My Toby Young Moment?

Posted on October 4, 2013


How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
I’ve written one or two blogposts that have perhaps threatened to divide opinion, but I suspect that this is the one that will be most likely to lead to some “heated discussions” (there goes the euphemism klaxon). The reason for this suspicion, and the reason I have started and deleted this post three times already, is because I don’t see too many people agreeing with my point of view that the changes to accountability announced by Michael Gove this week with regard to GCSE re-sits are pretty much spot on. At least in my humble opinion.

I tweeted about this on the Sunday evening in a kind of mulling, speculative manner and was met with a bit of an avalanche of responses, only one of which was in agreement with me (thanks for that @sezl). So here’s a post that develops my thinking somewhat from those 140 character responses I gave on the night to those kind enough to discuss the issues with me.

The Timing & Source
One of the main things that came out in the responses I received that night, and in subsequent posts I have read on the matter, is that it was the timing and source of the announcement that most angered school leaders. In particular a lot of attention has been paid to within-year changes and their impact on students, and the fact that this was done through the Daily Telegraph. There are three things I want to say about the timing and source debate. The first is that changes to what is going to be reported in performance (or league) tables the following year ALWAYS come out during the course of the year in which those students will be Y11. The ‘statement of intent’ that the DfE puts out ALWAYS has tweaks in it. As SLT member in charge of data for three years I often found this exasperating, but it has become a fact of life that we live with and respond to as necessary. In this case, though, people who normally roll with such punches are crying ‘foul’ and I suspect that this partly down to their own discomfort.

The second point I want to make about timing and source is related to the fact that this came out via the Telegraph in the middle of the Conservative Party conference. Some people seem stunned by this and again I can’t understand why. Michael Gove has two jobs with very different audiences and sometimes (okay, pretty much all of the time) he speaks to one audience more than the other. I’ve lived through far too many party conference seasons to count and, as a Labour Party member and left-leaning teacher, I’ve had more than my fair share of heartsink moments during these September soirées, so shocked I am not. I don’t think that this is how policy ought to be conducted by senior ministers, but until the profession is ready and able (perhaps through a College of Teaching) to wrest significant control from the hands of the politicians this is always going to be the case, whatever the colour of the rosettes they wear.

A final thought about timing that worries me is the potential for hypocrisy on the part of school leaders. How often are we guilty of changing things partway through the year in a way that impacts upon the staff at our schools? I suspect quite often and not least of all with regard to exam entries. In defending this approach we would argue that we are responding to circumstances (perhaps from the DfE and others) or in light of new information that becomes available. In the case of this announcement Michael Gove is clearly responding to information from exam boards that a vast increase in the number of entries for November exams in English was on the way. If allowed to go unchecked this would have created the mother and father of all headaches about November entries including speaking and listening whilst June entries would not: a headache that even the bitter pills of Ofqual ‘comparative outcomes’ would not have been able to cure. Quite simply, having made the decision to remove speaking and listening MG had no choice but to do something about the November entries and this announcement is, at least, a far better solution for schools than commissioning Ofqual to distort grade boundaries in August.

On a related note I cannot even contemplate defending the decision to remove S&L assessments that was the precursor to this decision. It was plain wrong to do it at all, let alone mid-course, and has rightly led to the accusation that tinkering is all the DfE have left given their rush to make that decision. Indeed there will be more tinkering to come given the loopholes that have been created with this latest announcement.

Incidentally, although I agree with Geoff Barton that there have been some massive discrepancies between S&L and exam performance, I have been at a school that in the last five years has twice had exam board training and moderation for speaking and listening and the process is fabulous – a far cry from the other moderating elements of the English GCSE assessment process. If only we could have built upon that to secure the reliability of S&L and used it as a template for done-with, rather than done-to, exam board assessment.

Decoupling Student & School Accountability
A second claim made by those who criticise this announcement is a technical one in many respects: that the government is separating out pupil an school accountability measures, so that the information in the league tables and RAISEonline is different. Good news, is all I can say to that. The more clearly we demarcate institutional and individual assessment and accountability measures the better. It is horrendous that we make decisions about the overall effectiveness of schools that are intrinsically linked to the performance of students, which is only part of its effectiveness (or even of their effectiveness). What is notable though is the speed with which schools are seeking to withdraw students from November entries in order to maintain the alignment of school and student performance.

