Who are the new GCSEs for?

The first post on this blog, in December 2012, was a tirade against the English Baccalaureate Certificates proposed by the then education secretary Michael Gove. In my first foray into the blogosphere, I was furious with the proposal for two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects and accessible only to some students. Fortunately, Gove saw sense and in February 2013 he performed what Stephen Twigg called “a humiliating climb-down” in parliament,  claiming that the reforms were “a bridge too far.” The profession breathed a sigh of relief. I too am mightily relieved that instead of those awful EBCs we now have reformed GCSEs – two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects. Politics, eh?

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

In truth, the most hateful part of the EBC proposal was that low-attaining students would not be able to achieve them and would instead be awarded a “Statement of Achievement” by their school. My cynical side can’t help but think that this was a bluff – a proposal so awful that was always intended for withdrawal so the remaining policy was seen as a  better compromise. At least the reformed GCSEs span the full attainment range and are accessible to all (in theory at least).

One of my other concerns about the EBCs was that, since they were only going to be available in EBacc subjects, they would create a two-tier curriculum favouring those subjects above others (whilst we’re on the subject, why isn’t RE a humanity?) This problem remains. The gradual roll-out of new-style GCSEs to English and Maths first, then other EBacc subjects, has already begun, but the status of other old-style GCSEs is still to be decided by Ofqual. All the rhetoric around the qualifications system has effectively devalued any A*-G GCSEs, and this was reinforced in July this year when the DfE confirmed that only reformed 1-9 graded GCSE qualifications would count in performance tables from 2017. The press release comfortingly stated:

“Schools may still enter pupils early for ‘legacy’ qualifications, but if they do pupils will need to either take the new GCSE in 2017 or progress to a higher level qualification, such as an AS qualification, for their achievements to count in tables.”

I have written before about this government’s use of the performance tables as a lever for change, and this is another prime example. Clearly, the DfE wants particular curriculum models in schools, favouring the English Baccalaureate route wherever possible. There is a whole raft of other qualifications and curriculum opportunities available, but they are being squeezed out by the fact that they don’t “count in tables.” You could teach alternative Science qualifications, BTECs and iGCSEs or even unexamined enrichment courses, and the students could get a perfectly balanced, rounded education, but if you want Ofsted to know how good you are you’d best stick to the new GCSEs and fill up the buckets in Progress 8 and Attainment 8 for as many students as possible. Woe betide those subjects that don’t make the cut when Ofqual decides which subjects get to be new-style GCSEs.

The summer holiday has given me enough time to pause and think. Who exactly are the new GCSEs for, anyway? All young people are now required to stay in education or training until they are 18 due to the rise in the participation age. This means that the GCSE is no longer the final qualification any young person will take. They will all go on to something else – A-levels, International Baccalaureate, Pre-U, apprenticeships, diplomas, certificates. The GCSE is an access ticket to the next stage. All the accountability measures for schools are focused on qualifications taken at 16, when all young people have to go on to study to 18. Surely, then, the new GCSEs are more about measuring school performance than they are about valuing the achievements of students?

We’ve been here before. The Key Stage 3 tests in English, Maths and Science, abolished by Labour in 2008 following a marking debacle, only existed to measure school performance. They were statutory and the new GCSEs are not, but you would be either brave or foolhardy not to play the game, such are the accountability stakes. And, as I’m well aware, the new GCSEs are likely to be the most valuable currency for young people to access academic post-16 provision, so we’d be doing learners a disservice not to deliver them. My wider concern is that the curriculum is being squeezed in an accountability stranglehold so that is consists only of those elements which “count in tables” – and that, I think, is wrong.

So what’s the alternative? Well, it is out there. Back in October 2004, the Working Group on 14-19 Reform published its report proposing the replacement of GCSEs and A-Levels with an over-arching diploma. Sir Mike Tomlinson, head of the working group, had established wide consensus for the overarching diploma. He foresaw the raising of the participation age and the need for a coherent qualification and curriculum system which encompassed the 14-19 age range, balancing vocational and academic study.  For many reasons (detailed brilliantly in this BBC report from 2005) the government at the time decided that GCSEs and A-Levels were sacrosanct, and rejected the report’s proposals. This remains, in my view, the single biggest mistake in education policy I can think of (and I’ve seen a few). The diploma that was eventually introduced alongside the existing qualifications was a Frankenstein’s monster already doomed at its inception.

The HTRT Qualifications Framework

Rising from the ashes of this butchered mess, however, is a curriculum and qualifications proposal in the style of Tomlinson that I can really get behind. The Headteachers’ Roundtable have proposed their own qualifications framework – an overarching diploma-style approach incorporating existing qualifications into a true baccalaureate. This wasn’t on the agenda when they met with Tristram Hunt in July this year, and I can’t imagine that there will be much appetite for further curriculum reform after the complete overhaul that has happened over recent years. But it is sorely needed, as the system we are moving to is not fit for purpose and runs the risk of squeezing much that is good, important and necessary out of schooling altogether.

