Tag Archives: GCSEs

This Gove Grand Conspiracy

Michael Gove is not universally popular.  Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon.  This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings.  Oh yes he is.

Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan.   The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets.  They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies.  This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose.    The evidence is out there.  Join-the-dots.  The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate.  The man must be stopped.  Right?

Oh come on.  Get a grip.   Gove is no puppet-master.  Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders.  But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight.  Take the playing-fields storm.  Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’?     Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20.  Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie.  It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.

I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring  and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play.  This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense.  Don’t forget  Academies enter exactly the same exams.   Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables.  If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny.  Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver.  That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.

Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves.  It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track.  Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January.  I took mine over 20 years ago.   Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.

That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine  issue in the way students  had their expectations managed.  And the students themselves are blameless in that.  Had the change not  come ‘in year’ and  been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided.   Conspiracy? No.  Cock-up?  A little bit.  British policy development  was ever thus.

I’m no blind Gove fan-boy.  I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong.  It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now.  The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow.   Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them!  As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.

A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of  praising success.  Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time.   There are  schools out  there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge.  You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%.   They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves.  This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it.  And that is no bad thing.

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New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference

Yesterday I attended the New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference at the Commonwealth Club in central London.  There was cross-party representation looking at the big issues on school reform whoever wins the next election.  There was also a sample of guests from other countries to share their experiences of similar journeys.  I’ll not bore you with the reason why I was there – I suspect that will be a whole blog post in its own right soon.  Nor will I summarise what the New Schools Network is all about – you can find out all about them here.

What was interesting for me was listening to the three keynote speakers.  We had (Baroness) Sally Morgan from Labour, David Laws from the Lib Dems and Michael Gove from the Conservatives.  There was a surprising amount of consensus between the three.  I don’t think I am misrepresenting any of the speakers if I pick out the following common themes:

  • The Academy Programme has broadly been a force for good.  As with any programme there are known exceptions but they should not distract from the overall picture.
  • Whoever wins we will see a development/evolution of the thinking that went into Academy approach in the way we consider new schools
  • Whoever wins we can expect to see more disparate groups – including possibly ‘for-profit’ organisations and more parent-led collectives – joining the roster of providers
  • School Autonomy is a good thing.  Nobody on the panel said it directly but the implicit flip-side to this is that Local Authority meddling can be a hinderance to good school governance.

The disagreements between the parties were more around the implementation details than the ‘big idea’ of letting more schools run themselves.

The thing that really struck me though was Sally Morgan’s seeming reluctance to press ahead with new schools unless the capital was identified to support them with best-in-class building provision.  She hated the idea of schools opening in ‘converted office buildings where children cannot enjoy the richness of the broad curriculum that only a properly equipped school can offer’.   This bugged me at the time, and having reflected on it for 24 hours it bugs me even more now.  It is as if Labour believe that you cannot possibly be solving a problem unless you hurl money at it.  Her argument boils down to that she would rather have kids in adequate buildings so they can have a wide curriculum albeit with the crumby teaching, poor leadership and sapped morale that is present in failing schools; rather than have a narrower curriculum in less ideal temporary buildings that do at least have quality teaching, strong school leadership and a sense of mission and purpose in the institution.   Actually Sally, I would rather my children went to the second and how dare you and your lot deny me that choice.  Quality of teaching is far more important than the shiny new facilities.  Don’t get me wrong – ideally we aim for having both, but if the capital isn’t there now then let’s just get the quality of teaching and leadership up and get moving – the shiny new toys can follow as institutions start to prove their success.  Gove gets this.  You could see him bursting to just get on and get started.  So whilst there may be consensus on the overall direction of educational reform, there is difference about the appetite for the pace and depth of it.  This whole area is too important to pussyfoot about with for fear of hurting teaching union sensibilities.  My vote is going to the chap with the hunger and sense of urgency to tackle this head on: Michael  Gove.

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The Aptitude Myth: Why Reform are wrong with their 14-16 GCSE & Schools Thinking

I’m a guarded fan of the think tank ‘Reform’.   They’re of a centre right-ish bent and their mission is to apply their philosophy to radical constructive reform of public services.  In the main I consider myself ‘on their side’.   Therefore, it was disappointing when I came across this report containing their latest thinking on education.  To save you reading the gist is that every pupil in the UK should have to sit ‘5 rigorous academic GCSEs’.  Anything else apparently sells students short.  They charge opponents who say not everyone is academically minded as party to what they call ‘the capability myth’.  They’re convinced if taught properly everyone has it within themselves to pass 5 ‘academic’ GCSEs and that is what the nation should aspire too.

