Is education broken?

Looking at the headlines, it seems so.

For a start, we have pupils in a complete mess in reaction to exam stress:

Then we have a crisis in teacher retention:
I saw somewhere a suggestion that paying teachers more would be a good solution. Whilst no one turns down a pay rise, I absolutely do not think that’s a the problem – if the conditions and workload are such as to make people incredibly miserable, they don’t suddenly become acceptable or sustainable on a long-term basis by paying more.

The problems are not limited to schools, of course. There is a major concern at universities about a “students as consumers” culture, and a managerialist rather than academic approach.

What on earth are we doing?
I don’t buy the “modern pressures are unique” thing for kids.  GCSE and A-level exams aren’t fundamentally any more stressful than their equivalents when I was at school – we had to achieve certain grades back then too. The exams themselves are not the issue. I do think there seems to be a much greater expectation that things will always be perfect and will never go wrong from the kids themselves and their parents, and the trouble is, if some are prone to it, it can infect others too.

I don’t think the myth that “you can be whatever you want to be” is helpful either (though it is promulgated with the best possible intentions) – that sort of approach tells me that if I just try hard enough, or I purchase the appropriate expensive education or training, then I too can be an outstanding athlete, a business success, a highflying scientist, a successful doctor….  Actually no. Sometimes you won’t make the grade, and thinking you always can is harmful. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, or should be defeatist, of course, but being told “it’s about wanting it enough” or “just put the work in” is a recipe for people blaming themselves when it doesn’t happen, rather than adjusting their plans as necessary and getting on with life.

Then we have the problematic mindset throughout education that prioritises that which can be readily measured above all, neglecting what may be more valuable. We have league tables and OFSTED for schools, more league tables, REF and TEF for universities. I am not trying to suggest we should do away with any such accountability, but these things are distorting the system horrendously, and no-one ever seems to indicate the limits of reliability of any of the data, or discusses what it doesn’t measure. We desperately need to give some trust to the professionalism of staff in schools and universities,  not force them to be forever chasing the ratings. This will surely not only improve staff’s mental wellbeing, reduce stress levels and improve retention , but also provide actual better outcomes, undistorted by metrics and league tables.

The “education as a means to an end” approach also has a lot to answer for. If you insist on seeing it as worth only what you gain from it financially, then it’s pretty inevitable that you end up in the mentality of feeling you are “buying” your degree (or GCSE/ A-level) and going with the “economically rational” approach of wanting the best outcome for the minimum effort, rather than embracing learning as a wonderful thing in itself.

I am also a firm believer that the best person to manage an organisation is someone who understands it – so I’d like them to have experience working at other levels in that or a similar organisation in the sector. Of course the best teachers aren’t always the best headteachers. But I’d never appoint a head who’d never taught (and I like it when heads keep up with a little teaching). I think this is fairly widely agreed at school level, so I find it odd that it is seen as relatively normal for universities to appoint people to the top jobs without a background in the sector.

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New style GCSE grades

I seem to have become our school’s “expert” (those inverted commas are most definitely needed) on the new-style GCSE grading (9 – 1 rather than A*-G) and what it will mean. I’ve now addressed parents of three different year groups, Heads of Department (twice) and our Governors (once) on this.

Why am I the “expert”? I guess largely through not being frightened of a formula that indicates how many grade 9s will be awarded in a subject.   It’s not that scary a formula, honest – but its very formula-ness seems to strike fear into the hearts of some.

Said formula is intended to allow a higher proportion of 9s (the absolute top grade) to those subjects which already have a more able cohort sitting them (like the separate sciences, modern languages, Latin, Greek etc).  That makes sense to me – if you don’t have any significant number of really weak kids doing Latin, then you’d expect a higher proportion of all the candidates doing it will get top grades.

Whether the whole system makes sense, however, is another matter.  On the face of it, having more discrimination at the top end does make some sort of sense to me, in some ways – I know in my subject there can be a huge difference in ability between two candidates who get an A*.

