Research, GCSEs and Falling Standards…

Yesterday saw the publication of a detailed and thoughtful piece of research by Professor Coe of Durham University . It bravely offered the view that instead of standards having risen steadily over the past twenty years or so, it seemed that they had, at best, held steady. He offered an impressive set of data with clear analysis and set out a demanding challenge for the education system. People who know my blog may be expecting me to launch into a criticism of this work, but to do so would be arrogant in the extreme. Professor Coe has spent a considerable amount of time on it, and I am spending half an hour on my response. The quality will be reflective of that commitment, so please bear in mind that these are initial musings and thoughts. What the research does, quite brilliantly, in my opinion, is to step forward as the child in the famous story and ask the emperor where his clothes are.

There are, however, some problems niggling at me. They not in the data, but in the conclusions drawn from the data, and this is where I’m focusing my attention. I wonder if there has been a tendency to attempt to find cause and consequence from a set of correlating figures which are not entirely supportable. This is not to say I am denying the problems – indeed, the information is compelling, but that the conclusions may be more complex than suggested.

Grade Inflation

For those of us who recently read the Oxford University analysis of GCSE examinations, Professor Coe’s findings may seem confusing and contradictory. In fact the two pieces of research had different objectives and points of focus. Oxford explored content and found that on the whole, the examinations were not easier and that evidence of grade inflation could just as easily be explained by improvements to teaching and learning, better access to information and general attempts to improve the quality of school resources and facilities. Professor Coe’s research does not delve into the content of the GCSE.

Instead he asks (quite rightly) the question that if GCSE grades have improved so dramatically over the past few decades, then why have there not been corresponding rises in PISA/TIMSS data and in impact on the economy? He refers to research conducted by Hanushek and Woessmann (2010) who claim that a 25 point rise on the PISA scale would equate to a £4trillion increase in England’s GPD. I can’t even begin to imagine how that is worked out, but it sounds like a lot. Accordingly, had the rise in GCSE pass rates transferred into PISA test results, we’d all be sitting on yachts, sipping champagne. So what is wrong?

Well, Coe points to grade inflation. Oxford offers some doubt about this. I don’t think it matters either way, because if GCSEs are not impacting on the future success of our young people or the economy, then what is the point in having them? I wonder if, instead of GCSEs being an indicator of future success, they are in fact, actually simply a barrier.

Let me explain. Coe points to PISA and YELLIS as points of evidence that there is not corresponding competency at GCSE – i.e. that success at GCSE does not match the ability identified by YELLIS or PISA. Let’s take YELLIS to start with. No-one preps kids for YELLIS. It is not in their interests to do so. If kids do badly on YELLIS then well on GCSEs, the contextual value added looks better. PISA tests don’t focus on the same kinds of knowledge and understanding as GCSEs do. In fact their purpose is to sort out who can and cannot apply knowledge in ‘novel’ situations according to the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher. And here I think we may have the crux of the problem. GCSEs do not test the skills that might lead to such a significant impact on the economy. PISA tests may.

So…I wonder if an alternative interpretation of the data might be that while we have become much more adept at training children to leap through the hoops of GCSEs, we have not actually made them capable of the kinds of thinking or habits of mind that would make them thrive beyond school. I wonder if the GCSEs are in fact useless. Not that passing them has not been an achievement for children or their teachers, or that they haven’t involved enormous effort, but that perhaps the effort has been misplaced. I have written many times of how I sometimes want to weep when I see lessons given over to exam technique. Two minutes on this, ten minutes on that. We have become superb at getting children through GCSEs – this is not grade inflation, this is grade distraction.

Coe’s research is one of the most important documents I have read in some time. His ideas for developing CPD are interesting. He points out, rightly that there are some issues with consistency in applying methods which are thought to work, like Assessment for Learning. This inconsistency has also been documented by Sue Swaffield at Cambridge. Both of these issues should be addressed. But I ask whether or not we should look at this entire research in a different way – as an opportunity to radically reconsider what kinds of assessments would best suit our children. What forms of application are most appropriate? What do we need in order to build a better future?

