Yes, year 11 exams are challenging; that’s the idea

Tom Sherrington on the need for balance and pragmatism when considering school exams.

GCSE Exams: Keeping a proportionate positive perspective.
Despite the fact that we’ve been running Y11 exams in one form or another for decades, there is always a fairly strong undercurrent in the discourse around the annual exam season characterised by a sense of injustice and unreasonableness. […]

This recent article by Simon Jenkins is a classic example of this kind of anti-exam hysteria. It’s so way over the top, it’s hard to take any of the arguments seriously.

Let me restore some balance.

My son’s just about finished his year 11 exams, and I’ve been very proud of his attitude towards them. He’s really taken to heart the maxim, ‘you get out what you put in’.

In my view there is a healthy pressure and work ethic that endpoint assessments generate. As a parent I’ve been quite happy to see my kids work really hard – super hard – for several months, motivated by the desire to succeed; to be ready to do their best. I totally reject the idea that this is intrinsically unfair or unhealthy or that the kind of exam revision required to get top GCSE grades is superficial and temporary. Would our kids know more in five years’ time if they hadn’t sat their exams – no! They’d know much less. They have much greater chance of remembering knowledge having had to revise extensively. This is particularly true, for both of my children and countless students I’ve taught, because the exam revision process had yielded multiple lightbulb moments. The intensity of study suddenly brings things together that were only half understood before.

Stressful, testing times

Haven’t we been here before?

Primary school headteacher quits over government’s curriculum reforms with emotional letter
On the controversial Sats exams, Ms Ahmad told The Independent: “I don’t have an issue at all with assessment but why do we have to put these pressures on children? In Year 6 it is exam conditions. In my opinion it is wrong – these children are 10 or 11.

“I feel that cannot put children’s needs first, and in my opinion that is the most important thing. I would do anything to look after my children but it has become harder and harder to do.” Earlier this month, The Independent revealed that thousands of parents are expected to withdraw their 10- and 11-year-olds from the Sats exams next month over concerns about their wellbeing.

Here’s Michael Rosen’s view on the SATs, from a few years ago now.

Michael Rosen: They say we’ve politicised the children’s stress. No, it’s the stress that’s political.
When you have high stakes*, summative**, norm-referenced*** testing, (e.g. SATs) you have to have enough questions which a given percentage of people will get wrong. That’s because the people who design these tests are told that the results have to come out looking right on a particular kind of graph. This is the so-called ‘normal’ distribution of children or students doing a given exam. If a test is given and ‘too many’ children appear to have done well, then the test will be condemned as being ‘too easy’ and newspaper columnists will say that the country is going to the dogs. So, these kinds of tests must have the ‘right’ proportion of failures. It has to be built-in to the test, and into the lead-up to the tests – in other words into what we call ‘education’ (!).

I guess those issues haven’t gone away. But look the government says it’s all going well, right?

Primary school tests show schools rising to the challenge
The national Key Stage 2 results show that 61% of primary school children in England achieved the expected standard, compared to 53% last year.

Counting the uncountable

“Not all things worth counting are countable and not all things that count are worth counting.” — Albert Einstein (Or was it?)

Chris Dillow reviews The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a book about “how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government.”

The Tyranny of Metrics: a review
Muller provides lots of examples of this, mostly from the US. But you’ll all have examples of your own. In universities the Research Assessment Exercise (now the REF) contributed to increased administration costs and perhaps to the replicability crisis by incentivizing the publication of mediocre research. In schools, targets can encourage teaching to the test, endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets might distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students and lead to the harassment of people who have lived here for decades. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books, or increase risk by encouraging “liars’ loans. And so on.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s just a question of balancing the quantitative with the qualitative.

The Tyranny of Metrics is not, however, a diatribe against targets. Muller points to the experience of some US hospitals to show that metrics can work. They do so, he says, when they are “based on collaboration and peer review”:

Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

In other words, metrics can succeed when they are complements to knowledge: when they organize the tacit and dispersed professional judgements of people who know ground truth.

Ofsted grades not fit for purpose?

A very interesting read about the need to move away from Ofsted grades.

