All Stick and No Carrot

My jaw hit the floor reading the report from Policy Exchange today which suggested that schools whose pupils fail to achieve a Grade C in English or Maths should be fined, with the money reallocated to the FE sector where they have to resit them. There is so much wrong with the idea that it seems almost futile to write about it. It’s a headline grabber, designed to ensure that the right wing think tank remains in the public eye. But it also exposes a real lack of understanding among our policy makers of the reality of school life for most teachers and pupils. It’s as if they think we just really can’t be bothered to teach them and that a fine will make us think again.

If we lived in a world where exams were criterion referenced, then in theory, it would be possible to argue that there should be no barriers to success. But we live in a norm referenced system which means by definition that some pupils will always fail – even if all got over 90% in the exams. To penalise those who came at the bottom in a system where there has to be a bottom is farcical. And of course, the schools who would be hardest hit would be those with the most challenging intake.

And there are some really important questions we need to ask about our cultural attitudes towards blame. Teaching young people that other people are responsible for their successes and failures is irresponsible. It traps children in a state of learned helplessness and apathy. If your school is to blame for your failure and not you, then it follows it is also the school who is to be praised for your successes. Where do you sit as an agentive, active person in this exchange? It’s a damaging attitude to foster in our young and it leads to all kinds of problems at University or in employment. Didn’t get your dissertation in on time? It won’t be your tutor who fails. Miss your sales targets? They won’t sack your manager.

Fostering responsibility in our young is a crucial element of what an education system should do. It is part of the bridge to adulthood – the ability to take a deep breath and say “I have no-one to blame but myself” and then to learn from that and become a better person. What are we doing to create this kind of thinker? Not a lot.

Instead we continue to insist that it is possible to achieve the nirvana of success for all, when it is patently untrue – at least by our current definitions of “success”. We insist on feeding children the lie that if they study hard, they’ll succeed and get a good job. Tell that to the 59% of graduates, lumbered with debt who are now, according to a recent report, working in jobs that did not require a degree. Tell that to the hundreds who did study hard for their GCSEs. Those who tried their best and then opened their envelope on results day last week and felt their hearts plummet to the floor.

My husband, still working in the same Sixth Form college where we met; one which serves many students from deprived backgrounds in Oldham, has spent days patiently trying to explain to these disappointed youngsters that they can’t now take up their places. That they will have to resit their Maths and/or English and take up new vocational courses in subjects they have no interest in – that or go elsewhere. The college can’t offer wider Level 2 courses because cuts in funding mean that they can’t support kids through three years of college. It used to be the case that the college would be able to give them another year to get things right – some of the children I taught on those courses went on to pass 7 GCSEs and take A Levels and are now happy adults with degrees and decent jobs. This is no longer a possibility because of the cuts Michael Gove made to three year programmes. No second chances here.

To glibly suggest that this funding crisis will be solved by fining schools is infantile. The children won’t collect a resit fee with their results and hand it over at enrolment onto a new course. The money will be taken from the school by government. It will be reallocated to an FE budget once all the admin costs and staffing have been taken off. Oh. That’s not going to leave a lot is it?

And let’s not forget that the GCSEs are in a state of flux. This year’s young people were doubly hammered. Removing Speaking and Listening from the English GSCE half way through their course, and bringing in accountability measures that meant that only first attempts at an exam would count in the league tables meant that in one swoop they moved into a linear mode of assessment, but for syllabuses that were designed to be modular. The result was that many took between 20 and 30 exams in the space of a few weeks. The pressure was unbearable. And I know because I watched my child go through it. Predicted an A for Maths, he came home from the infamous “Hannah’s Sweets” paper sweating. He knew he’d panicked. He got a C in the end – enough, but a disappointment to him. He just had a bad day. Now let’s imagine he had failed. Would that ‘bad day’ – hot on the heels of days of exams, a sleepless night and a bit of a cold, would that have been the school’s fault? Of course not. Some kids just lose it in some exams. It’s not that they were badly taught or that they didn’t know stuff. They just panic.

