Over the past forever a central concern has driven examination reform: Employers don’t think exams are doing a very good job of differentiating students and/or they are not providing the right skills.
But behind this claim usually lies a lot of ignorance. Employers are often surprisingly lacking in knowledge about the content of exams that they malign. They also tend not to have a clear understanding of the accuracy/argument level students must demonstrate to achieve particular grades. This particularly true for subjects they never personally studied. This is why those who studied at ‘traditional’ schools often hold mistaken beliefs about subjects such as media studies or psychology, and why people who never studied Latin or Classics commonly do the same.
So, here’s a very simple solution to these problems: Give every student access to their completed GCSE/A-Level exam papers in an online hub. The student would log-in using a password and be able to see all their marked papers. This could then be an ‘exam portfolio’ the student could grant employer/university access to when applying for jobs.
This sounds like a hassle to create but the majority of exam papers are already scanned so that examiners can mark online. Sure, it might take a few technological leaps to link the exam boards together into one hub. But given that results from various exam boards pull through to UCAS using some form of tech-wizardry I am not willing to believe that the merely difficult is entirely impossible.
There are, however, several benefits to the system. First, it would enable employers to compare what students did in their exams – not just what they achieved. If employers don’t want to do this, then we should consider if their opinions about examinations are not more indicative of their wanting recruitment shortcuts than of a genuine struggle to recruit in a savvy manner. Second, if people were willing to share their records (I suspect many people would be), then we’d have an easily checkable record of past exams. Hence, when people start saying “Back in 1987 we had to rediscover relativity in 5 minutes without a calculator” and counterbalances this against the idea that today kids merely “decide if fish and chips are healthier than apples” we can call them out and ask for the proof.
Third, and this is potentially the most important. If students will share with their school, it gives teachers a plethora of options for spreading good examples of learning. At the moment it costs a fair bit of cash to get back exam papers. This means schools with healthy budgets can apply for lots and then use these to hone their teaching and share past mistakes with students. Poorer schools can’t. That shouldn’t be the way.
Given the exam is created by an individual, and the marking is paid for by the taxpayer, it seems right to me that the papers ought to go back to the individual as a matter of principle. That it would have additional benefits for employers and teachers to me makes it even more a right thing to do. Related Posts: What I learned From Writing About Exams Forget Boycotts, Get Parents To Opt Out Of Exams For Four-Year Olds
Tomorrow the National Union of Teachers will debate whether teachers ought to boycott the government’s proposed ‘tests for 4-year olds’. But the NUT are missing a trick. Instead of pushing teachers into looking like work-shirkers, why not encourage parents to opt-out of the tests?
The opt-out strategy is currently being used, with reasonable success, across the US in response to a country-wide policy requiring students to sit various tests and have the results be reported to the state and federal government.
From the US government perspective, wanting to know pupil progress over time is not an unreasonable desire. How can you evaluate if children are progressing, or teachers are performing well, or taxpayer money is being spent effectively if you don’t have a ‘baseline’ figure from which to check progress? (And ongoing results to see how the cohort is improving?)
But the test opposers have been smart. Even if wanting data is sensible, tests make parents nervous. It’s their kids they are handing over – the thing they hold most precious. If you can make parents not want their kids to sit the tests, what the government wants pales into comparison. So how did test-opposers make parents want to ‘opt-out’ of government tests?
First, they got organised. Facebook groups, twitter, and blogs were all used to create letters for parents to send to schools saying they were removing their child from exams. The OptOutOfStandardizedTest wiki is packed with this sort of info.
Second, they stoked concerns about data protection. Would a child’s score ever be leaked? Could it be used to deny them provisions? Could it be asked for many years later and used against them? (Sounds crazy, but there are examples of this kind of behaviour that makes me think it’s nowhere near as unlikely as we would think it to be in England).
Third, they repeated the use of the phrase ‘standardized’ tests and all the grungy ideas of ‘measuring children’ that comes with it. No one likes to think of their child being ‘standardized’. Mention the cattle-market, Brave New World-ness of it often enough and you can basically creep parents into opting-out.
Fourth, they played on nostalgia. “Remember when you were four/seven/ten and played in the sunshine for hours? Well your child will be locked inside revising”. Cue pics of exhausted children sleeping on textbooks while pristine swing sets sit abandoned. *sob* Could this work in England?
Potentially. Even just going for a more straightforward line would likely do it: “Parents, if you don’t want your child to have to sit onerous tests that the government will record and keep on file about your child forever please send this letter”
After all, how are Conservative politicians going to argue that parents shouldn’t have such power? The whole premise of Conservativism is that the family should have as much autonomy as possible. With increasing awareness of Data Protection, plus recent outrages over the sale of NHS records and people’s tax information, it’s possible the records angle would have traction too. Should the unions follow this line?
Ultimately, I don’t know if tests for four year-olds are a good idea. I’ve never really dealt with that age group. But what I do think is that parent opinion is more powerful, and likely more important, than teachers on this one. If they really don’t want this, it will be hard for the government to argue. If they don’t care, if they think “this would be quite useful”, then the teaching profession should probably let it go. The public pay our wages and send us their children. If they’re okay with their children doing the test, I’d likely trust their judgement.
Either way, though, if I was leading a union wanting to oppose the tests I’d absolutely be starting with parent boycotts before teacher ones. It’s easy to spin teachers as being lazy and difficult. But get the Parents’ Army onside, and politicians may well find themselves facing a group who are impossible to defeat.
