set the higher level exams. This would mean once a contract had been won, other boards would have little use for their subject-specific expert staff (as pointed out in the TES). Presumably exam boards would submit possible papers to Ofqual or directly to the DfE for consideration. There are definite strengths to a single board for a subject, reducing worries about a ‘race to the bottom’. But this is not an approach without concerns.

Textbooks would be written even more closely matched to the specification, perhaps especially for contracts gained by EdExcel/Pearson [corrected, thanks to Mary and DrDav for the proofread!] . There would need to be clear safeguards about firewalls between writers of books and papers. The current model does allow for innovation in assessment, as demonstrated by the OCR 21st century scheme. Would the board be able to offer variant courses or routes, like today’s AQA Core Science A and B courses? Would there be ‘similar’ courses, perhaps ‘Pure Maths’ and ‘Functional Maths’? Or would the more accessible papers be left to the weaker students?

Alpha or Epsilon?

This brings us to my biggest objection to the details of these proposals, rather than how they have come about. If the Daily Mail is to be believed – usually a risky proposition, but Gove has confirmed the details of the ‘leak’ to Parliament – then between a quarter and a third of students will sit a more basic exam.

This means labelling students at 14 as unable to compete. Even if we could be perfectly accurate – which of course we can’t – this has huge consequences.

  • students will lose motivation as they know they cannot improve beyond a D (as they can at present, even on Foundation)
  • those who struggle in exam situations (anxiety, perhaps, or a specific learning difficulty) will struggle when they cannot rely on coursework to help them
  • employers, without even looking at the grades achieved on these CSE equivalents, will write them off
  • parents will blame teachers for pre-judging their children at an early age.

If we assume that teachers can be 95% correct at age 14 about a student’s likely grade outcome – which is wildly optimistic – my setting would put more than ten each year into the wrong programme. Nationally, if 800000 students are in the year group (estimate from WolframAlpha) then that’s 40000 kids who get messed around. The issue is unlikely to be with the weakest students, but as usual those at the C/D borderline.

I would have a lot more interest in the idea if I believed that a quarter of Britain’s privately-educated children would be entered for these lower-level exams.

Gove seems to have made a huge conceptual error here, in harking back to the golden age of the O-level. The higher level exam was never intended for a large chunk of the population. It was for the elite, and it was designed for a world in which only a small proportion would need higher level skills. The rest were being educated for manual work, factory and field labour, in a world without greater prospects. Do we really think that a quarter of our kids should be limited by the exams they are selected for at age 14 to these kinds of jobs? Do we really believe – does Gove really believe – that this is the world in which we live?

Frankly, the thought of being asked to select which quarter of my year 9 students won’t have a chance to do A levels or go to university scares the hell out of me. Of a class of 30, I could confidently choose 3 or 4. But 8? Too many things change between 14 and 16, too many kids suddenly start working, or get over problems, or grasp the maths they need to get that C grade. It’s not about the future medics or lawyers. It’s about the ordinary, unexceptional – the ones Gove seems not to know or care about.


Don’t worry, the rant is nearly over. This final criticism is about the way in which these plans were drawn up, rather than their advantages or disadvantages. Gove appears to think that because he has been to school he knows enough to run all British schools. He listens to heads of private schools, and to journalists and politicians. He talks about a ‘gold-standard’ and makes deliberately bad comparisons between O-level questions and those at foundation tier GCSE. He ignores the experts, the educators, the teachers who will somehow have to implement his ideas. He fails to look at data which would inform a sensible choice, or allow time to collect more results so that we can make our education system work better. He overrules governors who object to his view about what is best for children, but claims he wants decisions to be local. He claims to want teachers to be involved, then criticises them at every turn.

If we want to make schools better, to make education work better for our students – rich and poor, smart and weak, north or south – then we need to look at facts. That means research, properly collected and carefully analysed. It means accepting that not all interventions will work. It means following the evidence, not the ideology. It means thinking hard about what we want our education system to achieve, what kind of 16 or 17 or 18 year old we want to produce. It means ignoring wishful thinking and rose-tinted memories, personal prejudices and media rabble-rousing.

Because in the end, our kids – mine and yours, our students and our offspring – deserve better than this.

Edit: I recommend checking out a contrasting viewpoint at @lauramcinerney’s blog.