Tony Little – a voice of reason?

This week Tony Little said that the current examination system is “unimaginative [and] little changed from Victorian times…[obliging students] to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for most of the time, they will need to work collaboratively.” He concludes that while a sharp focus on performance is a good thing there is more to education than “jostling for position in a league table.” Of course, he doesn’t have to worry about Ofsted, Progress 8, or the new National Curriculum, but when you find yourself agreeing with the Headmaster of Eton maybe it’s a sign that there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

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Assessment in the new national curriculum – next steps

My original post “Assessment in the new national curriculum – what we’re doing” remains one of the most popular on this blog. Here I will outline how we have refined the model proposed in that post and integrated it with progress tracking, as well as our latest thoughts on assessment without levels and growth mindset.

How will we assess in the new national curriculum? 

I was delighted to hear that Durrington High School had been awarded an assessment innovation fund grant by the DfE. I was even more delighted when Durrington DHT Shaun Allison published his thoughts so far in an excellent blogpost! As a school also actively pursuing a growth mindset, the approach to assessment outlined by Shaun struck a chord and seemed closely aligned to what we are trying to achieve at Chew Valley. I presented the key points of the Durrington approach to middle leaders yesterday and we have adopted the principle of the Growth and Thresholds assessment system, explained as follows (paraphrased from Class Teaching):

Teachers identify the key knowledge and skills students need in order to be successful in KS4 and work backwards to decide what this would look like, if students have mastered it in KS3 – the excellence standard. Teachers then produce a curriculum and assessment framework that allows teachers and students to know what they’ve got to do to achieve excellence.  

In the Chew Valley version, we will continue to use GCSE grades as the basis for our assessment model. It makes sense, longer term, to use the new 1-9 GCSE grade scale as a whole-school assessment framework, with rough equivalents as follows:

levelsgradesnewgcse

In other words, students entering in Year 7 would be assessed with grades usually between 1 and 4, and move up a consistent assessment scale throughout their time in secondary school.

We remain wedded to the notion of criteria referenced assessment, although I enjoyed having my thinking pushed on this by Daisy Christodoulou’s provocative defence of norm-referencing. The problem comes with the assumption that there will be clear criteria attached to the new GCSE grades 1-9; my understanding is that there will be criteria attached to the levels and marks within the new GCSE specifications but that they will not be clearly linked to specific GCSE grades. This will allow Ofqual to apply comparable outcomes and shift the boundaries year on year. Thus we will need to assign criteria to the new GCSE grades on a “best fit” basis, leading to some insecurity and uncertainty within the assessment framework, especially in the early stages.

We have not yet decided when we will shift over to 1-9 grades. The existing system will hold up until 2016 at least, and then there will be an incremental shift as first English and Maths, then Science, History, Geography and Languages, then arts subjects move over to the new grades. We also haven’t decided if we’re going to sub-grade them – grade 2c, 2b, 2a anyone? It was a bastardisation of the national curriculum levels; should we be wary of falling into the same trap again? We’re taking a watching brief on both these issues!

Tracking progress in the new assessment framework

With the advent of Progress 8 (blogged about here) we have been running an experiment with progress tracking using flight paths (blogged about here). As indicated in that second blog, in the initial experiment we tracked progress in English and Maths from their respective KS2 baselines, and all other subjects from the average points score of English and Maths at KS2. This worked fine for English and Maths, but it didn’t work for other subjects. I know it seems obvious that tracking progress in Drama from a baseline of the average of tests in English and Maths won’t work, but that is the methodology being applied in the Progress 8 measure so I thought we’d better use it. What I’d got wrong, of course (it’s so easy to do!) was that I’d let the accountability framework dictate my practice rather than common sense and what was right for the learners. So, we’ve made a change.

From September, we will continue to use the KS2 baselines for English and Maths – this is a tried and tested approach and it is giving us clear and helpful data both for individual students and for self-evaluation and external accountability purposes. In all other subjects, we will conduct a baseline assessment in the first term of Year 7 to establish a clear, subject-specific starting point for each student. We will then use that baseline assessment to track progress in each subject across KS3. We will treat the baseline assessment as the “baseline” in the same way as KS2 English and Maths data, even though they will be four or five months apart in time, and apply the flight paths model to each subject in exactly the same way:

Progress flight paths tabulated

Progress flight paths tabulated

We still have the existing template to track progress against an English and Maths KS2 average points score, so I will be able to keep an eye on the Progress 8 headlines, but this refined model will provide the ability to track progress in, for example, Art from their starting point in Art. Which seems obvious, doesn’t it?

