Why Gove Is Incorrect On The "Bottom 25%"

Last week Michael Gove suggested that the ‘bottom 25%‘ of students should take a CSE, or at least a qualification that is lower than a GCSE in order to cater for their needs.
This 25% figure seemed both arbitrary and a bit rum, so I asked Chris Cook to get me some numbers and having sent those through I analysed and found that last year 83.5% of students achieved at least one C at GCSE.  This suggests that – at a maximum  – only approx. 16.5% of students could reasonably (ethically?) be entered for a qualification that doesn’t allow access to the C grade mark.  However, given there’s only 1 mark between a C and a D at the grade boundary most people would rightly be uncomfortable with the idea that everyone in this 16.5% is definitely out of reach of the C grade.  It is likely that on the right day some of them could have done better (and would have done in mock exams, etc).
To make the rule more stringent then we would probably only want to enter a student for a CSE if they were likely to get an E or below.  I looked again at last year’s figures and found only 7.7% of students achieve only E grades or below in their GCSEs*.  A whopping 92.3% of students achieve at least one D grade.  This number is even more startling if one only looks at students NOT on the SEN register; in this case just 2.2% of students receive only E grades or below.  Note, these calculations are based on full GCSEs – not BTECs, or equivalents – they are all full GCSEs.  Hence, if Gove wants to bring in a qualification for people who really are unlikely to pass GCSEs then he may be right to do so (see my blog below and here) but he needs to recognise that it will only really be useful for 7.7% of students (most of whom have a special education need) and not a fictional ‘bottom 25’.
[*Update 18:43 – The figures above don’t include students who didn’t sit GCSEs at all. If you count that in then this figure rises to 10.5%. It’s still a long way from 25 and probably also includes a bunch of private school students sitting the IB]

Let Us Not Pretend That GCSEs Are Perfect

 Earlier in the week Chris Cook, FT Education Correspondent, asked if anyone had written a logical explanation for the return of CSEs. To my knowledge, he couldn’t find one. However, I suggested that an explanation was possible and I think it is important that we lay out the reasons why the GCSE is problematic and why someone might suggest an altnerative. Simply pretending that GCSEs are great as they are, or pretending that CSEs are the only alternative option to the problems ofGCSEs, shows an egregious lack of imagination on both sides. There must be other possibilities to solve the problem of low achievement at GSCE and I thought I should lay out the issues and some solutions here so that we can have an honest debate about them rather than continue feeding into a tabloid frenzy of nostalgia.