The sound-bite from the piece is that “capability myth” bit.  It is quite a cutting phrase to throw back at anyone who disagrees with them – as if the opponent is party to a grand conspiracy to hold kids back.  I’m sure they were chuffed to bits when they coined it because it sounds so withering. But I don’t buy it.

Let me throw a phrase back at them – they are peddling the ‘aptitude myth’.  Their approach denies that some people flourish outside an academic environment and are crushed within one.  They condemn these people to a childhood of being convinced they’re ‘thick’ and doomed to fail in society.  They will drive these kids to truancy and the one chance to get these kids a good outcome (the school years) is wasted.

The interesting thing is that the research and observations they make in the report are bang on the money.  It is just the conclusions they then draw that are wide of the mark.  It is certainly true that the old benchmark target of 5 GCSE’s in any subject encouraged schools to put kids into lessons that were less academic.  Vocational qualifications with an equivalence of 5 GCSEs for the purpose of targets proliferated.   As Chair of Governors of a School condemned with the National Challenge label this is something I witnessed firsthand and arguably condoned.  In just two years we lifted the students getting 5 GCSE’s (or equivalent) from 18% to 64%.  Some of this improvement was down to better discipline in the school and some to better teaching.  Some of this improvement was also down to putting kids into classes aligned with their aptitude and ambition.  It is predictable and cheap to represent this as ‘dumbing down’.  These kids are not kids who wanted to go to University.  Now, we could have a whole separate debate on if the fact they don’t aspire to go to uni in itself is a failure –  however, they at least now have qualifications that will get them into further education where their vocational experience serves them well.  They are less likely to end up as the NEET type that Labour obsesses about (youngsters not in education, employment or training) than they would have been.

The year we made this progress the school league table benchmark was changed.  It became 5 GCSEs including both English and Maths.  To my mind, even though the change meant that ‘my’ school didn’t shoot up the tables as we would have, the new benchmark is spot on.  Maths and English are core building block skills regardless of what you wish to do, and the level set for a C grade at GCSE is the level you would like to think every adult could or should attain.  The same ‘core building block’ argument cannot be said of history, geography or even the sciences that presumably Reform are lumping in the ‘academically rigorous GCSE category.  These subjects are undoubtedly ‘nice-to-have’, possibly even ‘great-to-have’ but they are not ‘must-have’.

If we can get kids out of secondary school with 5 GCSEs including English and maths we WILL have genuinely improved life chances and outcomes.  We are better serving a youngster who leaves school with English and Maths GCSE and a pass in NVQ Information Technology, than we are a student with a pass in English and Maths and fails in History, Geography and Science.  In fact if the former pupil is enthused and motivated by the IT then we are probably still better off with that as an outcome than if we managed to scrape the same student a pass in 5 ‘academic’ GCSE’s but had them hating school and desperate to leave the education system at the first opportunity.  The 5 GCSE’s including English and Maths is, in my view, the right measure – and one I have no problem in being held to account to – or in striving to improve.

The one thing we do need to be wary of though is in allowing the acceptance of different ‘aptitudes’ to lazily drift into allocation of educational paths by social background.  i.e. the assumption that all working class kids will only have an aptitude for vocational studies, and all those nice middle class kids will all be academic.  You only have to look at Prince Harry’s exam results to realise that even with the best education that money can buy, some kids do not have an academic bent.   We absolutely do need to make sure that however we structure the education system those kids from the poorer areas who DO have an academic aptitude are identified and get the chance to follow that path.

I am not trying to make the case here for a system of secondary modern, and grammar schools.  That had its time and served very many, very well.   However, it made the call on an individual’s direction too early at 11. Under the right model you need not make the call until 14 and even then you can put in the flexibility to help course-correct (figuratively and literally!) if a mistake in choosing options been made.

The nut can be cracked with sensible setting within schools – and the confidence to share facilities between institutions so that as broad a curriculum as possible is on offer to all children regardless of the school they ended up in due to  accidents of geography and their parents background.  It does require a new, more adaptable way of thinking, but it will banish the damage that would be caused by either the ‘capability myth’ or the ‘aptitude myth’ that educational policy wonks on both side of the debate seem happy to inflict to prove their point.  So for this one Reform: stand at the back of class – must do better.

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