In time we will convert the “levels” in those flight paths to the “grades” via the equivalences listed in the table above. It may be that in, for example, languages, the baseline will be very low (where students have not studied that particular language in primary) and this may require the model to be refined – watch this space!

Targets and a growth mindset

When I launched the idea of becoming a growth mindset school back in March, several staff discussed the idea of targets (we call them challenge grades or levels) and whether they were compatible with a growth mindset. Potential, according to Dweck, is limitless – it’s not about aiming for a destination but about constantly continuing to improve. As John Tomsett said in a conversation on twitter recently:

I overheard a conversation between two girls revising for a languages exam this week. They were working on tenses. One said to the other: “I don’t need to know that; that’s what you need to do to get a B. I only need a C.” Her companion was aiming for a B, so continued to revise it. This is why Michael Gove was so against early entry – the wasteful settling for a lower level of achievement. This is the danger of target grades – if students work hard and get there, they stop. And, unless that target grade is an A* (and even then), that is a waste.

This is a substantial shift in my thinking (see one of the earliest posts on this blog, Targets, for my starting point!), but actually the flight paths approach provides us with a different way to frame the conversation about progress. In the old model I would use formulae and statistical cohort analysis tools like CATs, FFT and the like to predict likely outcomes and “add a bit on for challenge”, then track and discuss progress towards that made up number. It makes more sense to me now to assess where students are starting from and then feed back whether their progress is below, expected, better than expected, outstanding or world class from that starting point (using the flight paths model). Thus reports to parents might say “Matilda is currently working at a Grade 3 in Science, and this represents better than expected progress from her starting point in this subject”. At the moment this is a tentative, half formed policy shift which will need to be put through the crucible of SLT and Governors – what better way to try it out than to put it to the test on twitter first?

In summary

The abolition of national curriculum levels remains an opportunity to do something different and better with curriculum and assessment across the whole of a student’s school experience. The fact that each individual school is having to come up with its own system remains a fatal flaw in terms of capacity. The new assessment innovation packages may go some way to preventing this – especially if they are of the quality of the work coming out of Durrington. Whilst there is still a lot of work to do, and a lot of uncertainty, it is still my aim that assessment and curriculum in my school will be the better for the reforms.

Should Ofsted be sharing best practice?

Best Practice in English

Best Practice in English

In amongst all the “we’re not grading lessons any more…in fact, we haven’t for a long time (even though all the teachers who’ve been inspected recently have had their lessons graded)” fuss this half term, there was another mini-farrago when Ofsted published a Good practice resource – Engaging and inspiring learners in English, especially at Key Stage 3It was a decent resource, full of great ideas for engaging and inspiring learners, and the results indicate that Priestnall School are doing something right. David Didau, amongst others, cried foul:

So, as we know, Sir Michael Wilshaw is determined to make clear that Ofsted has no preferred teaching style. Right? Wrong.

from “What inspirational teaching looks like according to Ofsted

I recognise the argument that Ofsted publishing a “good practice resource” does create a conflict with the “no preferred teaching style” stance taken by the Chief Inspector. This is largely due to the thrall in which the all-powerful inspectorate holds the profession – the panopticon effect described by Kev Bartle. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In a previous role I was head of an Ofsted Outstanding English Department. Following a full inspection in January 2009, we were visited for a good practice subject survey in the summer term. All very lovely! However, the real evidence that Ofsted were interested in more than just inspection came when I was invited to the Department for Education and Skills (as it was then) the following term for a best practice day. Ofsted and the DfES had gathered together all the English subject leaders from every school where outstanding English teaching had been observed over the previous two years. Primary, secondary, tertiary, special, PRU, rural, urban, church, comprehensive – all gathered together to address the four key areas identified in the 2009 English at the Crossroads paper:

  • Independent learning in English: helping pupils to think for themselves
  • Assessment in English: building on good marking
  • Boys and English: how the best schools make a difference
  • How can standards of writing be improved?

Sanctuary Buildings as they used to be

It was a brilliant day. I was inspired, humbled, and overawed by turns. It was like the greatest English-focused TeachMeet in pre-TeachMeet days. Both Ofsted and the DfES seemed genuinely interested in capturing best practice and disseminating it nationwide. The project eventually became the Excellence in English paper and informed Moving English Forward in 2012. It was also a missed opportunity to create a network – there was no delegate list, no contact information, and no follow-up.