So first, the actual policy problem: A small percentage of students each year gain nothing more than a handful of E- G GCSE grades which limit their options at college and which, if honestly declared on a job application form, may negatively impact their future.  I asked Chris Cook to get the figures on this and using the NPD results I worked out that 7.7% of students receive only E grades or below.  These are not ‘near misses’ – as would be the case for D grade students – these are students who significantly missed the C grade boundaries for every GCSE.  It is not 25% as Gove proclaimed – 7.7% is a much smaller number – but it is a group that we need to think carefully about.
In most cases, the students described above – with a handful of very low grades – could have been predicted from before the start of their GCSE course in Year 10 (aged 14). In fact, in many schools they will have been predicted a very low grade.  This prediction may not have been written on a document or told to parents (or even the pupil) because most schools have a policy of always adopting a challenging ‘target’ for each pupil in order to keep up high expectations and so tend to talk about this target as if it is a prediction.  The decent justification for this charade is that if you allow a pupil, parent or teacher to start believing a child is destined for a lower grade then a self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in meaning the child becomes likely to get that low grade even if they would otherwise have had an ability spurt and done better.  Unfortunately, this desire to have high expectations and pretend that students are not likely to get a lower grade sometimes means realistic discussions about what the student can do, and how they should best be supported, are missing.
Let me give an example:  Say I teach Shana in Year 9 and she has opted for GCSE History.  From my experience of Shana I know that she has an extremely low reading age, her extended writing is weak and her abstract thinking is under-developed compared to an average teenager.  Most schools test pupils in Year 7 and again in Year 10 through a ‘general ability’ test and then use this data to see what someone with any given ability profile tends to go on and get at GCSE.  Looking at Shana’s current level of ability what we see is that Shana is most likely to get an E in her GCSE History.  In fact, if we look across all subjects Shana is most statistically likely to get 6 Es and 4 Fs when she leaves school. It’s not certain, but it is most likely. Leaving with 6Es and 4Fs means Shana will have demonstrated in her exams a very basic, potentially confused, understanding of all her subjects but she isn’t considered proficient in any of them [this being based on the idea that a ‘C’ grade is the mark of proficient – especially in Maths and English – and also that if you look at answers that get E grades in GCSE they probably wouldn’t be considered ‘proficient’ if shown to the average public].
The dilemma is:  Should Shana continue with a 2-year course where we know that she will come out understanding very little about a lot of subjects, or is there something else we could do?
Now, I’ve had some Shanas who love history, who I know will work hard regardless of feeling lost, who will be incredibly proud of their E (or, D, C, etc), and who has a plan for college and life that will not be negatively impacted by her following History GCSE. In this case, I have never felt too concerned about Shana’s likely E, although maybe I should have done.  It’s also true that the data is not saying that Shana must get an E.  In some cases students end up with a result way above their prediction. But if we fairly assume that every child is in a school where teachers are trying hard to ensure their students get great grades, and every student works to capacity and yet the data still shows the majority of people in Shana’s position get Es then at some point we have to be realistic about what Shana is likely to walk away with.  [It’s also true that many students do NOT go to a school where every teacher is brilliant, and it’s also true that many students do NOT work to their full capacity, meaning the data is actually even more likely to be accurate!]
Where I do get very concerned is where a student like Shana is lethargic about school, where they know in advance that they’re going to get an E [and it will require a lot of work just to get that], that they know that an E equates to not really understanding the subject all that well and hence, instead, they would bite your arm off for a chance to get really good at one or two things (and these could be rigorous academic things, just fewer of them) rather than ambling their way from one confusing GCSE classroom to another entirely lost in the number of concepts, terms and ideas just so that they can leave school with a vague notion of some things but unable to do any one thing really well.  In this case I have often felt that there must be something that can be offered that would be better than yet another GCSE.
The simplest solution offered to this problem is ‘streaming’ – i.e. put all the students with expected lower grades in one groups and go through the GCSE syllabus more slowly.  There are several problems with this: (1) Most non-core subjects don’t have enough students to stream in this way, (2) There are positive peer group effects that happen when students are in mixed ability groups, both in terms of behaviour and in terms of learning, but the biggest problem of all is this: All GCSE papers have a wide amount of content in them any of which can come up in the exam. This is true whether you teach a paper going across the entire grade range (e.g. History) or if you do a paper with a foundation/higher split.  So even if you are teaching a lower set you must still push through a lot of ground to ensure that pupils have a chance of knowing what will come up. This leaves little time for a strategy of helping weaker students at least get to know some things well, rather than being confused about a lot of things, because you cannot skip content. If you do, and that is the main focus of the exam, then your student could well end up with a U rather than an E. And while an E may not be great for employment/college entry, a U is worse.
For this reason I can see why it might be beneficial to have a way that these students could cover less content, which would be learned more deeply, such that students who are weaker at 14 would still have an opportunity to grasp and learn rather than – as present – often become somewhat ignored in a classroom of 30 students rushing to get through a large syllabus.
However the thorny issue still remains about how you select the students who will take this  ‘lower’ exam paper and what pathways are opened up from it. Here are some possible ideas:
(1)    Use ability tests as described above at 14 to predict where a student is likely to get a lower grade, report that likelihood back to parents and have them choose if they want their child to continue with GCSEs or undertake an alternative (maybe a CSE or a literacy and numeracy programme)
(2)   If we are now keeping students in education to 18 why not slow GCSEs down for students likely to get E-G grades and have them complete over 4 years, sitting the GCSE at 18 rather than at 16 – this way the student could gradually develop the required skills over time rather than rushing through.
(3)   Provide extra tuition in English and Maths (or other subjects) for students who are ‘predicted’ E-G grades at 14.  This tuition could be compulsory extra hours before/after school, or it could be more flexible with an amount of money open to parents to be spent on a range of interventions, something akin to the personal health care packages now available for people with care service needs. I actually think this might be a better way of using the Pupil Premium – i.e. instead of targeting anyone on FSM, money is targeted on pupils at the lowest end, and instead of giving to scools provide the money as vouchers to parents to ‘buy’ the most appropriate services for their child to improve their results.
These solutions have their own issues and more thought would need to go into them. Indeed, any solution to this issue needs careful and considered argument which is why people are annoyed that it appears to be happening as a slanging match across newspapers. This is not about working out which generation had the ‘best’ exams, it is actually about ironing out the kinks in the education young people currently experience.  There are always more choices than simply following the fork in the road that says ‘GCSE’ or ‘O-Levels’.  Anyone saying otherwise is giving you a false choice. Education will be improved by forging a new path in the road rather than simply retracing the problems of our past.