Many of these schools will be the same ones that rushed into the November entries only a few weeks ago. I can well understand why, when given the choice, schools opted to do this for the sake of their institutions. But now that school accountability has been decoupled from student performance many school leaders have found themselves not willing to take a gamble on the students at this point in the year. Why not? Does this illustrate that the needs of the institution were previously over-riding the needs of the students? Or does mass withdrawal and a move to terminal entry reinforce that it is we who are addicted to the alignment of school and student outcomes, not the government?

Again I am aware that the unhealthy accountability measures used in this country, with their endless perverse incentives and unintended consequences, are to blame for much of this. I also understand that it will take decades for us to achieve the escape velocity to free ourselves of the gravitational pull of floor targets and special measures, but this Grand Old Duke of York approach to this year’s November entries hasn’t exactly shown school leadership in its best light. Either we have the moral high ground or we don’t, but too often we find ourselves “neither up nor down” by saying we are doing the best for the students whilst acting in ways that seem entirely for the benefit of our schools.

Impact on School Results
Further to this last point, many people have pointed out the likely impact of these changes on school outcomes. Some suggest that schools will fall below floor targets and be forcibly converted into academies or be swept up by academy chains or even private enterprises. Others forecast that Heads will roll and that confidence and morale will be shot to pieces. Still more suggest that Ofsted will let loose all hell upon schools that see a sharp decline in their GCSE results.

Perhaps this is the case, if we assume that by entering students in November it will lead inevitably to lower results that will count against schools even if they re-sit and improve.

Or perhaps this is the case, if we assume that only giving students one shot at an exam in June will lead inevitably to lower results.

Neither scenario is particularly optimistic and neither places much trust in the ability of teachers and subject leaders to teach effectively and enter students for exams appropriately.

One respondent to my tweet on Sunday said that the “exam factory mentality” will not be solved by this. I disagree. I absolutely think it will and I think that we will see a rapid decline in the number of exam entries made before the June of Y11 series and hooray for that. Not only might it put more money back in the pockets of schools and curtail the exam boards, but it might mean an improvement in the quality of marking by examiners.

In schools it might also mean, particularly when controlled assessments go, that we might be able to focus more on teaching and learning than intervention and exam practice. At the moment we have certainly got the balance wrong, with too many of us believing that students failing external assessment has a formative purpose, either through giving students “a kick up the backside” or by helping them learn from their mistakes for their next attempt. I’d sooner prefer to believe that internal assessment processes can do those jobs far better, and so much more.

I utterly take John Tomsett’s point that we non-Headteachers don’t know what it feels like for Heads staring down the barrel of declining school performance, but I sometimes wonder how many school leaders fully understand what it feels like for classroom teachers to be bouncing their GCSE classes from controlled assessment to controlled assessment to early entry to re-sit rather than JUST TEACHING THEM THE SUBJECT!

Surely as school leaders and teachers we should be jumping up and down for joy that we can free ourselves from the continual disruption of eternal assessment, shouldn’t we? Surely as school leaders and teachers we should be doing the conga at the thought of being able to fill the half-empty glass of forthcoming linear examination with the half-full glass of extended teaching time, shouldn’t we? At the very least shouldn’t we be starting to believe that it is good quality teaching and judicious use of formative assessment (including the formative use of seemingly summative internal mock exam performance), not early entries and re-sits, that lead to enhanced outcomes for our students? And shouldn’t we be starting to believe that for the vast majority of our students their best performance will come at the end of their course of study, not midway through it?

If we don’t believe these things then I suggest we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and what we have become. If we do believe them, then surely this announcement can only help us to achieve them, regardless of the timing or the tenor of the Telegraph article.

