Yesterday saw the publication of a detailed and thoughtful piece of research by Professor Coe of Durham University http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf . 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.
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.