Right…half an hour is up. I welcome comments and ideas.

Wilshaw, Gove and Creative Pods – Day 1 of EdFest

I went to EdFest yesterday and should have been there today, but my son is home from University for one precious weekend before heading off for his Summer job, so forgive me – this is a single day review.

I travelled down with my good friend Hywel Roberts who fed me liquorice and managed not to show too much alarm as I ploughed down squirrels and veered across lanes in my haste to make it down south in time for a little beer before bed. Needless to say, little turned into lots and our 7am start felt painful. We pulled up into the grounds of Wellington College. “Don’t know about level playing field” I said “Any of these playing fields would do for us.” The place is exquisite.


Hywel, seen above, slightly out of his comfort zone, was presenting in the morning at the same time as Michael Wilshaw. He’s a brilliant speaker and for those of you who haven’t read his book, Oops, a very funny man. But he realised that he was unlikely to have many people in his session, given the competition. Even I dumped him for Wilshaw. He was wrong though – his room was packed and all day we were stopped by people telling him how much they enjoyed his brilliant and funny session. He is a man who loves children and sees teaching as ‘imagineering’ – no-one misbehaves for Hywel – they’re too engrossed.

Michael Wilshaw

But I went to see Michael Wilshaw. He started in combative mood, speaking of an unprecedented moment in history, from which there would be ‘no turning back’. He declared it a ‘revolution’ which he would lead ‘from the front’ and that there would be ‘blood on the floor’. He casually dismissed English state education as ‘mediocre’ but admitted there had been significant improvement since the 70s and 80s. He went on to talk about the idea that the traditional black spots of education – the inner cities – had managed the greatest levels of improvement and ominously announced that his focus was now turning to the FE sector, rural schools, and most of all, seaside towns:-

“Oh it’s too bad to be beside the seaside,

Oh it’s too bad to be beside the sea.

Where standards start to fall,

There are some heads gonna roll,

Beside the seaside, beside the sea”

I wish he’d sung this, but he didn’t. Make of it what you will. Seasides are rubbish, or inspectors are tired of Travel Lodges in Gorton and want a little time on the beach.

He made a strong case for building quality vocational provision in our schools alongside academic routes and the majority of his speech really focused on a fairly colonial view that independent schools should be doing more to share facilities and resources with state schools, either by sponsoring academies, or by collaborating more fully. This was never going to be a controversial element of his speech and it made up the bulk. He asked of wealthy parents ‘Do you want your child to be marooned on an island of privilege, cut off from the mainland?’ and I assume he thought the answer would be ‘no’. But in reality, I think that island is what they’re paying for. Just a thought.

His speech was combative in language, but in reality felt damp. He struck me as a man who, despite what he says, has lost his motivation. Perhaps he was a little ill, perhaps he too had had one too many the night before, but he didn’t seem to be a man with the energy for a revolution. But then maybe, if you have your army doing the work for you, you don’t need it. Who knows?

Charles Leadbeater

I have wanted to hear Charles Leadbeater speak for years – TED has been the nearest I have got in the past. He is an innovative and radical thinker and has a canny knack of spotting the marginal movements that become massive phenomena. He voiced concern that the education debate in England was turning ‘into a civil war’ and tried to explore what might be happening. He, as he often does, turned to business for analogies. He pointed to the example of aeronautical engineering and showed a picture of the DC3 – the aircraft of choice in the 1950s. The problem with the DC3 was that it flew at an altitude which meant it had to fly through weather (cloud cover), leading to many cancelled flights and constant damage to the aircraft. While technology was beginning to be available to create aircraft which could fly at greater altitude, above the clouds, most airlines preferred to continue tinkering with and improving the DC3. Eventually, an airline invested in Boeing craft and the rest is history. Leadbeater described Michael Gove as a passionate engineer of the DC3, desperately battling to keep his favourite craft in the air, while all around him, passengers were demanding the Boeing.

