Sunday, 26 August 2012

Exams: Fit for purpose? Which one?

We often hear that GCSE exams are not fit for purpose but the question that needs to be asked is: "What is the purpose of exams?'

There appear to be three purposes for exams; they are:

  1. Indicating the standard each student has obtained in a particular field of study.
  2. Differentiating between 'bright' students and 'weak' students.
  3. Measuring a school's effectiveness.
These purposes are at odds with each other and call for different types of exams/grading.

If the sole purpose of the exam system is to indicate the standards each student has reached then the testing system should set out the standard that needs to be achieved for each grade and, if a student meets that standard, they should be given the grade

However, this leads to the problem that if a large number of students reaches the same standard, the second purpose of differentiating between students would not be met.

In order to meet the second purpose, it would be necessary to set limits for each grade so that, even if a student does make the standard for a particular grade they are only awarded it if there are grades of that type left.

My understanding is that the old O-Level was norm-referenced in that the proportion of each grade was fixed and awarded based on your rank position (relative achievement).  The GCSE is criterion-referenced and grades are awarded upon the standard achieved (absolute achievement).

Norm-referencing is good for purpose two, in that is generates very clear differentiation between students but it does lead to unfairness when students reach the same standard but are awarded different grades. Criterion-referencing is good for purpose one but, once larger numbers of students start to reach the same grades, differentiation becomes harder.

When you throw into the mix the third purpose, which has the effect of requiring schools and teachers to improve constantly, trouble is bound to occur!

In order to resolve the tensions that exist I would propose the following to cover each purpose above:

  1. GCSE grades are given by reference to strict criteria and these are checked by Ofqual (or a similar body) comparing assessment methods and pass marks.
  2. Each student is also given a ranking for each subject based on national norms.
  3. School effectiveness is measured by looking at student progress (eg KS2 to KS4) rather than by absolute attainment (eg 5A*-C inc EN&MA).
This would allow all students who deserve an A grade to be awarded one and would remove the arguments over 'grade inflation' vs 'grade improvements'.  It would also allow employers and universities to differentiate between students.  Finally, schools would focus their efforts on ensuring that all students make good progress rather than on ensuring some students achieve a C whilst ignoring others.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Why the Olympics is the wrong goal for school sport

The 2012 Olympics is currently underway and there has been much hand-wringing over the state of school sport, particularly the state of state-school's sports.

Lord Moynihan has suggested that the Olympics should leave a legacy by improving school sports.  This has been echoed by Lord Coe and picked up by The Sun and John Major demanding more sport in schools.

Some commentators have demanded that the school day is lengthened (Dayley Thompson suggests 30 mins extra at the start of each day whilst Anthony Seldon suggests 2 hours at the end of each day).

We have had complaints that 21 schools have been allowed to sell off their school fields, concerns that the government has dropped the requirement that schools have 2 hours of PE a week and Michael Gove's move to cut the funding for the School Sports Partnerships now looks somewhat foolish.

With so many knees jerking at the political level we must make sure that any changes to schools and school sports does not create problems that are not there.  I do not believe that the Olympics is the best goal for school sports for the following reasons:

1) The size of the Team GB Olympic squad is around 600 athletes.  The population of the UK is about 62 million.  That means that only 0.00096% of the population will ever become Olympic athletes.  So should we really set up school sports with the aim of catering for this small population and ignore the other 99.999%?

2) There are many sports which are not part of the Olympics.  If we focus our efforts on the Olympic sports we would no longer have rugby or cricket in schools but could have BMX biking.  OK, this is not likely to happen but there have been complaints that schools allow students to do things like aerobics, which are not in the Olympics.  If the Olympics becomes the standard we could lose far more than we gain.

3) Many students hate sport at school, I was one of them.  The current demand for more Olympic sports in schools is being made by former Olympic athletes, who tell us all how enjoyable Olympic sports are.  Well to you, maybe, but I enjoyed squash, climbing trees and hiking in Derbyshire, none of which I could do at school.  For me team games were an opportunity to stand in a wet field whilst no one passed the ball to me and athletics was an opportunity for me to demonstrate how not to throw, run or jump.  I am envious of students at schools today who get to take part in a far wider variety of sports that I ever used to.

So what should we do?
Well, let's first celebrate our successes!  We have done incredibly well for such a small country, we must be doing something right.

Elite athletes need our support and that costs money.  Giving funding to them from the National Lottery is a good thing and should continue.

Leave schools to encourage everyone to get involved and to find an activity they enjoy, even if it isn't competitive or a team sport or part of the Olympics.

