Ofqual: Shameful and Shambolic.

So we hear from Ofqual today that in future it will be more difficult for young people to have their marks changed on appeal after sitting an exam. It’s one of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of an organisation moving to protect its interests at the expense of the purpose for which it was set up. Ofqual was established to ensure the fairness and consistency of the exam system. In today’s decision, it shows itself to be simply a protector of the interests of the examination boards.

At a point in time where a student’s ability to show resilience by re-sitting examinations and demonstrating improvement has not only been shut down by the Secretary of State, but positively hailed as a triumph, Ofqual put the boot in to say that even if you have been unfairly marked, there will be little course for redress. It’s a pincer movement which removes hope from the lives of young people who are increasingly being written off by a flawed and failing system.

As long ago as 1996, Wilmot et al showed in their research that marking even from the same examiner was inconsistent and flawed. Ofqual claim that if the marking criteria has been applied more harshly by one examiner than another, then the student should not have their mark altered. Under this rule, my son’s mark for an English Literature paper would have been left as a D. Yet when we appealed it, it went up to a B, giving him an A overall. It should not be even possible for the marking criteria to be so vague that one marker can see a D where another sees a B. Yet as any of us who have ever attended a standardisation meeting will attest, it is. This is not a fault of the student or their teacher, but of the examination criteria. Yet, it would seem that Ofqual are more interested in protecting this flawed system than ensuring that it works. Had these new rules applied, he would have missed out on his place at Oxford, where he went on to thrive and achieve a high 2:1. How many students under this new ruling will find their lives ruined as a result?

None of this even takes into consideration the extreme range of capability and experience of the examiners themselves. Last year, the major examination boards were recruiting markers who were not teachers and had no experience of the syllabus at all. Some were undergraduates. A chief examiner told me that she had been sent papers to mark on RESULTS DAY as a result of examiner shortages and that the students had been sent preliminary results instead based on predicted grades. When the quality of markers is as disparate as this and when the exam boards are so desperate for markers that they are offering already overloaded examiners double money plus bonuses for taking on extra, it is no wonder that mistakes are made. Yet instead of tackling this problem head on, Ofqual chooses instead to throw a shabby blanket over the mess and to make it harder for anyone to lift it up and see what’s underneath.

It has long been the principle of remarking that papers will be viewed by someone with experience within the board. This means that even if your paper was marked by a hungover second year student, in the event of a remark, it would be seen by a team leader with many years of experience of marking. This right has now been removed under the assumption that all examiners are equal. They are not.

Let’s not forget that the GCSE is in an ongoing state of flux, that AS levels are newly decapitated from A Level and no-one knows how that’s all going to work in terms of marking. Even the most seasoned examiners are in new territory so this decision seems even more insane. Surely in a period of unprecedented change across the whole system, it’s better to keep an open mind on re-marks?

If we had a strong body of examiners, well trained, well paid and who were given time to mark with careful consideration, things might be different. But we don’t. If we had a balance between examination and coursework, it might be different, but that’s gone. If we built in opportunities for children to resit exams (as many times as it takes to get to the standard expected – isn’t that the very definition of resilience?), it might be different. But we took that away too.

If there was ever an example of how rotten our reliance on exams has become, it is this. Last year saw the highest number of requests for remarks ever. A student was more likely to have their mark altered if they got their request in early – within a few weeks, the boards were moving to protect themselves. And now they’re shielded from all responsibility. It is a sham. And a whole generation of young people will pay the price for the rest of their lives.



Northern Workhouse

There’s been another North/South divide report out today pointing out that children do worse in the North than in London. Well except in primary. Primary kids do quite well. And in Warrington and Trafford. The report pauses here to consider how it might be that these two boroughs do better than, say Oldham. I could have saved them a bit of time. Two words. House prices. Cheshire is posh innit? I mean there are, as there are anywhere, pockets of poverty. But in Oldham, the trousers are made out of poverty with a couple of pockets of affluence up there in Saddleworth.

Still, let’s not be picky. The North does worse than London. London used to be shocking apparently, but now things have improved. Two words. House prices. Have you seen those images of how the demographic of London has shifted due to rising rental and property prices? It’s shocking. Move the poorest out, educational outcomes go up. Teach First claim credit.

Then there’s the immigration factor. People say those words like they’re obvious. Hmm, yes the ‘immigration factor’. Thing is Oldham has plenty of immigrants. But like any aspect of human life, race isn’t a straightforward issue. Class impacts on race. London has more educated, highly aspirational immigrants and refugees who value education. They may be poor, but theirs is situational poverty – a form of poverty that sees a potential future which is more affluent. For them, education is part of the journey to that future. That’s not to say poor white or immigrant families do not value education, but first generation immigrant communities who risked a great deal to leave home and travel to the UK for a better life, are far more likely to push their children than second or third generation immigrant communities dealing with generational poverty, disaffection and racial tensions. In these largely Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, Islamaphobia is a real and present danger. It’s hard to trust an education system in a society that seems to view your religion as a form of radicalisation. Barriers build up between communities and schools and these make learning harder for children. As one 8 year old Muslim child told my son in an ‘intercultural’ visit between their two schools:-

“People ask me if I have a bomb in my back pack. They don’t like us.”

Then of course, there’s the issue of funding. The IPPR report rightly points out that London schools get more money than those in the North. This in spite of the fact that for the kids in London, public transport is free. Here, kids have to pay £5 just for the right to get a pass that entitles them to child fares. And even then, the fares are extortionate. Ask a teacher in the North why they take so few school trips and they’ll point to the cost of transport. In London, that’s not an issue. Nor is access to a plethora of free cultural experiences and an enriching array of architecture and history on the doorstep.

Still, the report is upbeat about the answers. More CPD for teachers and more TeachFirst. Now I can see, even in a recruitment crisis, young graduates beating a door to work in London for a couple of years before getting a job in a bank. But Oldham? Don’t get me wrong. I live here and love it. But it’s not a big draw for a 21 year old with a first in Maths from Oxford is it? Not even the brass bands contest can pull them in. Instead, why don’t we look at what we already have here? The existing teachers who have worked here for years, dealing with every funding cut, every shifting goalpost, every increase in child mental health issues, every hideous situation arising from poverty and disaffection you can imagine…why not invest in those who are here and who already know? Those who say “what we need are more resources, the freedom to take these kids out of their field of experience and show them how amazing other places, times, cultures can be. What we need is time to embed change before the next one swoops in. What we need is a recognition that contacts matter, that aspiration can only occur when role models are present.”

For a child growing up in London in particular, where the classes are unusually integrated, it is not unusual to see someone in a suit walk down your street. In some parts of the North, only the bailiff wears a suit. It’s hard to imagine being a doctor or a lawyer or a rocket scientist if you never meet one. It’s why I love the work of the Opportunity Network in New York. Established by Jessica Pliska, it recognises that the biggest barriers for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, are not academic success, but contacts and confidence. The network arranges placements, internships, visits to universities and work places, mentoring, work shadowing, mock interviews and a whole host of other opportunities to young people. It’s incredibly successful. It’s what we need. A Northern Role Model and Mentoring House.

The gap here is not simply in education. It’s in town planning. In infrastructure. In housing. In the jobs market. In networking. If we can get those right, education will be able to do its job. With the people already there, in schools, doing it but having the road to success finally cleared for them. We really are in this together if we want it to work.