Leadbeater presented three scenarios for the use of technology in education. The first was ‘Disruptive Liberation’ in which technology is used to bring communities together in shared goals, visions and enterprises. Where human interaction was key and technology seen as an extension of collaborative activity. The second was ‘Impotent Incorporation’ –  a consumer driven model in which teachers would use technology simply to make what they were already doing a little more exciting – from video to dvd to live streaming for example – kids are still passively doing the same thing – or from banda to OHT to PPT to Prezi. The third way, and he said ‘most worrying’ was the ‘reductive commodification’ model – where teachers could be replaced by on-line learning – a narrowing of education to a set of facts that could be learned and tested on line. He urged us to reject that model and pointed out that our system needs ‘regime change’. He urged parents and teachers to overcome the ‘cartel of fear’ that keeps the ‘DC3’ in operation – fear of the unknown and the worry that change will be bad. It was a powerful and thought provoking contribution to the day.

4D Creative

I spent a blessed few moments in a 4D creative pod – a pop up tent space with projectors, i-pads, sound systems and so on where you can switch the setting to a WW1 trench, or the Arctic, or a rainforest or any number of environments. It was very cool. There are quite a lot of these types of immersive spaces on the market at the moment, but what I love about 4D is that it is underpinned by innovative pedagogy – the package comes with training and suggestions of what you might do in the space and the ideas are really exciting. I want to run a workshop in a 4D pod and I know my kids would love it. We’d better start saving up.

Martin Robinson

He wasn’t running a session yesterday, but I bumped into him in the bookshop and got him to sign his book for me. Trivium. I’m on page 65 and it is excellent and very intelligent. He takes you through the ancient trivium of grammar, dialect and rhetoric and explores how the education system has become artificially polarised as ‘traditional or progressive’ when in fact, an excellent education consists of a combination of three elements. Read it. It’s good. And he seems like a nice man, which is always a bonus.

Guy Claxton and Daisy Christodoulou

I had to listen through the window to this one as the room was packed and I’m adding here, in view of the controversy about this section, that I couldn’t see either – so there are better accounts of this session to be read! Guy Claxton was so popular that he’d had to repeat an earlier session twice and was now on for a third time. It seemed to be billed on twitter as a ‘battle’ – some Daisy fans were getting quite excited about the prospect. In reality it went a bit like this (with a little poetic license):-

Daisy – I think we should listen to cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists

Guy – I am a cognitive psychologist (he didn’t actually say this – he was too polite to point out that  he is a cognitive psychologist with a double first from Cambridge, an MPhil from Oxford and a string of letters behind his name!)

Daisy – Knowledge is important

Guy – Yes it is

Daisy – We need excellence. We need to build a world class education system.

Guy – Excellent at what? World class in what?

Daisy – …. (now in the interest of fairness and adding this after Kris Boulton, who COULD see, commented below – Daisy didn’t get a chance to answer this question which explains why I didn’t hear her response.)

I haven’t read Daisy’s book yet. It has been published by her employer, The Curriculum Centre, as an e-book available on kindle. The Curriculum Centre serves the Future Academy group, set up by John Nash, who ‘is a wealthy Tory donor, venture capitalist and enthusiastic sponsor of academies’ and ‘has been appointed an education minister by Michael Gove’. He was ‘rushed into a peerage to make him the voice of education reform in the Lords’ according to The Guardian and is ‘a key figure in Gove’s team at the education ministry’. Perhaps that explains why when I initially wrote this section, it provoked outrage from supporters of Conservative education policy on twitter.

Tom Bennett

The room was packed with NQTs and Teach First twitteratti like Tessa Matthews, Kris Boulton, Joe Kirby, Redandgreenpen, Daisy Christodoulou and a couple of others, who it turns out are good friends. Like me and Hywel.