In practice? Much less convinced. Whether or not we should have had as many of the A* grades awarded at GCSE as we did – that’s what we’ve all been used to for a good while now.  Setting a new, super-demanding top grade, at the same time as deliberately toughening up the exams, is automatically going to pressurise both kids and teachers, and I am not at all sure the gains are worth the losses.  If you are one of those high-achieving, super-anxious kids (and it is usually girls) – if your older sister got a whole clutch of A*, and you don’t get a similar clutch of 9s, chances are you will feel a bit of a failure, whatever anyone says to try to stop it (and explaining how much harder the 9 will be to get than the A* was is a key feature of all those talks I’ve been doing).

I’m also concerned that if the threshold for a 9 becomes numerically very high, then it starts being less reliable – getting 95 rather than 96 probably says little about your ability – one minor “2 + 2 is 5” mistake could do that – but if that robs you of your 9, it becomes a big deal. The grades need to be reasonably wide bands of raw marks for them to be “safe”.

Then, of course, we have the changing demands by stealth… the new Grade 4 is pegged to be equivalent to the old C grade. So logic says, where league tables referred to A*-C, they should now refer to 9-4. But no… they are going to count 9-5 as “good passes”. So yet more schools will start being blamed for “poor” results, when actually even enabling some of these kids to get a 4 on the new tougher exam was a huge achievement.

One other potential daftness someone pointed out to me was the prospect of schools trying to game the system in terms of what subjects to offer. The way this goes is: they see a higher proportion of people get the top grades in Latin. So maybe we’d see “let’s enter our weak kids for Latin, they’ll have a better chance”!!!! Now I really hope this doesn’t happen – obviously it’s not a good educational choice for those kids if they wouldn’t otherwise have done it. The system should be proof against such tactics – boundary setting does have room in it for professional judgement, not just statistical measures, so flooding the market with weaker candidates shouldn’t result in too many getting top grades they don’t deserve – but I could imagine it causing a bit of disturbance in the short term.

One feature of my talk is an estimate of the grade distribution we might expect under the new system.  Needless to say I do not expect this to be spot on – individual variation is always going to come in, as it always does, I’m making assumptions about where our kids are within their current grades, and who knows what adjustments the exam boards will make when it comes to it. But whenever I produce this, the reaction seems to be as if I’d pulled out a crystal ball and magicked up a vision of the future, rather than just done some simple number crunching.

Why are adults – people in possession of a pass grade in O-level or GCSE maths – so awestruck by formulae, statistics etc?  And why – the flipside of this tendency to be awestruck – do they treat the results of some very simple mathematical modelling as if brought down from Mount Sinai carved on tablets of stone?    Maybe I need a new mission as a maths teacher – to stop adults being intimidated or bamboozled by figures – the kids are much better!

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The Guardian’s secret teacher

Just had to post this link to an excellent blog in The Guardian’s Secret Teacher:-

Despite being a lifelong Guardian reader, I don’t always agree with them on education (Simon Jenkins’ diabolical post on Higher Education recently being a prime example of where I disagree). But this post is spot on.

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Someone in a social media group I’m in (no, not one for teachers or even remotely connected to education) recently posted her horror and outrage that her daughter’s primary school teacher was unfamiliar with one of the irregular English plurals.

Now, my first instinct was to sympathise – it wasn’t that obscure an irregular plural (“oxen”) and google makes it very easy to look such things up if unsure.  Despite being a STEM person, I do have “grammar nazi” tendencies and can get very intense about mis-spellings or worse, misplaced apostrophes.

But then other people started piling in on the discussion. They wanted to humiliate the teacher. They wanted the original poster to demand to see the headteacher and be outraged. They claimed irreparable harm was being done to young people by this.

At this stage, I started re-evaluating my own take. Yes, it’s a mistake (and it seemed a basic one to me). Yes, the teacher needs to correct it. But like all of us, I’m sure she’d respond better to having her mistake pointed out to her in a gentle and civilised fashion, and being given the opportunity to correct it herself, rather than having her line manager come down on her like a ton of bricks.    If the parent has the conversation with her nicely, she will probably be a bit embarrassed – that’s inevitable – but apologetic and keen to correct it. Anything else, she’s likely to get defensive or really upset or both.

The mistake itself? For me, growing up in this country and so familiar with our traditional stories  and language – I can’t remember when I first learnt it was “oxen” not “oxes”. But for someone not a native speaker, it’s not something you’d come across every day (how often do we see even one ox?)