A lot has changed since 2009. Skills have been banished from the parliamentary letterhead, the National Strategies are gone, and local authority networks have fragmented as schools have embraced the independence of academy status. Gone are the days when practice could be shared between local schools through a literacy consultant or school improvement advisor (I realise that quality in these roles were variable, but the ones I worked with were, by and large, excellent). Twitter and blogging are great enablers of peer-to-peer sharing, and teaching school alliances may also help.  But Ofsted go into so many schools, in every conceivable context, all over the country. Their inspectors must see some brilliant practice from teachers who have never read a tweet. I recognise that their primary focus is summative and evaluative, but it seems a wasted opportunity not to do more with that evidence base. The potential is there to build up a truly formidable bank of what works in schools.

That doesn’t mean that it’s going to work in my school. I know that – I’m a professional and I can make that decision. But I’d rather have the library of what Ofsted have seen available – there may be something that they’ve seen that will help solve a problem in my context. If Ofsted can clarify that they don’t grade lessons or teachers, but they can find evidence in a lesson to inform a grade for teaching overall, then I’m sure we can see their best practice examples with the same clarity. Here’s what worked for someone else. Have a look and see what you think…

ofstedbest

KS2, KS4, Level 6 and Progress 8 – who do we appreciate?

In 2016, secondary schools will be held accountable to a new set of measures including Progress 8 and Attainment 8. These measures were announced in October and I have been reflecting on the implications for schools. In response to the consultation I was broadly in favour of making schools accountable for the progress of all students rather than how many we can push through the C/D boundary. I think it is a real step forward that schools will be accountable for turning Es to Ds and As to A*s as well as Ds to Cs. However, there are a few issues that worry me.

The English and Maths Key Stage 2 baseline applied to all subjects

I have no particular issues with the Key Stage 2 tests in Maths and English; I don’t really have enough specific knowledge of them to criticise. Clearly it is the only baseline we have to measure progress from KS2 to 4. However, just because it’s the only one doesn’t necessarily make it right. I’m sure statistically there must be some basis to show that progress from this baseline to a GCSE result in, say, Art or PE makes sense with a national dataset. But I found it hard to convince PE teachers that measuring progress in PE against an English and Maths baseline was a fair, right and just evaluation of their performance, even if that GCSE only formed one tenth of the best 8 (since English and Maths count double).

The Key Stage 2 baseline itself

I know that primary school colleagues have a hugely detailed and thorough knowledge of their pupils’ abilities across the curriculum, and especially in Maths and English. I’m sure it far outstrips the accuracy of a secondary school teacher’s assessment if only by dint of contact hours and therefore assessment opportunities. However, the Key Stage 2 tests are the primary accountability measure by which primary schools are judged and it is therefore in their interests to ensure that pupils achieve as highly as they can in those tests. I know that this can lead to coaching for the tests in exactly the same way as Key Stage 4 teachers focus the majority of what is taught in Year 11 on what is on the exam – you’d be mad not to. It is therefore likely that a proportion of the results achieved do not reflect secure performance at that National Curriculum Level, and that secondary schools need to ensure they are secure before they can progress. What is supremely ironic is that primary schools have already adopted a new National Curriculum without levels, although their accountability is dependent on tests with levelled outcomes. In turn, secondary accountability is dependent on progress from those levels.

Instability of the assessments on which Progress 8 is based

As shown in the above tweet, those anachronistic levelled tests are will be phased out after 2015 to be replaced by an as-yet-unannounced new test based on…something else. At the same time GCSE grades will be replaced by the numerical 1-8 system, meaning that in the first five years of Progress 8 we will be measuring progress from an untested baseline to a new and untested end point.

It’s all very well for the consultation response to state: “pupils with a point score of 29 on their Key stage 2 tests achieve, on average, 8 C grades at GCSE” but, when the measure is introduced, neither the baseline nor the end point will exist in this form.

Level 6 Progress Inflation

Is grade inflation spreading?

Is grade inflation spreading?

At the same time as all this is going on, the ability to award Level 6 has now been introduced at Key Stage 2. You would be a rare Year 6 teacher or primary school leader indeed not to want to get as may students to that new level as possible. However, how many of those level 6 successes will be pushed up before they are fully secure at Level 5? We have had a handful of students arriving in Year 7 over the past few years teacher assessed at level 6. Suddenly this year we are expecting dozens. This is not a significantly brighter cohort but the expectations for the expected three levels of progress KS2-4 will be massively different.

What the accountability measures actually measure

Assessments are a house of cards

Assessments are a house of cards

Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) explains in The Data Delusion how the assessment regimes on which we depend for accountability are a house of cards with very little direct relation to what a student has actually learned. David Didau (@learningspy) explains that what our assessments actually measure is performance, not learning in The Problem with Progress. Invariably accountability will drive curriculum and teaching and learning decisions but I worry that their foundations are so insecure that pedagogy and learning may be lost in the confusion.