Were O-Levels Harder Than GCSEs?

When answering the question: “Which was harder, O-Levels or GCSEs?” there are two different answers depending on what precisely you are asking about.
If you are asking: “Was it harder to get an A on O-Levels compared to GCSEs?” the answer is: Yes, it was harder to get a high grade on O-Levels rather than GCSEs. This is because grades for O-Levels were norm-referenced meaning only a set number of students could ever achieve the highest grade. Given that only students who had showed a high level of proficiency at the age of 11 were entered for the exam, the competition to be in that top percentage was particularly fierce and so an A was a (relatively) rare accomplishment.
If you are asking: “Was it qualitatively more difficult to complete an O-Level exam compared to a GCSE exam?” or “Did you need to know more to get an O-Level than a GCSE exam?” then the answer is more complicated. Having looked at O-Level papers the content is no  more challenging than what is expected of GCSE candidates – in fact in some places it seems rather easier. The O-Levels have far more choice in each paper, more marks given for conjecture, and the format of questions requires much less interpretation than today. Of course wise question choice and conjecturing are skills in themselves so I shall not argue that GCSEs are *harder* but I do think there is enough evidence to shows O-Levels were not qualitatively more difficult either. Hence, if you are asking are GCSEs easier to DO than O-Levels my answer would be: No.
Related Posts: 
Let Us Not Pretend That GCSEs Are Perfect
White Poor Pupils Do Considerably Worse At GCSEs Than Anyone Else

A Letter To Future Education Ministers: Could Curriculum Review Look Like This?