Reinstate the Schools Sports Partnerships which, despite what Gove claims, were having a huge impact upon students taking part in sports in schools.

Schools need to work closely with local sports clubs to encourage students to get involved.  Students who do have talent should be supported by local clubs and, if necessary helped to get better coaching.

Where students have real talent, offer them scholarships at specialist sports schools which can cater for their needs.  This doesn't need to be independent schools but this does mean that the Government will need to develop centres of excellence in individual sports throughout the country.

If we can achieve the goal of helping young people find activities that they enjoy and provide them with a healthy lifestyle AND create pathways for talented students to reach the highest levels of Olympic standards we will have left a pretty decent legacy from these games.

Monday, 30 April 2012

What is so wrong with resits?

OK, confession time: it took me three attempts to pass my driving test.  Yes three!  I know that some people manage to get through first time.  Others, like myself, take a little longer to reach the required standard.

The thing is, I did reach the required standard, eventually.  Is my achievement any less because I didn't pass first time?

Our education system has used two ways of judging exam success:

Many years ago, exams were decided against a 'norm'.  This meant that no matter how well the cohort of students had done in their exams, only a fixed percentage could get an A grade or a B grade and so on.  Clearly this is unfair because one student could do better than a different student in another year and achieve a lower grade.  Or put another way, two students could have reached the same standard but be awarded different grades.

Now we set standards against which we assess students.  If the student achieves the standard, they get the grade that goes with that standard.  This is far fairer.  However, there is no limit on the number of students who can achieve an A-Grade.  Whoever reaches that standard, gets the grade.

Politicians, universities, the media and the public complain that being able to resit a module or test again and again makes it far too easy to achieve a high grade.  However, why shouldn't a student who has achieved that standard be awarded the grade?  They may not have achieved it first time but they did reach the standard in the end.

Universities, professional qualifications and work-based assessments all allow resits, why do we want to deny this to students in school?

The answer is probably that we can't actually decide what school exams are for.  Should they be to recognise achievement or should they be to select students for the next level of education?  Whilst there is this tension between the two purposes there will always be an argument over resits, 'grade-inflation' and so on.

I actually like students being able to take resits, and I don't see what is wrong with them.  After all, if we applied the princple of no resits to the driving test, I would still be trying to get to work each day on the bus.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Oh, for Dux sake!

The government has finally realised that their decision to scrap AimHigher is likely to mean that fewer pupils will be pushed towards university so they have created their own scheme.  This was reported in the Telegraph:

The message is that:
"The brightest pupils from every state school in England will be fast-tracked towards elite universities as part of a new drive to reward talented teenagers."


Hang on, look at the details of the scheme . . .

Each school will be required to nominate ONE 13 to 14 year old student who will 'win' a visit to a Russell group university.  No, not a place - a visit.  Furthermore these champions will be awarded the name of 'Dux'.

Now I am all in favour of encouraging and supporting young people to go to university and for them to see that the Russell Group is achievable for them but what does this scheme actually say?

Firstly, The Russell Group is not for everyone, it is only available to the brightest person in your school; the rest of you are just Duds.

Secondly, calling the chosen student a Dux will not mean much to most 13 or 14 years olds in state education - the intended target - and will further distance them from the goal of a Russell Group university.  "I don't know what Dux means so this probably isn't for me"  The use of this term will alienate the very people it is aimed at; it is pretentious nonsense.

This scheme is elitist, tokenistic and pretentious.  I really did have to check that it wasn't 1st April when I read the article.

If we are serious about getting young people to go to the best universities we need to encourage all to AimHigher.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Mr Gove: How should I respond?

Dear Mr Gove, 

I have just received the following letter in the post.  I have changed the name of the student and the school but the remainder of the letter is accurate.

Dear Sir/Madam

You may not be aware that one of your pupils - John Peterson has been an active member of St John Ambulance since he was 6 years old and a Cadet for nearly 4 years.

During his time so far as a Cadet he has spent 268 hours training and accrued over 300 hours of volunteering both on duty providing direct care to the public and as a youth helper with our younger members.

John is a Cadet Sergeant and has just completed the Grand Prior Award Scheme which entails completion of 24 subjects over a minimum of 3.5 years.  Because of John's hard work, commitment and determination during his work towards the Grand Prior award he has been recognised for his achievements and is invited to a Buckingham Palace reception held by her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, our Commandant in Chief.  This reception will be held in the Bow Room of Buckingham Palace on [Date removed]. 