Personally, I think if a teacher makes a mistake then acknowledges it to the class, that can be a very good message on many levels. Firstly, that adults are not infallible. Secondly, that if we make a mistake we should acknowledge it and do something to correct it, if it affects other people. Thirdly, that making mistakes happens to the best of us. We often complain that kids are reluctant to acknowledge mistakes, so setting an example of doing so is no bad thing.  Of course if a teacher starts making loads of mistakes, then there is a bit of a problem. But the odd one here or there, if corrected, is not the end of the world.

I remember when I was in what is now Year 2 having occasion to correct a trainee teacher on two different things (yes, I was that sort of child). One was a misplaced apostrophe (yes, I have a long history of being pernickety about them) and the other was something rather more fundamental involving finding volumes (and said trainee not appreciating the need to convert the one measurement that was in metres into centimetres before multiplying by the others to find the volume of the box).  I remember very clearly how resistant she was and how reluctant to acknowledge her error – and that was when I lost respect for her, not when she made the errors in the first place.

It also set me wondering how easy it is for a primary school teacher to upgrade their subject knowledge. Of course they are obliged to have GCSEs at grade C or above in Maths, English and a Science, but that does not guarantee mastery of those subjects, even at primary level. It must be very hard to have to be up to speed on every subject in the curriculum.

The other thing that really struck me was the level of hostility from these people in the group to the erring teacher. Now most of these are generally nice, friendly, helpful people (wouldn’t be in a group with them otherwise). But the vitriol directed at this woman amazed me. Is it just because it’s an unknown “out there” person they’ve never encountered, and so can comfortably go for?  Or is it that teachers are meant to be perfect?  Or do so many otherwise normal, nice people nurse a seething undercurrent of hatred for teachers?  If the latter – why?  I had my share of teachers I didn’t like at school (and some, with the perspective of my own experience behind me, I really think weren’t doing a good job). But that didn’t make me anti teachers as a class of people, any more than my experience with a couple of distinctly indifferent doctors has made me dislike or fear all of them.  I’d like to understand… not least because I don’t like the idea of all those people out there nursing a secret hatred for me!

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No, not WASPS the acronym, the actual stripy buzzing stinging things.

Yes this is relevant to education – well, to the part of my role that’s about running external exams, anyway.

Last summer we had a swarm of wasps appear in the exam hall during the GCSE and A-level exams. This is not one of those things they have written procedures for in advance, unfortunately, and sadly, comprehensive though our school policies on exam-related matters are (I should know as I wrote’em) – we have sadly neglected to have one about wasps.

Anyway – the invigilators had to make a judgement call – endeavour to proceed with the exam, or evacuate (which would have meant keeping around 100 candidates in absolute silence somewhere or other until we could find suitable additional spaces and invigilators to house them).  Since the wasps didn’t seem to be on the war path, but were mainly just staying up by the ceiling, staying put seemed the best option, and the invigilators developed their professional skills significantly by becoming expert at “silent swatting” when any of the winged menaces did descend. Of course, I submitted group “special consideration” to attempt to compensate the candidates for the disruptive effect of the background buzz and occasional appearance of a wasp at ground level.

Ever since then, everyone has been paranoid about wasps.  The appearance of one wasp in the school – even if up on a curtain – has become the occasion for much weeping and wailing.   Last week one of the little ******* appeared during the seriously high pressure admissions tests (which we really could have done without – those tests are highly demanding, stressful for the candidates and very high stakes, so probably about the worst thing to be distracted in).

Now obviously we do our best to get exam halls to be insect-free zones. We have had pest control people in to look for any places in which wasps or bees may be hiding out. But unfortunately, I don’t know of any way to completely proof a school against flying insects (or any other wildlife…. my predecessor as exams officer had to deal with a pigeon flying into the exam hall, and I’ve had complaints about “noisy ducks” – why don’t the ducks obey the silence notices, eh?)

Come to that, other external factors can be fun too – I remember in the first school at which I organised exams, we had a police helicopter landing about 50 yards from the exam hall – that was a wee bit distracting.