What about the child I taught some years ago whose mother died the night before she came in to do her exam. Her hands were shaking so badly she couldn’t hold her pen. Would the school be responsible for her performance? Every child has a different, unique story. The 10A*s kid whose parents spent £10,000 on private tuition. And the one who suffered a brain tumour, worked her socks off and also got 10A*s. Are the schools responsible for those successes?

As we move into the new syllabuses and marking schemes, what schools don’t need is for their chains to be tightened. They need time to get to know the new system. They need freedom to figure out what they need to do to make it work. They need to really start to play the long game, with much higher levels of challenge in Key Stage 3 so that children are not taught to tests, but taught to adapt and cope with this new world. The fines, I suspect, won’t come to pass. But they are representative of two great faults in our system – the misalignment between aim and reality and the removal of joy, agency and autonomy from the process of being educated.

And in response to the claims that this is an act of salvation for a cash strapped FE sector, here are a couple of alternatives:-

  1. Remove VAT. Post 16 education is not a luxury – it is now a requirement and yet the tax costs most sixth form colleges in excess of £350,000 per year.
  2. Reduce the number of GCSEs children sit. Have a core set of exams and other subjects that are internally assessed. The savings in exam entry alone would fund an expansion of FE. Or better still get rid of GCSEs altogether – every school would save 100s of thousands of pounds.

That’s for starters.

5 thoughts on “All Stick and No Carrot

  1. Debra, I lump policy exchange in with the Daily Mail there is no need for thought, evidence or compassion as long as it causes the right wing to hurrumph along with you. There is now so much hypocrisy in the education system that I am wondering what the options are for the “moderates”.

    Thanks as ever for staffing the barricades.


  2. You’re right about reducing the number of GCSEs pupils are expected to take. We should be moving towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes (which could include GCSEs, IGCSEs, AS levels, A levels, BTec, ModBac, TechBac, functional skills. ASDAN, even passing the driving test). This would kill the obsession with GCSE results at 16.

    The OECD warned in 2011 there was too much emphasis already on exam results in England which could lead to negative consequences (eg teaching to the test, gaming). But the Gov’t, and now this risible suggestion from Policy Exchange (set up by Michael Gove and Nick Boles, remember), increase the emphasis even more.

  3. The PX suggestion is based on the false premise (promoted by the Gov’t) than anything less than C is a ‘fail’. It isn’t – it’s U that is a fail. The range of grades G-A (and then A*) was designed to judge attainment from basic (G) to excellent (A). Basic may be a low standard but it is not a fail.

    The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (which included one Nicky Morgan MP) produced a report (2014/15 which said it wasn’t convinced GCSE should be the ‘gold standard’ for judging literacy and numeracy skills. It recommend training in functional skills and praised the Army’s success in raising literacy/numeracy skills in recruits via a stress on functional skills. It also made it clear Level 1 (the equivalent of GCSEs G-D) is’judged to be the level of skill needed for adults to function effectively in society’.

    Funny that Nicky Morgan doesn’t appear to have read the report from a Committee which she was a member of for some time during its production. Funny also that PX doesn’t appear to have read it either. Even funnier (though it doesn’t make me laugh), is that the Gov’t doesn’t seem to have read it because continuing with GCSE maths and English during the post 16 phase is mandatory until the magic C grade (equivalent to Level 2) is achieved. As the BIS Committee pointed out, repeating the same classroom-based learning could actually deter some post-16 learners.

  4. During my teaching career I’ve prepared about 300 pupils (all lower sets except one year when I had mixed ability) for CSE/GCSE English and CSE/GCSE English Lit (that’s 600 exam entries). Only about 20 achieved a C. I reckon my levy would be £290,000. So, not only was I an inadequate teacher for failing to get these pupils a C but it appears I will be rewarded for teaching bottom sets by spending my retirement in poverty.

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