Impact on Student Performance
A final set of arguments I have seen many times about the wrongness of the Gove-cum-Telegraph pronouncement is that it will have a detrimental impact upon the achievement of students themselves, particularly it would seem, on the exam success and life chances of students in schools with more ‘challenging’ intakes (someone tell me a school that doesn’t have a challenging intake).

The first thing to say in response to that assertion is that it emphatically shouldn’t, if schools are prepared to put the interests of their students above the interests of their league table performance. The announcement makes it clear that students can be entered early and can retain their best grade if they later re-sit the qualification. Having only ever taught in schools with these ‘challenging’ intakes I know the power of being able to early enter students who may potentially disappear sometime midway through Y11. But even in the most ‘challenging’ of circumstances the number of these students have been relatively low, and when push comes to shove the vast majority of them have indeed secured their best grades through this early entry mechanism. Schools may occasionally get this wrong, but with good monitoring systems and effective pastoral care, we should be able to get it right more often than not. A blanket approach to early entry is no way to deal with the problems of a small minority of students.

The second, more profound, argument I would make is in response to the robust argument made against me on Sunday that it is elitist to only give ‘vulnerable’ students (and again tell me a student who isn’t vulnerable) just one chance at an exam. Leaving aside my earlier point that schools don’t just have to give them one chance, isn’t it supporting an elitist view to suggest that children from more deprived backgrounds need to use early entry examination as a rehearsal for later examination success in a way that their less deprived peers don’t.

I understand only too well how much harder it is to help students achieve success in exams when their home lives are all over their place, when they have few role models of academic success, when they have been intellectually malnourished and when they face overcrowding, poor diets and all the other curses of poverty. But, having come from an estate background (of the urban heap rather than rural pile variety), I cannot accept that a skills-based approach to ensuring exam success should trump a content-rich approach to ensuring (and enduring) good learning.

We have to place far more faith in the systems and processes that make us successful as schools, not exam factories, to ensure that we enable ‘challenging’ and ‘vulnerable’ students of all socio-economic backgrounds to learn so well that they have nothing to fear from GCSE examinations as and when they are deemed ready to take them by the professionals who teach them. In doing so we will also be better equipping them to deal with the beyond-GCSE challenges that await them in their lives, their careers and continued study. Against these parameters the new approach to accountability that should make schools stop and think hard about early and multiple entry can surely only be a good thing.

How to Win Friends Back and Re-Influence People
The one element of twitter and blogging reportage critical of the announcement by our less-than-beloved Secretary of State for Education with which I wholeheartedly agree is the dismay that met the tone of the piece, particularly with the repeated use of the word ‘cheating’. The definition of the word is “to act dishonestly” and “to deceive or trick” and neither applies to schools looking to use the means at their disposal to seek advantage, both for their institutions and the individual students within them, in an unforgiving educational world.

Many have suggested the slightly less abrasive ‘gaming’ as an alternative, meaning “to act in an evasive, deceitful, manipulative, or trifling manner”. Again I would suggest that this is not anything like what passes through the mind of teachers and school leaders when they embark on the legitimate use of examinations to help ensure better outcomes for their students and schools.

This is certainly no trifling matter to any of us, but increasingly we have found ourselves resembling trifles in the face of pressure to achieve results for our students and our schools, all wobble and no substance. As the assessment and accountability ground shifts under our feet once more we need, more than ever, to stand firm and show just how much substance we have as teachers and school leaders.

With these changes we can take substantial control of early entry once more, making it work for the individual students who need it not using it as a default mechanism for all.

With these changes we can make substantial alterations to the balance between teaching, learning and assessment in our classrooms so that the latter once again takes its rightful place at the bottom of the pile.

With these changes we can pay substantially less to exam board whilst asking substantially more of them in terms of the quality of marking.

Perhaps most importantly, with these changes we can improve the substance of the students we teach, ensuring that they take learning more seriously, treat exams with the respect they ought to deserve and fully understand the balance between the two: that learning informs exam success, not the other way round.

If we can make this on-the-hoof policy pronouncement work for us in these ways then Michael Gove can tinker around all he wants in the future without it impacting upon us. Now isn’t that something we could all be friends about?