Headteachers are demeaning themselves in their rush to criticise the new English Baccalaureat figures included for the first time in this year’s league tables, and thereby excuse their own schools’ poor rankings.
The English Bac, or EBac, is awarded if a student gains GCSE grade C or above in each of English, Maths, Double Science, a humanities subject and a language.
Complaints have grouped into three main lines:
1. No time to properly game the system.
The main complaint is that the figures are retrospective, with the rules of the game only published after the exam results were out. ‘How can we be expected to do well without the time to change our curriculum policies?’ chant the headteachers.
This exposes the key moral weakness of modern schools, which is that directly manipulating the key indicators to make the school look good is preferred to actually improving the pupils’ education.
Gaming the system, then, is the main occupation of school managers.
2. The EBacc is a return to Academic Snobbery.
Why not allow vocational courses as well?
Schools have a choice to make. Enter children on to the course with the best educational aims (say, French or Science GCSEs) when many will achieve grades D to G passes and so not count in the laegue tables. Or, enter them for vocational courses such as the Btec, that guarantee the ‘equivalent’ of four GCSE grade Cs to any pupil still conscious at the end of the course.
The choice is really this stark, and sadly most schools go for option B with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those under the cosh from Ofsted especially realise this is the only way out of ‘special measures’. Look at the tables and you can spot such schools: they will have improved their 5 A to C figures at improbably fast rates, have high CVA (value added) scores from the additional ‘equivalent’ courses and LOW EBacc rates.
The ‘most improved’ school in the country, Perry Beaches in Birmingham, has moved its 5 A to C figures from 21% to 74% in four years. CVA is also high, but only 3% got the EBacc. Since it takes four or five years to progress through the school as a pupil, the changes must have been instantaneous to have fed through this quickly.
Certificates of GCSE equivalent passes shouldn’t count if everyone passes them. It misleads prospective parents into thinking the school is academic and improving, when it is only the figures that are going up. The quality of the education may actually be declining in these schools as they move from GCSE to Btec and other similar courses.
3. Independent schools are unfairly penalised.
Independent schools are not restricted to only offer courses approved by the politically directed Qualification Curriculum Authority which only approved courses with sufficient levels of coursework in their assessment schemes.
Independent schools don’t approve of coursework, so many offer alternative courses, such as Classical Civilisation, which don’t count towards the EBacc, damaging their figures.
Now, this is a fair complaint. But Independent schools are not compelled to enter the League Tables manipulation game, or even publish figures at all. They are free to create their own tables if they wish so they can compete on their own manicured level playing fields with their own rules.
Unfair, perhaps, but they can take their ball and play elsewhere if they don’t like it.
Less Gaming, Please.
The arrival of the EBacc has embarrassed lots of schools. They complain of the pressures of league tables and the focus on A to C grade passes which excludes the varying efforts of anyone not near the grade boundaries. But they should welcome anything that makes gaming harder and so less attractive. Less gaming should herald a move back towards professional judgements in schools instead of political ones, where the children come first.
I won’t be holding my breath though. Heads have been manipulating their table positions for a long time, and will be looking for ways to continue the game. It is all many of them know.
When GCSEs were introduced two decades ago, one of the aims was to help girls catch up with boys in exams. The plan was a classic case of unintended consequences: the requirement for GCSEs to be graded with at least a quarter of the points from coursework has resulted in girls being awarded higher grades across the board.
Although boys and their lack of conformity in the classroom attracted the blame for their deteriorating grades by the feminised teaching profession, the truth is out: boys can doing better than girls. In Mathematics boys are now outperforming girls in all the higher grades.
So what has driven up their scores? Extra relevance of lessons? Better teacher training and school discipline structures? Lessons moved to inner city football clubs or fishing trips for malcontents?
The solution has been obvious for ten years, but has only been implemented because it has become obviouse that work completed at home was open to widespread plagiarism. It has worked for Mathematics GCSE as well as all the International Baccalaureat courses. What is holding the government up from rolling this great innovation to all subjects?
Or the QCA could allow schools to offer the IB and let market forces choose.
Last week England’s largest exam board issued a Physics GCSE paper, aimed at our brightest youngsters, that required no mathematical calculations. Last year’s GCSE Physics papers prompted the Qualifications and Curricculum Authority (QCA) to rule that Physics papers were not sufficiently challenging, but AQA has sunk to a new low.
The paper was the P3 Higher Tier one, so a series of conceptual deductions, calculations, simple algebra and graph interpretation would have been expected, but thousands of pupils were surprised by the disappearance from the exam of the bulk of what they had struggled to learn.
