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.
- 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.
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.