Anyway, back to the session. Well, it was hot and the room was crowded and Tom was wearing a suit and waistcoat so perhaps that explains why it lacked umph. He said that good behaviour was about rewards and sanctions. And had the grace to admit that it was not an original idea. He accused head-teachers of giving naughty children a cup of tea and a biscuit when they were removed from your classroom. I can’t say that’s ever happened where I work, but maybe it does somewhere. He advised young teachers to lead from the front, put desks in rows, avoid group work and be the ‘sage on the stage’. Hywel Roberts gently wept beside me. That was about it. Then he plugged his book.

Michael Gove

Walking up to the incredible marquee that had been set up for the main events, we passed children dressed in army gear, carrying guns. ‘Only here’ I thought – ‘children with guns outside Manchester Academy might not be allowed.’

The room was absolutely packed and the event was set up as a ‘conversation’ with journalist ‘David Aaronovitch’. His opening question was ‘As someone who knows that you are perfectly likeable…could you explain why so many people hate you?…People like reverends and nursery teachers and the like?’ And the questioning continued in a similar vein. It was a move of genius – allowing any audience tension or anger to dissolve into laughter and allowing Michael Gove to present himself as a good sport. I have never been in the same room as the man before. I have seen media images that help to promote the image of a hapless fool simply by showing an unkind picture of his face. He is no hapless fool. This next paragraph might not make me popular, but it is my impression.

Michael Gove is a skilled orator. He is funny, engaging and personable. He is deeply and personally passionate about education and genuinely wants to fly young people, especially poor, young people, to the ends of the earth in a voyage of discovery of knowledge. He has considered, no doubt, many times, what might have happened to him, as a child who was adopted, if he had not been ‘saved’ by his adoptive family and sent to what he feels was an ‘excellent’ school. As I listened to him, I felt a strong tug of empathy. I wanted to give him a hug and say, ‘Look your heart’s in the right place, you’re just mistaken – let go of the DC3’ but then I remembered that I was listening to a skilled politician.

He claimed that it was his job as Secretary of State to provide a ‘clear and coherent’ vision for education and then admitted that the History Curriculum was being redrafted in view of the criticisms that had been levelled at it. It’s good to listen, so let’s not knock that, but let’s not pretend either, that his vision has been clear or coherent:-

1. The uncertainty over what is happening to exams is not clear or coherent.

2. His own testimony to the Select Committee claimed that ‘coherence comes at the end.’

3. The appointment of experts and the subsequent refusal to accept their advice was neither clear not coherent.

4. The atomisation of the schools system and its separation into academy, free school and maintained school is incoherent and fragmented and the ensuing Osfted inspections do not offer a clear view of improvement – in fact many are failing.

5. The rhetoric of improving the life chances for the poorest in our society falters in the face of the facts. 300,000 more children are now in poverty than there were at the start of this government’s term of office. To blame teachers for their problems academically is to ignore the attendant issues with health, well being, access to appropriate learning environments at home and parental engagement. Education can be the answer, but there needs to be clear and coherent social policy. This was my question to him at the end. He accepted that it was a good question and then failed to answer it. His response lacked coherence.

Other questioners pointed out inconsistencies in his policies. A year 13 student pointed out that his changes to resits for A Level, would have meant that she, from a deprived background, would not be attending university next year had his changes taken effect this year. An Art PGCE student pointed out that removal of funding for Arts graduates to train undermined the value of her subject. Some questioners, disappointingly, used their moment in the spot light to plug their organisations.

There were glimmers of good news – the History Curriculum has been altered. Perhaps the new measure of average point score across 8 GCSEs rather than the measure of 5 A*-Cs will raise the status given to other subjects – but it will impact heavily on those schools with children struggling to get five as it is. He seemed open to the possibility that GCSEs might be anachronistic though avoided taking a clear position on that. He spoke of the value of high quality vocational pathways – but still fell back into rhetoric about Russell Group universities. He said he valued ‘good habits of mind’ like grit and determination, which might have felt like a softening on his position on skills, but equally, as Phil Wood pointed out, is part of the Social Darwinism discourse. Whichever position you take, there is no doubt that here is a very clever man, who can use language, when he chooses, to be all things to all people. Listen very carefully.