Five reasons to ditch Ofsted grades
I reckon that in 50 years time, we will look back at the current Ofsted-grading era as one of the big educational blackspots of history. Serious educationalists and policy makers will laugh in knowing horror … at the extraordinary folly of a defunct inspection regime that involved sending a tiny team of people to schools they’d never been to before for a day or two to evaluate them against a massively long list of criteria and give them an overall one-word judgement. All of this while also projecting a national illusion that these judgements made by different people were fair, accurate, reliable and consistent across time and across the nation. And all of that alongside the delusion that this actually made for an ever-improving education system. Ho ho.


5. Every School Requires Improvement. Finally, isn’t this just the most obvious thing; all schools require improvement. Wouldn’t it just be so much better if we took all the labels off the reports, forced people to read them and left all schools with a record of their areas of strength and areas for development? Sure, we need a category for ‘below the line’ – and a separate process for dealing with urgent safeguarding failures – but even here I would argue that it should be called something that suggested maximum support was on its way, recognising the challenges at work – not the pejorative Jack Boots of ‘inadequate’ that just kicks everyone in the teeth.

TEF teething problems

TEF boycott fears allayed as elite universities opt in
With the deadline for applications to year two of the teaching excellence framework (TEF) closing at noon on 26 January, concerns remained that some of England’s elite institutions would decide to opt out of the policy because vice-chancellors were doubtful that the financial benefits of inflationary fee increases would outweigh the reputational damage caused by not being rated outstanding.

Not involved with HE matters anymore, sadly, but still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. I can only imagine how much of an admin and data burden this new performance measure framework is. Is it just another example of the search for a simplistic, numerical proxy for quality, I wonder?

Reshaping or shrinking the curriculum?

EBac: ‘With what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”?’
The idea of core academic subjects is an example of lazy thinking. It seems unconnected to the conversations being had in other educationally high-performing countries about what it is to be educated today. In England, we need high-quality options that are broad, rich and deep for all children, not the five restricting pillars that we are being offered.​

Should we not be keeping our options — and the options of the students that come through our schools — as open as possible?​

More life-after-levels headaches

Slave to the algorithm
It’s tempting to write this off as an isolated case: a naive headteacher who made an error of judgement. More fool them. But this is far from being an isolated case; it’s actually quite common. I regularly go into schools and get shown tracking systems that are awash with red. Loads of children are apparently below ‘age-related expectations’ and are not making ‘expected progress’. Yet, invariably, the headteacher will claim that ‘this is not a true reflection of the pupils in our school’, and ‘if you were to look in their books you’ll see the progress they’ve really made’, which begs the simple question: What is the value of a system that is at complete odds ​with reality?

Difficult times for primary schools, as they try to establish a new framework to replace levels. Here’s a video of how terms can be used to measure progress:

Life without Levels: Measuring attainment and progress in the new National Curriculum
How many schools are measuring progress and attainment from September 2014.

Not going Microsoft's way

Government plan to adopt ODF file format sparks standards debate
“The recommendation of HTML for browser-based editable text and PDF as the default for non-editable documents is uncontroversial, as they can both be read on most computer platforms. However, when it comes to exchanging drafts of documents between government departments, or between government and citizens or suppliers, the choice of an editable file format is proving more controversial.”

As always with these things, it’s best to see what The Register has to say, especially about Microsoft’s hissy fit in response.

A world away

The trouble at the top of HE policy making
I am not questioning the intelligence of the policy making elite, or their desire to improve things, but if their core understanding of HE is so removed from the reality that they think something like modularisation is a new innovation, then we are in trouble.

Daily Mail calmly assesses the state of higher education for us

Paul Greatrix finds a great piece from the Daily Mail about the current state of higher education.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)
Daily Mail online has a terrific piece which manages to conflate a host of different higher education issues within a single kick ass column. On the back of recent HESA data which shows an increase in the number of students achieving first and upper second class degrees the article moves on to plagiarism, league table corruption, commercialisation (not clear if good or bad), the optionality of HEAR (bad?), an ‘expert’ view of classifications, coercion of external examiners, VC pay increases and fee rises in the context of declining HE funding. Unbelievable? … A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us.

Read the rest of his post or go to the Daily Mail article itself, ‘Dumbed-down’ degrees: University standards under fire as 50% more students awarded a first.

Viewing the html source for this page reveals its more hysterical, original title, which I prefer I think:

So we’re not dumbing down? Number of students graduating with first class degrees soars by 45% in just FIVE YEARS | Mail Online