Clarity

It may of course be that I’ve completely misunderstood aspects of Progress 8, or missed something completely obvious. I’d welcome any corrections, clarifications and reactions in the comments below, or on twitter.

The end of coursework

or…What’s assessment for anyway? 

When I took my GCSEs in English and English Literature (in 1991) they were 100% coursework. I wasn’t alone; according to the 2006 Review of GCSE Coursework from QCA (found here) about two-thirds of 16 year olds in the early 1990s were taking GCSE English through syllabuses that had no examinations. Much has changed since then, and all 16 year olds who take GCSE English in summer 2017 will do so following syllabuses with 100% terminal examinations (as announced by Ofqual).

A mindset change

Coursework has been part of my Key Stage 4 experience as a student, trainee, teacher, Head of Department and Senior Leader. Its removal requires a complete shift of mindset. Curriculum design, long and medium term planning in English has always been about fitting the coursework (or latterly controlled assessment tasks) into the two years to form a coherent programme of study around the assessment tasks. No longer. At this point in time, this feels like a blessed relief from the millstone of controlled assessments, and an opportunity to open up curriculum time to learning, but it will feel very different.

A change of gear is needed

A change of gear is needed

It will also require a mindset change for students. I have felt uncomfortable for some time about the prevalent attitude of “will it count towards my GCSE?” amongst students I teach. The unfortunate truth at the moment is that if it does, most will really try and put in every effort. If it’s “just practice” or, heaven forbid, an assignment merely to develop or secure understanding, it doesn’t get the full focus of a “proper assessment”. I will be glad to see the back of this distinction as it will allow and require a full focus on the process of learning in every piece of work throughout the course.

Teacher assessment is best

I genuinely believe that teachers are best placed to make accurate and complete assessments of their students’ abilities. It seems almost ridiculous that I have to state that at all. Teachers spend every lesson with their students and know better than anyone the full range of their achievements within the subject, in much more detail than any examination can hope to discover, no matter how long or rigorous. This will be lost in the terminal exam system. Teacher assessment (in English especially) has snapped under the weight of the accountability framework’s focus upon it. This was recognised in the QCA GCSE_coursework report:

5.44: The environment for GCSE and A levels has changed. Twenty years ago there were no achievement and attainment tables (formerly performance tables), no national or local targets related to examination grades and no link between teachers’ pay and students’ results. The environment now is far more pressured and in these circumstances, it is likely that internal assessment of GCSE and A levels as presently practised has become a less valid form of assessment.

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

This is undoubtedly the case. Teacher assessment is still the best way of assessing student progress and learning (although, as David Didau asserts, measuring learning is a horrifically complex business). It should still be the basis of teaching and learning in the classroom but only if the sole purpose of that teacher assessment is to measure the child’s progress and identify next steps in learning. If the teacher assessment is also serving the purpose of proving progress to senior leaders and external inspectors in order to maintain the school’s standing in performance tables and the teacher’s own salary, then of course there are vested interests at play which will encourage even the most professional professional to err on the side of generosity. And this is how we’ve arrived at our current situation. The accountability and pay systems have rendered the most accurate and helpful form of assessment unreliable and corrupt. Excellent work, policy makers.

Moving forward

I have several tasks as a school leader now to make the most of this new assessment framework.

Jumping through hoops - a necessary evil?

Jumping through hoops – a necessary evil?

  1. To help subject teams re-think curriculum design away from the coursework/controlled assessment structures that have been in place for so long. We will have a lot to learn from Maths and other 100% examined subjects here; we will need to make the most of the time freed up from controlled assessments to teach curriculum content (which is a combination of knowledge and skills, of course).
  2. To decouple teacher assessment from external accountability and pay progression as far as possible, to allow it to be carried out accurately for the benefit of the student’s learning, parents, and teachers themselves to inform planning.
  3. To work with all teachers and students to jump the hoops of the new terminal exams. I hate this part of the job, but recognise that teaching exam technique is vital to success in exams. I will also make every effort to keep this in proportion to the real business of teaching the actual subjects.
  4. To continue to do my best to construct a Key Stage 4 curriculum in the best interests of the learners at my school.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Using performance tables as a lever for change

League Tables - how far can they drive school policy?

League Tables – how far can they drive school policy?

