A blog rethink–but it’s far from all over!

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Me getting cosy with the Silurian known as Mette

Regular readers of this blog (I know there’s one or two of you out there) may have noticed something of a drop off in the rate of posts of late. If you’re waiting for my thoughts on True Blood, perhaps, you might be wondering why I’ve not said anything about the last two weeks’ episodes.

There’s a reason for this. I’ve got a full time job now, and in the exciting world of education, this is the busiest time of year – not even counting the continual ‘reform’ demands of the masterminds at the Department for Education. As a result, I’m spending more and more time at the office making sure the summer exams get marked, and finding less and less time to write. Something has to give. And – for a while, anyway – it’s going to be the writing.

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Stress takes its toll on your dress sense…

Not all of it, mind. But it’s getting impossible to keep up with doing weekly episode reviews of all my favourite shows – particularly given that virtually all of them are broadcast on Sunday evenings. It takes an hour or so to watch the show, half an hour maybe to do some screencaps, perhaps a bit of time for background research on shows like Mad Men or The Newsroom, and maybe two hours to write the lengthy essays that I laughingly term ‘reviews’.

Factor in working late and commuting, and each post effectively takes up one entire evening. Sometimes I’m so knackered from work that I guiltily procrastinate, and before you know it, I’ve missed several weeks’ worth of things. Longtime readers (yes, I’m egotistically hoping I have some) may have already noticed the abrupt disappearance of my weekly Dallas reviews following a couple of weeks out of the country.

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Here I am, in another country.

So I’m going to take a break. At the mo, the only show I had started to review weekly was True Blood, and to be honest, that’s been stuck for the last couple of seasons in a “not great but not terrible” kind of state. There’s nothing more boring than reviewing something you can neither praise nor snidely mock, so I’m going to knock those on the head. I may come back to weekly reviews for the return of The Newsroom in a couple of weeks – it depends on my workload at that job thing I do.

Reviewing so many shows on a weekly basis was never my intention. I actually started this blog primarily because my brief forum comments on each week’s Doctor Who were turning into epic essays. I used to do brief snippets on lots of things, including my other interests of politics and cars.

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I also like cars…

But when I was unemployed, I found a lot of writing time, so the weekly TV reviews ballooned at the expense of everything else. I’d like to think a lot of you enjoyed them; but I miss writing other things, too.

So here’s what – I’m stopping weekly episode reviews at least for a little while. I may come back to them for The Newsroom; I definitely will for Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. For now, though, I’m going to try writing other things, like I used to. Things that aren’t all about what was broadcast the same night of the week. Have a try – hopefully  you’ll enjoy them.

To sir with Gove…

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With the news headlines dominated by George Osborne’s latest efforts to kill the poor (sorry, “balance the budget”), today was the perfect day for esteemed Education Secretary (and premiere Pob impersonator) Michael Gove to spend an unnoticed hour and a half practising his skills at obfuscation at the Education Select Committee.

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I’ve written before about my (generally poor) opinion of Gove’s proposed reforms, which seem to be a combination of throwing qualifications back to the 1950s while simultaneously selling off the nation’s education infrastructure to the highest bidder. I’m glad to see that some in officialdom are equally concerned – not least of them being Ofqual, the regulatory body charged with overseeing standards in qualifications.

At about the 10.31.30 timestamp in that committee recording, Gove is asked by the chairman, Conservative MP Graham Stuart, what concerns Ofqual has expressed. Gove then spends the better part of ten minutes avoiding the question, which is repeatedly put to him by the chairman and then by other members of the panel. He admits that Ofqual have sent him a letter; asked about its contents, he flat out refuses to divulge them – “don’t want to put words into Ofqual’s mouth”, “confidential correspondence”, “you’d have to ask the regulator” etc, despite being repeatedly pressed for the fine distinction of his own understanding of what it contained. It was a fine slippery performance, worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby at his best.

“It’s not for me to comment on government policy, you must ask the minister.”

 

Gove then goes on to parrot his usual highly selective “evidence” that he claims will justify doing what he always said he wanted to do in the first place, assuring the committee that he’ll be happy to come back and discuss Ofqual’s reservations should they choose to make them public. Which, perhaps unfortunately for him, they have now done as of today, making the letter to which he refers freely available to all and sundry on their public website.