And then I came home.

Assessing Children Post 1


The death of National Curriculum levels was not a sudden announcement – the idea was supported by the DfE in its response to the expert panel review of the curriculum two years ago – in fact it was about the only recommendation that was approved of! But nevertheless, it seems foolish that instead of spending the interim two years exploring other options and putting these forward, the DfE seem to have sat on the idea, scratched their heads, come up with nothing and then thrown it out to us (in the name of autonomy). We have a choice now, because we can do one of two things. Panic or Act. If we panic, we will throw our schools’ dwindling resources in the direction of the army of gurus who are at this moment assembling over the hill, ready to provide you with a shiny and expensive new solution. If you thought the Phonic Boom was lucrative for some, it’s nothing compared to the one that will emerge from Ace Assessors. This is a very real fear which was well expressed by Chris Hildrew in his blog this morning. There is another way…the trojan way. Kev Bartle called for a democratic and non-profit sharing of ideas and expertise last week, and it seems that this is a perfect time to put this into action on the subject of assessment. We could do it ourselves, share our best practices and create our own models. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll do a little research and share some of those thoughts, but in the meantime, let’s think about the following ideas. And to break up the tedium, I’ve inserted some of our Year 7 (unlevelled) writing from this year, including this one from a little fledgling revolutionary:-

IMAG1589 (1)

Assessment v Grading
Assessing is a complex art – grading is a crude measure. For too long we have been fixated on grading and not assessment. We can assess, through a variety of media (look at EYFS) a range of social, cultural, artistic and dialogic skills in children which can never be measured in a test. Our assessment models will need to make clear the distinctions between the two types of learning, which, to borrow from Joe Kirby, might involve assessment for mastery (functional) and assessment for living (social). Harry Torrance (1996) calls these ‘convergent’ and ‘divergent’ assessment models.


Functional or Convergent Assessment:-

It was the functional skill set  of literacy and numeracy that current levels were initially designed to measure. These were then adopted widely in KS3 for every subject leading to ludicrous developments in the Arts for example, where teachers attempted to define Level 3 still images in Drama, or Level 5 composition in Music. I imagine that many of those teachers will be leaping in their gardens today with champagne glasses in their hands. If not, why not? I suspect because we’ve built a dependency culture from which it may be hard to wean some people. Change is scary, but it can lead to a better place.


For functional skills in literacy and maths, there is genuine concern, however, for it is on these measures that no doubt, primary schools will continue to be judged. I’ll share ideas about this in more detail in future posts, but for now, let’s consider the following:-

1. Use current competency statements – The production of ‘I can’ statements with portfolios of evidence, linked to a pyramid or ladder of mastery. We can still take criteria and apply it to children’s work. ‘I can use capital letters and full stops consistently’/’I can write using a variety of complex sentences’ – these statements exist in abundance and using them focuses children’s attention on what they can and can’t do rather than the level they are at. – remember the QTS standards – it would be a little like evidencing those standards.


2. External Verification – The portfolios of evidence could then be sampled and moderated by either visiting examiners (which would mean that there was greater reliability as they could see all the portfolios and select five at random) or by sending them off as currently happens with GCSE/A Level and leaving the process open to a degree of game play. It all depends on how much the government trusts teachers 😉 In this way, the teacher assessment processes currently in place would remain and these would form the basis for moderation. There would be no need for an externally marked test. And before you raise your eyebrows at that – read these two stories from SATs examiners:-

Since the marking scandal a few years ago, [where the marking of SATs papers was found to be wildly inconsistent between markers], the system has moved to a computerised model. The computer is programmed to check your marking, and key words and phrases are entered so that if you give a pupil a mark for an answer which doesn’t contain the key word, the computer won’t accept the mark. It’s led to some ridiculous situations – for example in the Level 6 grammar test, there was a sentence that was something like this  ” felt like a lot of swimming;  it still does” You were only allowed to give marks if the pupil had used the word ‘pause’ so one could write ‘the semi-colon creates a pause’ and they get full marks, but a child who writes “the writer uses a semi-colon to show he is reflecting on his childhood memory and deciding that even now it still seems a long way” gets nothing. But which is the more sophisticated answer?”

