Why the GCSE shambles demands that politicians have less power over education policy

If ever there was a week in education that cemented my view that politicians should not be allowed to direct education policy, this one has been it.

Last weekend the national press reported further evidence that cast severe doubt on the current inspection and accountability regime. Following that, the announcement and analysis of a fall in those receiving 5 A*-C GCSEs including Maths and English, revealed the extent to which ministerial whim can directly affect student attainment.

I confess that I was not aware until this Thursday that those taking GCSE English this year had actually had the method of assessment of their learning changed AFTER embarking on the course.

Whilst I knew that Michael Gove’s preference for assessment to be limited to an end of course examination (a “linear” approach) was being imposed, I naively assumed that this would not be applied to those courses that were already underway.

It is not clear to me why this had to be done in this way, I have found no educational justification for it thus far, but I fear that these would be the final set of GCSE results before a general election may have had something to do with it. Either way, it is clear nationally and locally that students have been directly adversely affected by this mid-course change.

What is worse is that this appears to have been predicted, and therefore deliberate.

Some local headteachers have been unequivocal in their reaction to the effect that this has had on their pupils. The Brentwood Gazette’s GCSE commentary is here:

http://www.brentwoodgazette.co.uk/GCSE-results-day-Brentwood-results/story-22795242-detail/story.html

It contains a telling section on the Anglo-European school in Ingatestone which saw the A*-C with English & Maths pass rate fall from 86% last year to 63% this. Head David Barrs is clear on the reason:

“We are angry that national policy can affect the life chances of our children through no fault of their own.

“The children in year 10 embarked on their English GCSEs two years ago and were then told nine months ago that speaking and listening would not count.

“Grade boundaries have been changed and the speaking and listening has been taken out of the equation.

“Our kids wasted time you would argue doing speaking and listening when the government decided that should not be in the final exam.

“To change that in year 11 is not an acceptable way to develop policy. Had we chosen to do iGCSE’s we would not have this problem. We stood with GCSEs because that is what parents knew and trusted. Educational policy is in a mess.”

Whilst not as badly affected, Brentwood County High School’s headteacher Stephen Drew also articulated his concerns:

“It’s incredibly frustrating and disappointing because it means that students and staff who I know worked even harder than last year haven’t got what they deserved”, he said.

“Students and teachers are the victims of the deliberate instability created by the department of education.

“I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think all my students and teachers have been treated fairly.”

OfqualIt is the “deliberate” part that concerns me most of all. Were these changes made in the knowledge that some students would be disadvantaged? From the response of OFQUAL’s Chief Regulator, Glenys Stacey it would appear so. Her blog, written for publication on Thursday, is here:

http://ofqual.gov.uk/blog/reflections-gcse-results/

In it, she presents a brief analysis of what she describes as “variation” in results. She firstly explains what OFQUAL expected the effect of this change to be when it was asked to implement it:

It was likely that schools that traditionally performed particularly strongly in speaking and listening; those who used a fully modular approach, and those who used resit opportunities to the full would have the biggest transition to make and could expect to see greater variation in their results.”

So what, in her view, happened?

“Now we have seen the results…those schools that previously chose to use the fully modular approach have seen more variation in results than those who entered students for modules only in the summer. We also looked at schools which had previously made use of re-sitting, and found that those schools had seen greater variation than those that did not. In both cases, the variation tends to be a fall in results”

So, if I am reading this correctly, it was known that changes to the assessment system imposed in this manner and in this timeframe would be likely to disadvantage students in some schools. However, rather than agreeing an approach that would provide an agreed timescale for the introduction of linear only paths, enabling schools to adjust to better prepare students for the new system, it was imposed MID-COURSE.

In other words, students were adversely affected deliberately.

Frankly, I am appalled by that in principle but I may look upon it a little differently if there were a good educational reason for the change. It appears, however, that it is all to do with the previous Secretary of State’s prejudice against non-linear, or modular, assessment. To him, only a one off, final exam can provide a true assessment of a students learning.

To me, this has always been at odds with the stated aim of preparing students for the world of work. Peter Wilby, in a piece in today’s Guardian that calls for an end to GCSEs altogether, provides a neat illustration of my point:

Particularly egregious was the removal of “speaking and listening” from assessment in English courses, which has resulted in a sharp fall in the numbers attaining a C grade in the subject this year; as Katja Hall, deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry, observed, these are skills nearly everybody is more likely to use at work than writing essays.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/22/gcse-obsolete-scrap-them-exams-at-16-no-function

This was ignored by Gove and his acolytes. The giveaway is in the tone of Glenys Stacey’s previously mentioned assessment. “Those schools that chose to use the fully modular approach” and/or those that “made use of resits” are explicitly identified in a manner that suggests that this was wrong. This is not seen to be truly academic. Worse still, to use the ghastly term, they were “gaming the system”.

This does not acknowledge that all those schools were doing was using a variety of legitimate approaches allowed and provided by examination boards to give their students the best outcomes that they could achieve. Why would that be an issue?

Instead, based apparently on the entirely subjective view of one man, that appears to be based on no evidence of educational benefit whatsoever, “reform” is implemented with insufficient notice and preparation to allow schools to best prepare their students to achieve the fair reward that their learning merits.

The primary losers are of course the pupils themselves but schools also know that an apparent dip in exam performance not only means that they will drop down ludicrous league tables, but can trigger a visit from Ofsted and any grade that follows an inspection can be affected by that raw data.

Still, at least the inspectors will be able to put any “variation” into context. They won’t be influenced by the prevailing “traditionalist” wind from those in charge at the DfE as they are an independent body aren’t they?

Sadly, the need to make political capital may now be overriding the requirement to apply the accountability regime equally.

Last weekend’s front page story in The Observer reported that an academy chain, and specific schools within it, had been given far more than the normal period of notice of Ofsted inspections. Earlier in the summer, The Guardian’s Warwick Mansell, who co-wrote the Observer story, uncovered the same issue at another chain.

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/aug/17/academies-run-superhead-advance-notice-ofsted-checks

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jun/24/was-academy-chain-warned-multi-inspection

inspectionThe fact that we have a system that is so reliant on a once in a blue moon, high stakes inspection system that can be subverted by the amount of notice a school receives is in itself nonsense. However, if its independence is in question then it is entirely worthless. If it is actively subverted to provide an advantage to favoured schools for political ends then that is most serious of all.

That may of course not be the case but given the above it is extraordinary that the only action being taken regarding these stories is that Ofsted are “reviewing” the inspections that Ofsted themselves undertook.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-28864586

As Mr Barrs stated, “educational policy is a mess”.

Politicians should be enablers of the teaching profession not dictators to it. Party political capital should never cloud the accountability regime. Students’ life chances should not be subject to the whims and non-evidenced prejudices of whoever is in power.

The only way to ensure this is to diminish the power of the Secretary of State. We should create an independent body of professionals, appointed by their peers, to agree the educational priorities of the country based on evidence and enact a long term plan with a suitable, ongoing accountability regime to underpin it.

I’ll vote for any politician that pledges to deliver that.

Stephen Mayo

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