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This is actually quite damning in various ways. Firstly, it makes a nonsense of his repeated refusal to discuss their concerns on the grounds of confidentiality, making it a tacit accusation of brazen obfuscation. Secondly, Ofqual have been widely decried in the press as being far from the independent regulator they purport to be, more a sort of rubber stamp for Gove’s ambitions; with their Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey oft-portrayed as, at best, an unwilling puppet of Gove’s. That one of his supposedly staunchest allies should pretty publicly defy him in this way, while it could be seen as an attempt at self-defence, is hardly an endorsement of his agenda. It certainly undercuts his repeated (and distorted) references to their surveys to back up his proposals.

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But while the fact of the letter’s release to the public is in itself a slap in the face, take a look at its actual contents. Ofqual’s misgivings, not that far from my own and those of many education professionals, are pretty serious, and would give many a less dogmatically obsessed minister pause for thought.

They take care to applaud Gove’s publicly stated aims (ie, “better qualifications for everybody”, which is a pretty vague and meaningless proposal without specifics). But they then go on to express reservations about “both short and long term problems”, saying his cherished  EBCs “may exceed what is realistically achievable for a single assessment” as methods of untiered assessment accessible to the whole range of students and as a measure of school performance. “Our advice,” they state diplomatically, “is that there are no precedents that show that a single assessment could successfully fulfil all these purposes”. In the Yes Minister coded language utilised throughout, they might go on to inform him that it was a “very courageous” policy.

They also point out that while subjectively marked qualifications like English are far from a reliable performance indicator right now, Gove’s supposedly “rigorous” new EBC would by its very nature be even less reliable. They then refer to a recently expressed preference from schools regulator Ofsted for “more frequent progress testing as part of accountability measurement”. In a nutshell, they seem to be saying that Gove’s determination to have children tested with one brutal exam at the age of 16 is a far less valid measurement of performance – for schools, and by extension, their pupils – than the current system of continuous assessment provided by modular qualifications and coursework.

Earlier the letter expresses (justifiable) concern about the consistent ability of teachers to cope with yet another massive, fundamental change in the way 16 year olds are taught and assessed; well worth remembering in light of Gove’s recent legislation to allow completely unqualified staff to teach in his beloved academies, and to massively reduce the level of training needed for an actual teaching qualification.

And for a finale, they go on to basically rubbish the other major strand of Gove’s cherished reforms – the removal of competition between exam boards for each subject. As I’ve said in the past, I actually think this is a good idea in itself; but Ofqual make the very good point that such a massive fundamental change to qualification provision, on top of the already dramatic upheaval caused by replacing the entire foundations of Key Stage 4 qualifications for the last quarter-century is a recipe for disaster. Much better, they say, if you have to have massive changes, to do them one at a time; better to have one risk of disaster than several. An edifice might survive with one pillar pulled down; but not with all of them gone.

There’s also an implicit criticism of the wasteful unemployment that will likely result, with the loss of countless subject experts from exam boards not (un)lucky enough to win the bid to deliver the new qualifications. And to top it off, they point out that such boards are then hardly going to be in a position to develop the new A Levels Gove so desperately wants, when they’ve lost their subject experts as a result of losing those bids for the EBC.

All told, it’s a damning critique from the very body recently perceived as Gove’s lapdog, and the one whose data he so misleadingly and selectively uses to justify his actions. What’s more, its publication on the very day he so evasively resisted questioning about its contents looks like a deliberate slap in the minister’s mealy-mouthed, Pob-like chops.

Will he return to the committee and discuss Ofqual’s reservations, or will he brush them aside as he’s likely to do with the results of the DfE’s consultation on the matter? This government has already garnered a reputation for rejecting the results of its own consultations and enquiries when they don’t fit with its predetermined dogma – witness how George Osborne’s “deficit reduction” plan so uncannily mirrors longstanding Conservative philosophy in the face of so much testimony that it won’t achieve its aims.

Gove’s hell-for-leather charge to bulldozer through longstanding hard-right policies is symptomatic of the philosophy of this government as a whole – to sell off the nation’s silver in accordance with fanatical libertarian ideals, and to do it as quickly and irreversibly as possible before they’re voted out. His motives are neatly spelled out in this New Statesman article from one of the teachers in the trenches, which emotively (but accurately) refers to him as a “cynical, ideologically-driven man with an agenda of educational genocide”.