Another one said

” sometimes the criteria is so vague, that you can’t decide whether the answer should get 1 or 3 marks. If you’re two marks out for more than a couple of questions, the computer freezes your account and you’re not allowed to mark any more – you are sacked effectively – so it’s really tempting to give a 2 to be on the safe side – that way you’re only one mark out and the computer will let it go. There’ll be a whole lot of kids bunching in the middle just to make sure that the examiner gets paid.”

Social (Divergent) Assessment
When a child moves up to Secondary, or even from year to year, there is often little evidence, beyond some suspect data for literacy and numeracy, of who they are and what they have achieved. I find it astonishing that in most secondaries, teachers don’t even pass up the children’s books to the next teacher and rely instead on the numbers entered into the system with no explanation. A portfolio would help this problem – the child could and should take with them to secondary school, a portfolio of work from across their subjects that they share with teachers in secondary school as part of an induction period. It will include ‘I can’, ‘I have’ and ‘I know’ evidence from in and out of school. Sporting achievements, musical instruments played, club memberships, pieces of writing, maths work, project work and so on. This should be repeated annually so that every new teacher gets information about what that child has holistically achieved in the previous year. I remember being pretty frustrated when a music teacher mentioned to me in Year 10, that he didn’t know that my son played guitar until he had seen him playing with his English teacher one lunchtime. He might have asked him in Year 7.


Assessment for Living
Our Year 7s are experiencing a new curriculum this year. We’ve paid lip service to levels to fit in with the school’s data tracking process, but we’ve been much more focused on developing the skills of the children. Every half term (for four of the half terms) we read a full novel and explore that novel for its social, cultural and historical context linked to a key philosophical question. The children produce writing and select their best five pieces to submit in a portfolio. That writing is then assessed, not only for quality of style, but for the use of knowledge and quality of thinking – for example, the use of empathy in diary writing, or understanding of information in leaflets. In the fifth half term, each group is given twenty pounds and asked to turn it into £200 for charity. This year, they raised well over £3000 for a school in Uganda. They have to look at the genre of charity advertising, write reports for their ‘sponsors’, keep in touch with the Ugandan school and find out what they need; they have to market their ideas, contact local businesses for support, etc, etc, They then produce an event, make money and write about its impact.

The final half term, taking place right now, follows the assessment structure of a doctorate! An extended piece of writing (1500 words in Year 7, 2000 in Year 8) followed by an hour long Viva (called the Pupil Driven Review) in which they are expected to give a ten minute presentation, share their portfolio and extended project and set targets for the following year. This takes place in front of three peer assessors, parents and a teacher. No levels are given – just advice and targets. Simples.

We need to embrace these changes as an opportunity. We need to wean ourselves off a dependency on levels which were only ever at best a crude ‘best fit’ model. We all know Level 4 writers who were Level 6 speakers and vice versa – a literacy level was always a farce. Let’s work towards genuine, divergent models, while ensuring that the BASICS – the functional skills – are seen as just that – the basic entitlement from which mastery in secondary school can be built and allow children to show their full range of potential.

Over the next few weeks, I would urge bloggers and tweachers to share their ideas and resources under the hashtag of #trojanassessment – not to say that there is One Way, but to show that there are many lovely and exciting routes leading to the same goal of excellence and high expectations –  while recognising that learning is rooted in the whole life of the child.