A slightly provocative headline, but in this month’s Guardian column I use Jack-in-the-Box’s disasterous e-coli outbreak in 1993 to show how easily brand reputations can be tarnished. This is true even if the brand works zealously to overcome it. (JITB became so evangelical fast-food cooking changes that e-coli outbreaks subsequently dropped right across the fastfood industry).
While schools are usually in a less delicate position with regards to children’s health, there is a risk that with an increase in ‘branded schools’ child might end up ‘carrying’ around a bad name on their CVs for the rest of their life. It’s not a permanent injury, but it is an issue that needs careful forethought. After all, if Jack-in-the-box had been evangelical about e-coli before the outbreak there are 187 children who would not be suffering with permanent disabilities today.
Announcements are finally due to be made about the appointment of the new Regional Schools Commissioners.
For the uninitated, the Commissioners will work in geographically mad locations (see map) and will oversee all academies and free schools in that area. Essentially, they will act as devolved ‘Secretary of States’ in their region, but the four main functions the DfE say they will perform are:
Monitoring performance and prescribing intervention
Taking decisions about the creation of new schools (including free schools)
Ensuring enough high quality sponsors available to meet local need
Taking decisions on changes to open academies (e.g. should they be able to expand, change age range, etc).
Intriguingly, they will also be helped by a “HeadTeacher Board”. So far this has been a quieter part of the policy. However, I today discovered a letter from Frank Green, the National Schools Commissioner, which outlines how it will work. It says: So…. Some Serious Questions
1. A major concern here is the word “majority” elected. Why not “entirely elected”?
2. Why only headteachers in ‘outstanding’ schools eligible for being on the Board? Is this some kind of reward? Seems a bit unfair that you could be working to really improve a school and not be allowed to take part. Is the idea that if a school is already outstanding then it’s not a problem for a Head to cut out one day a week?
3. How will we account for ‘ex-headteachers’? So…still unclear on this…if you were the Head of an outstanding academy, but now you’re at a not-outstanding academy are you still eligible to stand?
4. Can you vote if you are now the head of a Trust? Seems a bit dodgy that someone who is now Head of a Trust, and will be wanting a…let’s say…’preferable outlook’ towards their sponsor chain could potentially be involved in voting for people who will then advise on preferred sponsors. Or am I being cynical?
5. How long are the terms? And can a new Regional Commissioner boot the old ones out? Is it like the House of Lords where you can stay forever? Can a mean new Commissioner make people resign?
This is not to say that the HeadTeacher Boards (or HTBs as they will no doubt become) can’t or won’t work. But it’s important we think through these issues in advance. No one likes a fiasco, right? Update! Everyone can vote in an area… Okay. Have amended blog to reflect this. Related Posts: Where Is The Desk Of The New Regional School Commissioners?
Why Gove Can’t Have It All Ways On Free Schools
Spent yesterday furious about free schools. It began with a press release received last week about one of the few free schools rated Outstanding and continued over the weekend as the Guardian released details of the government “cover-up strategy” for setting the policy back on track (i.e. making sure it doesn’t damage too much at the election box next year). Full blog is over at LKMCo. I warn you, it’s a bit angry.
I’ve contributed to some confusion today around IES Breckland’s pre-Ofsted monitoring visit. Completely my mistake and given that I’m always banging on about things being clear, I thought it best to sort it out. Straightforward facts: Feb 25th – I blog about free schools receiving DfE monitoring visits which result in being given reports that look exactly like Ofsted ones. This is after a Freedom of Information request for the visit documents where I am told I can only have a blank one. To release the secret ones would be too detrimental. March 11th – IES Breckland Free School receives a lot of press due to a pending ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating. Education Minister Matthew Hancock is interviewed on ITV and is asked why a report from the DfE in October describes the school as ‘excellent’. Hancock can’t answer but says that being transparent about free schools is “far better than not”, and intimates that the report has (or at least should be) published. March 12th – I write a second freedom of information request for the documents. This is where I screw up the first time. I suggest that there are concerns that the documentation of the October visit states the school is ‘outstanding’ not ‘excellent’. These, of course, are different terms – because one has an Ofsted meaning and the other doesn’t. I was involved conversations on Twitter raising this concern but am now wondering where the leap was made. April 2nd – The DfE responds to my FOI request and says there was no visit in October, the school was never labelled as outstanding, and that they still won’t release the forms.
Still not releasing the ‘excellent’ vs. ‘outstanding’ issue, I screw up a second time when I tweet:
Contrary to media reports, IES Breckland Free School was not told it was outstanding in DfE visit before Ofsted. http://t.co/EqytfiLFnR
So IES Breckland was not suggested to be outstanding by the DfE nor ITV. But it seems to have been called ‘excellent’, And in December, not October, which seems even closer to the inspection date.
So….some questions remain:
Was the school called excellent? I guess I’ve lost my chance on this one as the DfE are hardly going to respond to a follow-up (and don’t need to).
Why did Matt Hancock not deny the ‘excellent’ label, or say that the report had shown many problems? Could it be that he actually didn’t really know anything about what the report said?
Why did parents feel that the report suggested the school was ‘excellent’? How was that information passed to them?
As Elodie says, we can’t know for certain unless the reports are released by the DfE and I can’t see that happening any time soon. One thing is for certain though, I’ll be listening out more carefully for the use of the word ‘excellent’ in the future.