Hyperbole aside, Gove’s breathtaking display of sly evasion before a select committee chaired by one of his own party was so brazen it was up there with James Murdoch’s “I can’t recall…” testimony to Leveson. It’s just a shame that, with him being trumped for sheer nastiness by the Chancellor’s benefit cuts, nobody seems to have noticed it, leaving him free to carry on returning schoolchildren to the 50s. The 1850s. Given the direction of Osborne’s policies, we’ll soon see workhouses back in action, so that all fits together quite nicely.

A Nightmare in the Examination Hall

GCSEs! They’re terrible, aren’t they? Unfit for purpose? They must be, because the press told us so (ably assisted by various strategically placed press releases from the Education Secretary). Children the country over are suffering after unfair changes to grade boundaries left thousands with a D when previous benchmarks would have left them with a C. Proof, if proof be need be, that the entire GCSE system (introduced in 1988 by the Conservative Party, of all people) is entirely corrupt and unfair, right?

What EXACTLY is the problem this year?

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GCSEs are far from perfect, but as usual, the press (and the government) were (perhaps deliberately) telling a very simplistic and generalised version of what was going on.

According to my scouring of the TES forum on results day, and government regulator Ofqual’s official report, the issue of the changed grade boundaries affected two out of three GCSE English qualifications only. English Literature was unaffected, while English Language and English Language and Literature had problems. But only at the Foundation (lower) Tier, apparently (all those worried about introducing a “two-tier education system” might want to remember that GCSEs already do this). And, of three major exam boards across England, only from two of them (“primarily AQA and Edexcel”, says Ofqual).

To put that into perspective, that means that, out of dozens of subjects being examined, this problem affected only one. And that one has, in essence, eighteen separate qualifications (three English qualifications across three major boards, Foundation and Higher Tier for each), of which four were at fault. And each of those four was made up of three modules, not all of which had the grade boundaries dramatically shifted. Suddenly doesn’t look like the damning critique it appeared, does it?

The other issue that all the papers fail to mention is that these particular GCSEs were being awarded for the first time this year, initially by a small group in January then a much larger one in June. Under such circumstances, it’s fairly common for government regulator Ofqual (and their predecessors QCA) to send an observer to the awarding meetings where grade boundaries are decided, in order to monitor standards.

Ofqual’s initial assertion as to the reason for this issue is that the standard was set wrongly in January. It suggests that Ofqual weren’t properly monitoring the awarding in that first series for the new qualifications, which would be unusual. Equally, the boards concerned must have some culpability for setting the boundaries generously themselves, but Ofqual’s monitoring of this is the final arbiter, and the very reason for its existence.

This rather gives the impression that they allowed the first awarding of a new qualification to either be monitored sloppily, or not monitored at all. Ofqual is a fairly new and untried regulator, rushed into existence with alarming haste by the incoming Coalition government in 2010. With this in mind, you start wondering whether it’s the exams that are the problem, or the purported guardian of their standards. Of course, that’s all a bit fiddly for a big, emotive press story about children being unfairly treated by the thousand, and doesn’t fit the political narrative.

What should we do, Mr Gove?

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So, after a couple of weeks scandal, Mr Gove (Education Secretary and part time Pob lookalike) has given us his verdict on What Should Be Done with GCSEs. And unsurprisingly, his judgement based on all the evidence is… to do what he always said he wanted to do anyway.

So, a new ‘English Baccalaureate’ (must be good, it sounds classy), comprising the core subjects of English, Maths and the Sciences, each to be tested in one humongous three hour exam at the age of sixteen, with no more coursework. And each subject to be administered by only one exam board each, to combat the (apparent) problem of competition driving standards lower.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’m no fan of the current government (not that I have a lot of time for the Opposition either), but taking a step back from partisan politics, is any of this a Good Thing? And more pertinently, if it is, for whom is it Good?