Dear Future Education Ministers,
Here’s an idea.  Why not set up a committee called “The Curriculum Review Panel” [I know it sounds familiar but bear with me].  It would re-write sections of the curriculum each year, or in rolling blocks. For example, for 2 years they could do the curriculum for 9-11 year olds. Then 2 years on one for 12-14 year olds. Once we get to 16 then you can start again at the beginning.
This would mean the curriculum is constantly open to new ideas but each year groups’ curriculum is only updated once every 10 years or so. That might seem a long time but it allows teachers to become experienced in the knowledge they are expected to impart and it’s also the length of time Hong Kong uses to consider its curriculum.  HK is a country that you refer to a lot as a “high performing education system” so I’m sure it will be okay.
This Panel would have 5 members – including a Chair.  When a new Government is appointed they are allowed to select ‘3 new members’ (and boot off 3) but must retain 2 members appointed by the previous Government. If you win another Parliament then you can change 3 members again – meaning you would then have a board fully selected by you (after all, you’re clearly doing an okay job).  It would mean that for the first Parliament at least you still had people who remembered what has happened previously and can provide context. Sure, it might be difficult for everyone to work together but avoiding the damage of curriculum shock in schools is a good idea and there are tricks below to help prevent things getting too nasty.
When curriculum are published (draft or otherwise) they would be collectively presented but each ‘panel expert’ is allowed to publish their own narrative about the findings, how it was decided and whether they think it is justifiable. These documents should be rigorously academic, part of the experts published corpus of work and form part of the public consultation on the curriculum. This will help the public know what the opinions are of each expert and judge how in line it is with their own beliefs, their party, etc. However, in terms of curriculum content a ‘majority rule’ is sufficient for a decision in the curriculum – i.e. if 3/5 feel a certain approach is best, this is the one included.  Though some experts may be unhappy about what is included, they must accept that their view was the minority and must be satisfied that they have been able to put their concerns into the public arena through their published narrative but that democratic sway was not in their favour on this occasion.
A tricky question now: What would stop the current Government making things so unbearable that the experts from the previous administration decide to leave the panel? And if they do, who will replace them?  It’s surely not a good idea that in the first administration all 5 are selected by the current government.  I therefore wonder if it might be possible to have a ‘List system’ whereby the previous administration publishes a ‘list’ of preferred candidates such that if an expert decides to leave then they will be replaced by the next person on the list.  In fact, the ‘list system’ could be something that all parties – in advance of a General Election – declare for scrutiny. That is, each party would have to name, say, 20 individuals in rank-order preference that would be asked to the Panel if a space was available. These 20 could also be the ‘ad-hoc’ list and could be called on for advice on various matters – maybe subject specialisms, etc – and this advice would also be publishable. In doing so this would help people know before voting in the General Election who is likely to be on the curriculum board and what values they hold.
You also might ask: What is to stop a Government putting any old random on their Expert list?  Nothing. But they can do that now. Anyone can advise on National Curriculum.  However, if the list system were to go ahead people would know in advance who they were getting and if people felt it important for certain people to be on the list (perhaps teachers) or certain people to be off the list (perhaps people with a commercial interest) then noise could be made to that effect which might encourage political parties to carefully consider their list choices.
As a politician this change would, of course, make me jumpy.  What if they say something I don’t like and I have to go with it?  Well, dear politician – YOU get to pick them. If YOU pick the experts then I suggest that YOU should trust their outcome.  Aha, thinks the politician, so if I just pick people who I know are sympathetic to my view then I can get the answers I want?  Perhaps. But remember, each person will need to make their own statement justifying their professional opinion about the curriculum. Their professional (possibly academic) reputation is on the line. It may be more tricky to ‘guide’ them than you think – and this is a very good thing.  After all, you are selecting them to be your ‘expert’ not your lacky.
The benefit in schools is that it would mean a more gradual change of curriculum rather than the current half-a-decade “all out” which is not only confusing for teachers and pupils, but is also *expensive* and so far has meant only incremental improvements. And sure, there would be in-fighting. Yes, it would still get tumultuous and political. That’s the nature of being involved in education. But perhaps these curriculum decisions might also be transparent, considered and done on the basis of rigorous argument – none of which would hurt anyone.
Please feel free to take this idea and run with it,
Laura (Miss) Mc

The Puzzle of the Free School Teachers (Re-direct)