One of the strategies used by the current education secretary to enact policy quickly is to use the performance tables as a lever for change. This has several advantages. Firstly, it does not require legislation or debate in parliament. This avoids any troublesome opposition – not that there has been much to speak of to date in any case. Secondly, it is fast, and the pace of change is really the hallmark of the current DfE’s policy drive. The secretary of state can make a decision about a change, leak it to the press to gauge the public’s reaction on a Sunday, then make an official announcement in the early afternoon of Monday tweaked to pick up on any of the major problems gathered from the Sunday tester. Thirdly, and perhaps most brilliantly, changing the construction of the performance tables is the kind of soft compulsion that puts schools in a lose-lose situation. This was most evident in the changes to early entry GCSE announced on 30th September. The text of the official announcement reads:

If schools are confident that pupils will achieve well even when entered early and that early entry is therefore in the interests of the pupil, they should not need to make any changes to entry plans. Any pupil who does enter early from this point on will still be able to retake if they receive a disappointing result. That result will not count towards the performance tables for their school, even if it is an improvement on their earlier entry, but pupils will still be able to use their best result to support applications to further and higher education, or for employment.

This strategy forced many school leaders to confront their consciences. Which do we care more about – the school or the students who attend it? Of course, these are (or should be) one and the same. At #TLT13 Jamie Portman memorably said that when his school buildings burnt to the ground in an accidental fire he learnt that “a school” is a community of people that exists independently of location or environment. A school really is that – a community. When national policy drives a wedge between the school and the students in it, there is something wrong with that policy.

Further amendments to the performance tables have continued, including the 14th October announcement of full-scale reform to secondary school accountability. On the face of it, Progress 8 seems like a step in the right direction, in that it incentivises progress for students of all abilities rather than just at the C/D borderline. In a Progress 8 world, it makes a difference to the school whether a student gets a D rather than an E, or an A* rather than an A. Of course, it should already matter to the school. But does it? Here, the tables are being used to leverage change that I see as potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive, albeit with the massive flaw that progress is being measured from an average points score baseline in KS2 English and Maths to a GCSE grade in whatever eight individual subjects a student happens to take. And that their progress is measured as better or worse than the national average for their peers with similar prior attainment, meaning that half the schools in the country will automatically have negative progress and half positive. Which means that one school can only do well in the new accountability measures at the expense of another. Aside from that, as I say, potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive.

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

This use of the tables as a policy lever has been evident from the early days of the new Department for Education. Back in December 2012, the policy on the table was the English Baccalaureate Certificates. I was so incensed by the proposals that it made me start this blog. A key component of this policy was that the EBCs were going to be offered by a single examination board. To get around the awkward problem of commissioning a multi-million pound contract to a monopoly, all the exam boards were to be invited to submit EBC specifications which would be openly offered to all schools. However, only one EBC specification per subject would be approved by the secretary of state for inclusion in the performance tables, thus effectively (though not actually) creating a single national specification. As it happens this particular monstrosity was the subject of a U-Turn on February 6th when parliament heard that the replacement of GCSEs was “a bridge too far.”

Were EBCs really a "bridge too far" or are they being ushered in under another name?

Were EBCs really a “bridge too far” or are they being ushered in under another name?

In actual fact, many of the elements of the original EBC proposal have still been enacted under different names. The proposals for new GCSEs sound very like the EBCs but under an old name – linear, single-tiered, exam-only terminal assessments graded numerically and only offered in the EBacc subjects. The latest rumours in the press include the removal of “soft” subjects (including, apparently, PE, drama and media studies) into another, as-yet-unnamed, form of qualification outside the GCSE stable. So, rather than promoting EBacc subjects to a new EBC qualification, non-EBacc subjects will be demoted. And, presumably, not included in the performance tables (which only include GCSEs).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This year, we are running a core ICT qualification at KS4 which does not count towards the performance tables but is definitely the best fit for our students in that it will provide them with the skills and knowledge we feel they will need the most. We feel the course we have put together is in the best interest of the students whether or not it counts for the performance tables. We have maintained the November entry of all our English Language candidates in Year 11 because we believe it is in the best interests of our students even though it may impact on our performance table 5A*-CEM figure. Dance and Drama are discounted against one another at GCSE (meaning that if students achieve both they only count as one in the performance tables) – we offer both and will continue to do so because we believe that this is in the best interests of our students even though, if students take both, the school only gets the credit for one. The same goes for subjects not on the DfE post-Wolf-report approved list either now or in the future – if they are in the best interests of the students it is the school’s duty to include them in the curriculum offer.

In summer 2014, the school’s performance tables figures will not reflect the actual examination achievements of students at the school. John Tomsett has described how, in York, “all secondaries have agreed to publish “final result” figures…when the DfE performance tables are released.” We shall certainly do the same on our website, as will any school (I would imagine) which continued with November entry. We will also include achievement in non-performance-table qualifications and pack the site with the broader, deeper life of the school. Any parent who even looks at the performance tables will certainly also look at the school’s website, and I want them to find the beating heart of the school there. I wonder how many do actually go to the tables at all?

