The Vocational Education Trade-Off

Some opponents to vocational education suggest that tracking students into vocational pathways early in school life increases educational inequality. Are they correct? Yes. At least according to a new study by Bol & Van de Werfhorst.
What did they do to find this out?
Using the data for 29 countries (including the UK) the researchers scored each country on three things:

  • Level of ‘tracking’ (or setting) – This score included the age at which students are first selected academically/vocationally, what % of the curriculum was selected, and the number of different pathways
  • The level of ‘vocational enrollment’ – This score was based on the % of students doing vocational studies in upper secondary school, and
  • Level of vocational course ‘specificity’ – i.e. did courses include work experience, were they highly job-specific in their content etc. 

The researchers then looked for correlations between these three variables and of certain ‘outcomes’ which included:

  • Youth unemployment as a ratio of adult employment, and
  • Average length of job search
  • Inequality of PISA scores in the country
  • Educational attainment adjusted for social origin

What did they find?
The first three findings showed the benefits of vocational education
#1 – academic setting has no effect on the youth/adult employment ratio. Putting students with others of an equal ability doesn’t influence employment likelihood.
#2 – where vocational education is work specific it reduces youth unemployment. If you train people to do specific jobs, they go on and do them.

#3 – young people spend less time looking for jobs in countries with higher levels of vocational enrollment. So, the more vocational education available the less the amount of time young people spend casting about for work.

The next three findings show the problems of the academic selection that occurs in countries with strong systems of vocational education
#4 – In a more tracked (or ‘set’) educational system, where lower ability students are ‘tracked’ into vocational classes, variation in student performance across all subjects is more strongly based on social class background. 
#5 – Academic tracking enhances the importance of social origin for reading performance. I.e., in countries with setting, social origin increasingly appears related to reading performance. 

#6 – In more tracked (‘set’) educational systems, social background is a stronger determinant for an individual’s opportunities in school than in non-set 
HOWEVER – it is very important here to note that what appears to be causing the problem is setting and not the vocational element. The trade-off appears to be that when countries ‘academically select’ certain people to go down an academic route and give others a vocational one there is then an inequality.
HERE’S A THOUGHT: Why can’t academic and vocational studies both be available to anyone of any calibre? What would happen if you simply said that there were no entry requirements for any subject at GCSE, and that all subjects were GCSE/A-Levels, even if they were ‘vocational’ – what would happen then?
It seems to me that you would then get people selecting by interest, and getting the skills required for the workplace, but you wouldn’t get the downside of the inequality and social class tracking. Or am I missing something here?!

Did Gove Implement Comparable Outcomes?

Part of the furor over the English GCSE Fiasco last summer was the use of something called ‘Comparable Outcomes’ – a method through which Ofqual limits grade awarding by requiring that the number of grades given are comparable to the previous year’s cohorts or to exams the current cohort took when younger.
Much was made of the role ‘comparable outcomes’ in the lower-than-expected numbers of students getting English C Grades in August 2012. Gove, however, was adamant that the adoption of comparable outcomes had nothing to do with him. In fact, in an Education Select Committee evidence session about this issue he said:

Q4 Michael Gove: The first thing that I would say is that the comparable outcomes framework was something that was designed and adopted before this Government came to power. It was a previous Government that, under the QCA, as it then was, and then subsequently under the previous leadership of Ofqual, adopted comparable outcomes and outlined how it should work, first of all with respect to A levels and then with GCSEs. So the current team at Ofqual are dealing with tools that were designed by the last Government, rather than tools they have had a chance to fashion themselves.

Except, a recent FOI release from the DfE seems to contradict this fact. In a huge (and very delayed) release of correspondence between the DfE and Ofqual, one of the documents has a ‘comparable outcomes’ timeline and specification box on its last two pages. This is what the box shows:
gcse adoption of comp outcomes
It’s a bit tricky to make out but the fifth column is titled “Decision on use of comparable outcomes”. The decision to use it in new GCSEs in “most subjects”, the “new English suite, maths, ICT” and “New science suite” were all taken on 6th December 2010. After the current government came to power.
Now, I want to make clear – this does not mean Gove is to blame for comparable outcomes. In the 7 months between taking office and this decision it’s entirely probable that Gove didn’t know what was going on at Ofqual. After all, he was busy trying to push free schools and academies as quickly as possible. Secondly, the decision appears to have been made at an Ofqual board meeting on 6th December and it’s not clear how the results of these meetings were being fed back to the DfE if at all. Gove’s ignorance of the matter is therefore plausible, although to argue that the previous government adopted comparable outcomes is perhaps over-stating the fact.
However, before the policy was fully implemented in the 2011 exam season there was a report to Ministers about what was going on (although the date is unknown). Then, the FOI release shows how in the Summer of 2011 there were some issues that foreshadowed what would occur in 2012 – particularly in AQA’s History GCSE. So concerned is the tone in some of the released emails they speak of “letting teachers know” in advance that results are likely to be lower in order to start managing expectations.  It therefore seems likely that Gove knew before Summer 2012 there would be lower grades. And though he didn’t introduce comparable outcomes, given that the policy was only documented (and not even yet fully implemented) at the end of December 2010 was it really impossible before Summer 2011 – or even after it – to stop the policy if one were really against it? Or is it possible that the ‘crisis of confidence’ that one email refers to as a possible consequence of comparable outcomes was, in fact, a great way to push for a new exam system?
The many many FOI releases are here if you want to look for yourself in order to come to a conclusion. For what it’s worth I don’t think there’s any evidence that Gove acted improperly during the GCSE Fiasco, but I do object to him blaming comparable outcomes on the previous administration when its implementation happened under his watch.

Freedom of Information Request regarding GCSE English Coursework Marks

I recently put in a Freedom of Information Request for the distribution of marks in the 2012 GCSE English Controlled Assessments. I did this because I read the @deevybee blog on the Phonics Test data with some interest and wondered if the GCSE English marks had shown a similar pattern.
Unfortunately Ofqual have turned down the request. Their reason is shown in a letter here (and below)
The main reason seems to be that they have the information as part of the Ofqual investigation into the GCSE English fiasco and therefore cannot currently release the information.  There also appears to be an undercurrent of ‘it wouldn’t be in the public interest’..
I have written back asking them if the information will be disclosable once the investigation is complete.
UPDATE: 16/10/12 Ofqual have said that once the English GCSE Investigation is complete and the report is published then I can discuss with the statisticians the possibility of releasing controlled assessment information.  They also said the Ofqual report is due to be released before the end of October. My bet is on a half-term release date.

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.

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