*This post was originally at the LKMCo website and was published on 17th May 2011*
Recently I’ve noticed a puzzle I can’t solve.  As the writer of a booklet about Free Schools I’ve worked with several Free School applicants and I keep a close eye on who is planning to do what.  Hence I noticed a pattern forming in the rhetoric of most schools’ websites – can you spot it?
“(We will) attract and retain outstanding teachers” [West London Free School]
King’s…will boast an outstanding teaching and leadership team who have an excellent track record for raising attainment” [King’s Science Academy, Bradford]
Our small size will enable us to organise teaching in small groups of excellent staff” [Bedford & Kempston Free School]
These statements appear on the websites of the three schools mentioned. Similar statements appear on all other Free School websites I have ever visited.  The puzzle is this: how will you guarantee outstanding teaching?  Are your local schools so packed with surplus super-human teachers that they will flock to your gates?  Even if they do, will they honestly be instantly brilliant even though they have never worked with the management team or the students before?
Being fair, Bedford & Kempston claim that their ‘small size’ is advantageous.  Sadly for them, the opposite is true.  25% of teachers leave their jobs in Charter Schools each year compared to only 14% of public teachers (see here for report).  A main cause? The small size of the schools and the limits this puts on professional development and promotion (see Chicago University research for details).
Mind you, keeping teachers is not as difficult as finding them in the first place. With a nationwide teacher shortage in maths and MFL all schools are struggling to recruit although the inner-cities struggle most. Free Schools aren’t constrained by national pay scales but there is no guarantee that paying more means you will automatically get outstanding teachers applying; just those who need the money most.
The only way to be certain you will have excellent teachers is if you make them.  Recruit judiciously, sure, but also plan how you will make them brilliant because – as I describe in the book – even if you do get good teachers, there’s no guarantee they will stay that way.
Successful US Charters worked this out a long time ago.  For example, The Friends for Life Schoolschedules daily collaborative planning time among teachers.  MATCH Public School runs a teacher ‘residency’ model providing new trainees each year to run extra-curricular activities which frees planning and development times for its teachers.  MATCH also have a ‘teacher coaching’ service.
The puzzle of excellent teachers is therefore solvable.  No matter how good your vision, it won’t be enough.  So if you’re planning a Free School I urge you to say how you will find, develop and maintain your staff.  It will inspire the best to apply and it will avoid you walking into the predictable disaster of promising excellent teacher and finding, later, that all you have delivered is mediocrity.
“The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools and How to Avoid Them” is published by L.K.M Consulting and available here 
L.K.M Consulting is working with prospective Free School founders to help them ensure their schools are successful
L.K.M Consulting has significant expertise in school based teacher training and development and offers a mentoring and coaching program as well as a “4,3,2,1” program of observations and feedback to rapidly raise the standard of lessons. 

National Curriculum Review Update

Yesterday at LKMCo I posted an update on the National Curriculum Review at Primary level.  The DfE finally released their response to the Curriculum Experts’ Review and have also released draft Programmes of Study for consultation.
I am not a big fan of constant consultation. In my book if you are going to make a change the best thing you can do is consult first with practitioners, make your decisions, ask people what problems they foresee with the change, sort those out and then proceed.  Too much faffing about only adds to the anxiety of people’s lives you are changing and rarely gives an opportunity for actual debate – in reality the only people who get listened to in consultations are those who already have the government’s ear, otherwise no-one gets listened to because the government has already decided what they are doing and is simply using the consultation as a way of working out which newspaper headlines to encourage or avoid.  I will leave it to you to decide which of these two forms of consultation the primary schools review is taking.

The Out-of-Office Haiku (and other email-based rhymes)

For several years I have created poems whenever I have an Out-of-Office replying to my emails.  The first one ever was a haiku. It went like this:
Out Of Office Haiku – February 2009
Emails.  Sit in my
inbox festering while I
sip cocktails abroad.
Replies will be sent
February Twenty Three
Please, friends wait till then
Then I decided to do a few more over the years:
Out of Office Haiku – Easter 2009
Emails.  Sit in my
inbox unanswered while I
enjoy Easter eggs.
Replies will be sent
April 19th.  Sorry for
Out of Office Haiku – October 2010
Laura is away
On her half-term holiday
Will reply next week.
An emergency?
Call mobile number below
Otherwise please wait
Last summer I turned it up a notch and tried a limerick format, sort of:
Out Of Office Limerick – Summer 2011
Hot dogs, burgers, and fries
As I travel under US skies
But no email for me
While on this big spree
In the meantime you must improvise
I’m back on August Sixteen
And will reply like a replying-machine
If an emergency though
Text number below
Otherwise, patience is serene
But my most favourite invention is this one. I use it a surprising amount:
Haiku for a Missing Attachment
This is the email that says
Attachment attached
Feel free to steal and use, or let me know if you have any weird sign-offs. I’m in need of new inspiration.