The purpose of this letter is to respectfully ask for your consideration in granting John an Authorised Absence on that day when his parents approach you with this request.

Thank you in advance

At the moment I have discretion and will grant John an Authorised Absence but what should I tell him and his family (or others in a similar position) when I no longer have this discretion?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Impossible Dream: A teacher interprets

To dream the impossible dream (teaching without all the hassle, stress and neverending marking)
To fight the unbeatable foe (Gove)
To bear with unbearable sorrow (Ofsted)
To run where the brave dare not go (9B's class on a wet, Friday afternoon)

To right the unrightable wrong (correcting 9Bs work)
To love pure and chaste from afar (Miss B, French)
To try when your arms are too weary (from carrying all the marking home)
To reach the unreachable star (or target as it is known)

This is my quest (well my job, really)
To follow that star (A*)
No matter how hopeless (it is FFT D)
No matter how far (value-added must be Sig+)

To fight for the right (answers in an exam)
Without question or pause (Well, lots of questions and pauses - wait time - actually)
To be willing to march into hell (INSET Day)
For a heavenly cause (Identifying C/D borderline students)

And the world will be better for this (intervention programme)
That one man scorned and covered with scars (hopefully only psychological)
Once strove with his last ounce of courage (and a cup of coffee from the staffroom)
To reach the unreachable star (that new floor target)

Sunday, 8 January 2012

New trache of Free Schools announced

A new tranche of free schools has been announced by the DfE.  They have all had permission to open and proceed to the next stage before full funding is agreed.

They are:

The fat Free school
This school, sponsored by Weightwatchers, will open in Oldham and will cater for the large number of obese children in the area.  It will be set up in a specially designed building and will have wider doors and specially reinforced furniture.  The curriculum will contain extra PE sessions with the aim of achieving excellent GCSEs and significant weightloss.

The buy-one-get-one Free school
Set up on a split site, the school will have a retail specialism.  Its main sponsor will be Tesco and the school will cater for 14-16 year olds who wish to go into the retail business.

The Free wheelers school
This unique free school will not have its own building but be allowed to cycle around the country and teach wherever it decides to set up camp for the night.  A strong emphasis on geography and outdoor learning will be amongst its key features.

The Free Nelson Mandela School
Named after the most famous political prisoner, this school will be sponsored by Amnesty International.  Pupils will gain an understanding of the geopolitical context of the world.

Following claims from various organisations, the DfE have made it clear that there is no such thing as the Free Lunch School.  The application for the Free Love School has been rejected following concerns expressed by Nadine Torres MP - though the DfE are investigating whether an Adult Education version can be established for MPs.  They have also criticised the new free school proposed by Antony Worrall-Tompson and do not believe that Scott Free sends the right message.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

McDonalds to open chain of Free Schools

Sauces at the DfE are confirming that McDonalds, the popular fast food restaurants, are set to open a chain of free schools across the country.

A spokesperson from McDonalds, Mr R. McDonald, today announced the new venture.  He said, "McDonalds already has thousands of restaurants throughout the country, we have sponsored hospital wings and we even have our own university.  Now thanks to Mr Gove we have the opportunity to establish a number of 11-16 schools.

We have learned that we do not have to follow the National Curriculum nor do we have to employ qualified teachers, so we won't!  Instead, we have designed our own McUrriculum.  Our pupils will study Customer Service, Numeracy and Literacy, Food Hygiene, and some will take a Business Management qualification.  We also hope to link up to other McDonalds around the world to give students access to a foreign language.  We intend to create our own version of the EBacc called the McBacc and this will be the only qualification in the world to be served with fries," he joked.

When pressed how the day to day running of the schools would work, Mr McDonald pointed out that the school already had its own uniform, its own motto ('"I'm loving it") and plenty of premises.  He said, "Many of the free schools struggle to find suitable premises, however we have thousands of buildings across the country which could be used at quiet times for learning.  Furthermore, now that tosser* Jamie Oliver can't tell free schools what to serve for lunch we will be able to provide a nutritious, balanced meal for every student each day."

Mr Gove recently confirmed the news when he was overheard by a journalist discussing the proposal over a Big Mac.  Mr Gove reputedly said that, "given all the crazy applications we have had to sift through, this one from McDonalds looks to be quite sensible.  Anyone who can't see how positive this would be must be some sort of left-wing, vegan, failure-loving enemy of progress."

*It is believed that Mr McDonald is referring to Jamie Oliver's renowned ability to mix salad with dressing.