Raise Online will be an issue. The new floor standards will be based on Progress 8 and are described as follows:

Our intention is that schools will fall below the floor standard if pupils make an average of  half a grade less progress than expected across their 8 subjects. So, for example, a school is underperforming if its pupils were expected to gain 8 Cs (because that’s what their peers, with similar prior attainment, secure elsewhere in the country) but they actually achieve less than 4Cs and 4Ds.

Falling below the floor standards could result in special measures, constant scrutiny and forced academisation. Heads could roll. But surely – surely – offering a curriculum that is right for the students, rigorous, challenging, demanding and broad, is defensible. School must be more than just academic. It must be.

And, if the performance tables don’t show the results that students actually got at a school, how can they have any value at all?

Assessment in the new National Curriculum – what we’re doing

Earlier in the year I blogged about the removal of levels from the national curriculum. I ended that post daunted by the prospect of designing an assessment framework to fill the gap. Now the new National Curriculum has been through its cursory consultation and is “official”, live and statutory for maintained schools. Where at the back there used to be attainment targets correlated to national curriculum levels, there is now this simple statement:

Statement from the new National Curriculum for Key Stage 3.

Statement from the new National Curriculum for Key Stage 3.

And that’s your lot.

This week, I met with the excellent Heads of Faculty in our Curriculum Leadership Team to decide what we were going to do with all this autonomy. I’d asked each team to look through the curriculum and work out to what extent the existing assessment framework mapped on to the new curriculum, and where there were changes needed. With some subjects – Science, Art and Design, Languages – there was little change necessary, though some might be desirable. In others – Computing for example – the new curriculum is practically unrecognisable from the old ICT which was disapplied. Drama was never a standalone subject in the old national curriculum, existing in an annex of the English documents; now it does not exist at all except in literary study.

In almost all cases, the old assessment criteria cover far more than the new, thinned-down curriculum requires. There is of course no problem with continuing to teach and assess material that is not in the curriculum. But it is essentially impossible to sensibly match the old assessment regime to the new curriculum, even if that is what primaries are still having to do with SATs. Instead we must look again at assessment, who and what it is for, and what we want to do with it.

Core principles: criteria or norm referencing?

It seems as though the current policy direction is towards norm referencing. Ofqual’s use of comparable outcomes was defended to the education select committee, and the DfE has proposed a decile ranking system for primary schools. The removal of detailed attainment targets would open the way for a percentage or rank-ordered system of assessment. It would be feasible to assess with statements like “Sarah has successfully met 78% of the requirements of the programme of study this year” or “Richard’s attainment ranks him between between the 50th and 60th percentile in his year group.” To understand why we won’t be adopting this approach, read Sue Cowley’s Dear Tom and Debra Kidd’s Pride and Prejudice. Or just be a human being.

Criteria referencing is fraught with difficulty however. Subject experts were given the full time job of designing criteria for attainment at Key Stage 3 under the National Strategies and the behemoth of APP was created. The advantage is that learners can see where they are in their learning, what they know and what they can do, and they can also see what they need to know and be able to do to improve. The disadvantage? Well, you try condensing the whole of “English” or “Science” into a ladder of statements that a twelve-year-old can access and hold in their head. In your spare time. After a full day’s teaching. And marking. And planning lessons. Yes, in the ten minutes before you actually drop off into exhausted catatonia, please condense your entire subject into a series of accessible scaled criteria. By Monday. 

Criteria-referenced assessment vs teacher; round 1.

However difficult the practicalities, however, I am wedded to criteria referenced assessment simply because it’s formative; it’s assessment for teaching, not just for measuring.

What is assessment for? 

Assessment in schools is multi-purpose, which may be where the problem lies. This week Michael Gove has made further steps to separate the school-accountability-purpose of GCSE assessment from the measuring-attainment-of-learners purpose with his announcement about early entries, causing panic and confusion around the land. Within school, however, especially with the removal of a national framework, we want an assessment system for the following:

  1. For learners: to understand how they are progressing and what they need to do to progress further
  2. For teachers: to understand and measure what learners know and what they can do, in order to plan their teaching to move their learning on
  3. For parents: to see how their children are progressing and understand how they can help and support them in improving
  4. For school leaders: to understand and monitor progress and attainment across the school

This was the challenge for curriculum leaders this week. Could any assessment system possibly do all that?

Measuring progress

Can progress be mapped as a flight path?

I was quite taken with @leadinglearner Stephen Tierney’s post about progress Flight Paths. I liked the neat linear and mathematical  composition of the progress charts he’d constructed. However, it presupposes a uniformity that I find problematic. I would rather take a personalised approach. When we set targets (we call then Challenge Grades) I use a standardised formula,  but then open them up to teachers to suggest amendments (read about the process here).