What’s the solution? I really don’t mean to be unsympathetic to exam candidates who I can see are genuinely distracted and distressed by things like this – they aren’t putting it on at all, and I hate that anything has affected them.  But I can’t see how I can provide the sort of hermetically sealed environment that seems the only way to keep people happy.  I do find it a little odd, too, that a generation who, generally, tend to do their academic work surrounded by an “always on” culture – devices beeping, alerts going off, music playing – seem to be much more readily discombobulated by exterior factors than did earlier ones who were more used to a stimuli-free environment for work. Is it about this expectation of perfection in every respect, perhaps? Not sure. But I do know, as an exams officer, that the number of “special considerations” I have to put in per year these days is a massive multiple of what I put in 20 or even 10 years ago, and it does worry me.

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Whose results are they anyway?

I’m sure many people have seen the news story about a school jettisoning pupils after the first half of their sixth form studies, and been properly horrified.

I’d hope we’d all agree that getting rid of pupils who’ve behaved appropriately, studied diligently and would benefit from remaining at the school or college is not acceptable just to secure the school’s league table position. We most certainly do owe a duty of care to our pupils,  and if they get results that are good for them, but do not reflect honour and glory on the school, then the school just needs to suck it up.  Here’s an article from the TES on the same theme

But (and you know there’s always a but)…

Sometimes it is in the interests of the pupil to, at the very least, question whether continuing is the right choice for them. If they have specific ambitions that they are not on track to achieve, then we need to tell them, not wait until they’ve spent more time and got a nasty shock after the full two years. If the year has been a bit of a disaster area for them, it doesn’t have to be about protecting the school’s reputation to suggest that dropping back a year and restarting the sixth form might be worth considering.

The other point is – society (and the powers that be) seem convinced that good results are in the gift of the school, not mainly attributable to the pupil.  OK, this is drivel – unless we teach so badly as to put a ceiling on the pupil’s results, what they actually get will be much more to do with them than us, and so it should be!  But if the idea is that we value all pupils and do our best to help them achieve what they want to achieve, whether or not it is prestigious, then it’s vital to stop judging schools on raw results. We have the situation now that every pupil who achieves less than what is deemed a “good” result – no matter how praiseworthy an achievement it is for them – has a depressing effect on the school’s standing in the league tables, increases the chance of OFSTED coming down like a ton of bricks and is liable to get the poor Head an earbashing from the governors. Yes, I call upon school leaders to be brave enough to withstand this pressure and stand up for their pupils – but why should they be put in this iniquitous position?

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How’s this for bonkers?

The fact we’re coming up to A-level results soon set me browsing for educational news, and I found this gem:

I am thoroughly relieved to see that this guy’s university have told him in no uncertain terms that his idea’s not happening.  I almost wondered whether it had been made up just to provide an easy target for educational traditionalists (or send some of them into apoplexy).

But I am afraid he is only at the extreme end of a tendency that is far too common – brushing things that are problems or unpleasant under the carpet, rather than dealing with them. Of course no one likes getting a poor grade. But until it’s understood and internalised that there is indeed an issue, how on earth can anyone improve? Pretending that it isn’t a bad grade, or changing it without a reason really isn’t a solution. Imagine that happening in medicine – “oh, it’s too stressful to tell the patient that they have diabetes, so let’s invite them to make their own diagnosis and we’ll have that on their record instead”

I suspect most teachers have dealt with somewhat less extreme versions of this. For example: pupil gets 50% in mock exam. Teacher, trying to be generous and encouraging, sets grade boundary so that this is a C grade, knowing full well a D is more like it.  Teacher offers to predict B grade for external purposes (“well, it’s always good to go one up to allow for improvement, and with a following wind, and the right questions…”). Pupil and/or parent has hissy fit that an A or A* is not being predicted.   Teacher may opt for quiet life and give in… at which point pupil often starts to think “Yay, I’ll get an A”, rather than the more logical “Right, I really need to work now”.  And then – guess what – pupil actually gets that C or D in the real exam. At which point, the really outrageous pupil and/or parent turn with fury to the teacher “But you predicted me an A”!!

We need a culture change – we need to be able to be honest as teachers. And we need to encourage learners to be able to accept that their performance may not be what they’d like it to be. Sadly, I can’t see it happening any time soon.


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