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To take the latter point of Gove’s plans first – no more competition between exam boards? I actually think that’s rather a good idea. It’s a bit of a first for a Tory minister to acknowledge that the great god competition actually lowers standards in any situation; perhaps they could try extending that philosophy to the likes of water supplies, railways, bus services…

Still, I digress. It always seemed a nonsense for any real competition to exist when all of the competitors must, essentially, supply the same product meeting the same standards. The press narrative for a couple of years now has been that boards can only compete by offering “easier” exams, thereby giving schools a greater proportion of good results and a better place on the league table.

This is, generally speaking, bullshit. When the government’s standards regulator is doing its job properly, it must ensure that all qualifications in the same subject at the same level offer a parity of challenge. Put simply, if anyone’s caught offering an exam that’s “easier” than anyone else, they face potentially losing the ability to offer it at all. It’s quite common for disenchanted schools, facing a year of bad results, to take their business to another board – only to find next year’s results just as bad, if not worse.

So if all exams are the same, how can you have competition? It boils down to other areas; customer support, teacher training, learner resources and so on. The quest for each board to better the others here, with a finite budget, is what can lead to a stretching of resources and consequent problems the like of which we’ve already seen.

The elimination of competition should therefore be a Good Thing. And so it is, but only in part – boards will still have to compete to be the only one offering each subject at GCSE level. My preference, discussed in a previous post, would be for one board covering all subjects across the country, a system which works well in other countries such as Australia.

Still, competition every few years to offer a subject is better than competition all the bloody time, with each board mercilessly trying to grab a bigger slice of the market. The worry is going to be the initial scramble for licences, particularly with players like Edexcel, which has the financial might of its parent company, multinational publisher Pearson, behind it.

In order to be fair, the process of settling who gets to offer which subject absolutely must be completely transparent and open to public scrutiny. Edexcel’s status as part of a profit-driven multinational gives them an unfair advantage over not-for-profit boards like OCR. And in other areas of the Coalition’s frenetic quest to outsource all things public, we’ve seen private companies like Pearson assert the mantra of “commercial confidentiality” to cover all manner of sins in their negotiations. If this isn’t to be another case of ‘lobbying’ (read ‘paying off the minister concerned with a promise of a juicy directorship on retirement’), the process must be entirely open to scrutiny and investigation.

OK, OK… but what about the exams?

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When I was sixteen, I did O Levels – which worked in just the way Mr Gove is so keen on. I wasn’t convinced of their validity even then. A massive, nerve-wracking exam taken after weeks of frantic revision really only assesses what you’ve reminded yourself of recently and can remember on the day. GCSEs, while far from perfect, were designed to combat this with a process of continual assessment throughout the course, introducing the element of coursework to counter the criticism that plenty of intelligent people aren’t actually that good at exams.

Traditionalists have always had a bit of a problem with coursework; and in some ways they have a point. Mainly done without supervision, it was particularly open to plagiarism, a problem that’s intensified with the rise of the internet. The worry now is that entire coursework essays can be cribbed from Wikipedia; or even that certain, ahem, unscrupulous online companies actually offer to do it for you – for a fee, of course.

A halfway decent teacher, though, should be able to spot if work he/she is marking is written by someone other than the pupil they’ve been teaching for the past couple of years. If, that is, they’re not completely frazzled by their workload. Because for teachers, the problem is that coursework effectively means they’re marking students’ exams themselves, and that’s a lot of work – especially in larger schools, where the marking must be moderated by a more senior teacher and sometimes revisited if it’s not up to scratch.

The problem of plagiarism, at least, was supposed to be addressed by the introduction, in these new GCSEs, of ‘Controlled Assessment’ – basically doing coursework under supervised classroom conditions. Being a major change, it caused a lot of disquiet in the teaching professions, but it could have been a change for the better. Sadly, we’ll never know, as it was condemned for replacement after just one year due to the combination of press furore and political ambition. It may have a chance to prove itself in the next couple of years, as the ‘English Baccalaureate’ isn’t due to start until 2015, but its fate is already sealed.

So, assessment will go back to one, externally marked , terminal exam for each subject. I’m sure teachers will be very happy at the reduction in their already massive workload that will result from removing internally assessed work. But as a former exam board employee, I can testify that there was already a huge problem recruiting examiners for the examined units that already exist. Remove internally assessed ‘coursework’, and whatever board/s is/ are left will need many many more examiners.