The anonymous quote about the three levels of Physics has finally become complete, officially:
There are three levels of Physics courses: Physics with calculus, Physics without calculus and Physics without Physics.
A paper made up from simplistic sequencing and qualitative statement questions is not suitable for bright or even average students, who were disappointed that they were not to be properly tested after all their rigorous preparation.
We need a new generation of scientists and engineers, but they will not be challenged or tempted by the new and ‘accessable’ Physics Without Physics GCSE courses on offer.
Who are these courses now aimed at? The maths-phobic or the future core of a technological society?
Ed Balls has finally bowed to the inevitable, accepting that the English examination system is far too bloated and there are not enough markers to process national exams for all 7, 11, 14, 15, 16-year-olds in the country. The disastrous management of last year’s Key Stage 3 National Curriculum Tests (the age 14 SATs) has forced Balls to cancel them permanently. It is a shame that he did not do this for educational reasons (for example, see this previous post), but the move will still be welcomed by parents and teachers.
The main problem, though, of these national tests has always been their narrowness. They only test a predictable subset of the National Curriculum, with a question style that does not vary, making them susceptible to coaching, or teaching to the test.
However, the huge pressure on teachers to teach to the test, bleated about routinely by the unions and criticised in report after report, could be eased by two simple measures:
- First, the General Teaching Councils could declare that teaching to the test was unprofessional. Teachers will then be free to do the right thing and stop pressurising the pupils.
- Secondly, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should both take control of the copyright of the past test questions, banning their unauthorised reproduction and use in classrooms, and change the style of questions each year.
Without an obvious test to teach to, and no reliable past questions, the pressure will be on to teach the whole curriculum – exactly what was originally intended when the National Curriculum was introduced.
SATs exams are routinely used by many schools as standardised questions for class use and homework. After setting the school mandated homeworks for 13-year-olds, containing nothing but past exam questions, for their science homework, I have often been disappointed with the supplied marking schemes. The questions themselves are intended as summative test items to sample pupils’ knowledge based on the 3-year long curriculum. What I needed for proper teaching was formative tasks based on what I had intended them to learn.
But issue the homeworks I did. And then the marking became a problem, not because is was onerous (there are few tasks that need less thought than marking test questions to a detailed mark scheme) but because the required answers were often incorrect or incomplete. Questions are written to correspond to specific curriculum learning targets, not in itself a problem, but when those targets are simplistic or read naively by the exam authors then science can go out of the window. Weak pupils gain credit for wrong answers because the question was not specific enough, and bright pupils lose marks because their perceptive answers went beyond the curriculum statements. The examiners often mistake a list of examples in the statements as being the limit of possible answers: for example, contributions to global warming may include the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning (obviously), but not the energy released from the same processes (a smaller, but real, contribution).
Similar problems have been caused by the current fashion for schools to purchase the exam boards’ authorised textbooks, even though they are written to the test and encourage surface learning without depth. The worst problem by far for these texts, though, is the large number of errors in them and subsequent teacher responses. The errors are understandable given the short timescale for major changes imposed on the boards by the controlling authority, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). However, most colleagues I have discussed this with are unconcerned, with the majority seemingly happy to go with the flow. I have even been told by one head of department that we ought to teach what was in the book even if it was wrong. The reasons? Whatever was in the book will be marked as correct in any exam since the book was authorised by the exam board, and it is better to avoid causing confusion in the pupils!
The whole rationale for education has been subverted by the focus on exam marks. Exam marks are more important to students than knowledge. Subjects and exam boards are chosen on the basis of how lax their marking is to improve the students’ chances and any attempt at rigour is seen as undermining the school’s purpose.
The Sunday Telegraph has obtained documents from the QCA under the Freedom of Information Act:
Internal documents show that concerns raised by experts about accepting wrong answers in the test, taken by thousands of 14-year-olds in May, were overruled by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
In a question which asked what organs a riding hat protects, the answer “skull” was accepted as correct – even though the skull is not an organ. Examiners were also told to award a mark to “ears” despite a graphic which accompanied the question clearly showing the riders ears outside the hat.
In another question, which asks pupils to describe how chalk changes when shaken in a container with granite, the word “weathered” was accepted as correct, against the advice of experts who told QCA that is was “completely incorrect”.
QCA has known of the problems, but thought that correcting its exams would reduce the grade statistics for that year. Instead, teachers can continue to teach to the test , safe in the knowledge that a real examination of their charges’ understanding will not be made until they get to university.