Given the difficulty recruiting enough for the current level of externally marked work, I can see this being a logistical nightmare. Possibly the reduced workload caused by removing internal assessment will alleviate pressure on teachers, but I’m far from sure it will spur them on to become external examiners. And so Gove’s much-loved final exams may find themselves with a significant paucity of people to mark them. If you try to get exams marked without a sufficient amount of examiners, that’s when standards really suffer.

More generally, I’m not so sure about Gove’s emphasis on memorizing facts, figures and dates. Rote learning is important, of course – you can’t build an argument without facts to construct it from. But I worry that he’d rather have schoolchildren reciting the list of English monarchs without ever thinking about history.

The crux of it is that, while GCSEs could certainly have done with some fundamental reform, Gove’s changes simply push the system back to what he presumably fondly remembers from the 1950s. Hearkening back to a non-existent ‘Golden Age’ is certainly no basis for a programme of education – it’s been tried already, and the world has moved on.

So what should be done?

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I think there’s a real need to have a proper debate about the fundamentals of assessment – what we’re trying to achieve/quantify and how – going down to the absolute basics rather than modifying existing systems or hearkening back nostalgically to earlier ones. We need to properly challenge received wisdom on this issue, and do it entirely separately of political ideology.

For a start, since it’s been mooted that all children should stay in education until the age of eighteen (keeping them off those pesky unemployment registers), do we need a terminal exam at sixteen at all? GCSEs, like O Levels before them, were meant to quantify achievement at the level when children might leave school and go to work. If they’re not doing that, is there any point having them? Other countries, whose children stay in full time education until eighteen, manage perfectly well with tests taken at that point.

Which then leads us on to the question of A Levels. Among other things, GCSEs are used as a measure of whether a student is apt enough to take an A Level in a particular subject. But students don’t take A Levels in every subject; if terminal tests are taken at eighteen, they would necessarily include subjects that might not otherwise have been taken. Not everyone does Maths or English at A Level, for instance, but if all testing happened at the age of eighteen, they would have to. So that would render A Levels redundant too.

Which then, logically, brings us to Higher Education. With A Levels gone, how will universities assess the ability of their applicants? There’s already a problem that universities have to judge on the basis of predicted grades rather than actual results, and for years the idea has been floated of issuing results earlier, to give a more concrete idea of prospective students’ abilities. In practice, it’s unworkable – marking periods are already crushingly short, and to issue results significantly earlier would mean taking the actual exams much earlier, leaving less time to teach the course.

But maybe we shouldn’t assess by testing at all. Maybe there should be some other process of continual assessment throughout children’s schooling, from primary school onwards. And while we’re about it, do we need schools to be divided into a primary and secondary model at all? Again, other countries do it differently, some with more grades of school, some with less.

Also, should tests (if we have them) be norm-referenced (based on percentages of each cohort getting certain grades) or criterion-referenced (based on how well you actually know the subject you’re being tested on)? And why have grades in their current form? It’s always seemed unfair that a difference of one mark can move students from that all-important C to the doom-laden D. Why not express results in percentages of marks gained, as some countries do?

These are all questions that need to be asked. And ideally they need to be asked by educational experts, and not politicians. Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg has pledged that, should Labour return to power in 2015 (which is looking increasingly likely), they won’t implement Gove’s proposed changes at all.

That might be good news for those who cleave to the current system (which may not be a good thing either), but it means that for several years the entire educational system will be in turmoil, exam boards frantically designing new qualifications and tendering for licences to deliver them, while the poor overworked teachers must yet again begin training to deliver a new style of course – for the second time in three years. As always, the first group of students to take the test will be terrified of that leap into the unknown. And all for naught, if Labour get in and Twigg keeps his word.

It’s the clearest illustration ever of why politicians should be kept out of education altogether. Apart from the fact that they tend to know nothing about the subject, the constant demand to imprint your political ideology onto the education system means that it changes every time the government does, often for the worse. Teachers never know whether they’ll need retraining every five years, while students end up with incompatible results from completely different qualifications, that offer little comparability to prospective employers.

So if we really want reform, and we want it for the better, let’s keep political ideology out of it altogether and leave it to the experts – teachers, academics, you know, people who actually do the educating. Because Gove’s time trip to 1956 doesn’t strike me as much of an improvement.