The other issue with the standardised “flight path” approach is that using levels in that way under the old system is problematic as levels don’t necessarily correlate to a set point in progress below a GCSE grade. Under the old system, I always used the following “rule of thumb” correlation based on the Levels and Grades Conversion Tables I referred to in my own post about targets:

  • Level 4 = equivalent level of attainment to a GCSE grade E
  • Level 5 = equivalent level of attainment to a GCSE grade D
  • Level 6 = equivalent level of attainment to a GCSE grade C

and so on. As an English teacher, I could see the sense in this. However, as Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) points out in The Data Delusion it’s a lot more complicated than that. In Languages, for example levels are traditionally lower as the students start Year 7 from scratch, often at level 2 or 3 (a fact recognised in a footnote to the National Curriculum for English (2000) – page 54!). However, those days are gone now – Languages teachers can call what used to be “Level 4” whatever they like now. Orange? Skylark? Mountain Lion? KitKat?

What we are going to do

The curriculum leaders all felt that they knew the existing system of assessment well and that, by and large, it worked for them. We now have the freedom to change, adapt and alter those bits that don’t work, add to or subtract from the existing criteria to suit. We also agreed that levels were preferable to telling a Year 7 that they were working at a grade E, so we are going to continue to use them. Over the coming months curriculum leaders are going to:

  • Review existing assessment criteria and “tweak” where necessary to fit the new national curriculum and the subject content that they are including in their own programme of study
  • Look for direct lines of progress to GCSE specifications and adjust assessment criteria according to the “rule of thumb” equivalences
  • Experiment with formative approaches to make “next steps” explicit to students and, if possible, to parents

The first area gives subject specialists the autonomy to tailor assessment to the needs of their curriculum content in a way which I think is liberating and empowering. The second area aims to provide a consistency and coherence to our assessment in a way that the old national curriculum levels did not, meaning that direct comparison can be made between disciplines by learners, leaders and parents. For subjects like Drama which have never had levelled criteria of their own, this is an opportunity to build something of real value; it will bring Languages and Computing into line across the curriculum.

The third area is fraught with problems as the range of criteria is so large and condensing them blunts their accuracy. The National Strategies foundered here with APP; we may do the same. However, I am hopeful that a direct link between Key Stage 3 and GCSE assessment which can be tailored to the specification used in our context will provide more meaningful and coherent progress paths for learners in our school.

The System Problem

That last sentence presents the unresolved problem – “in our school”. At our meeting on Wednesday we effectively instituted “Chew Valley Levels” – the terminology of levels may sound like old National Curriculum language, but they have a very specific meaning to our context. The criteria may not match other schools. A level 5 in French at our school may not be the same as a level 5 at a neighbouring institution. A cynic might now chime in with the observation that this was always the case under the old National Curriculum too as nobody ever standardised. (They might also go on to cite the usual point about wide variation in Year 6 teacher assessments across a variety of primary feeder schools, but before they did that I’d urge them to read Michael Tidd’s blog Dear Secondary School Teacher…) The cynic might be right in some ways, but under the old system there was at least the expectation of national consistency. That, like the expectation of a common pay structure, common terms and conditions, and common admissions, is a thing of the past.

UPDATE – MAY 2014: I have added a new post giving our progress with assessment in the new national curriculum, including refinements and amendments to the ideas above. Click here to read!

Assessment without levels

I don’t share Tom Bennett’s gleeful celebration at the demise of National Curriculum levels confirmed by the Department for Education today. In fact, I feel quite nervous about this new world with the “terrifying amount of freedom” it brings. I share some of Heather Leatt’s worry:

I believe there are some good things about the National Curriculum Levels which we need to preserve in whatever models we devise to replace them. First amongst these qualities is that they were standard across the country. I accept that their application was varied and that they were open to interpretation, but the criteria for a Level 5 in English were the same in Cornwall and County Durham. When training as a teacher in 1996 I could read the National Curriculum at university and know that the level framework would be familiar to the primary school teacher where I did my Year 6 experience and the four secondary schools I went to for my teaching practices and school experiences. I knew it would be there in my first school, and the next, and the one where I was promoted. In the new world, this will not be the case. Just as the pay structures will be different, so the assessment regimes will vary from school to school and even subject to subject. I hope that, through Twitter and blogging and through the work of more astute subject organisations as well as the DfE itself, models of best practice might be disseminated and adopted by a range of institutions, but the days of a consistent national system of assessment are gone and I’m not sure that this a good thing.

Tom Sherrington wrote brilliantly about The Data Delusion back in March, describing how the original conception of National Curriculum levels was corrupted and perverted over time. They were never designed to be applied to a single piece of work – returning a student’s homework with “Level 5a” at the bottom requires a twisting and bending and filtering of the criteria which renders them next to meaningless, rather in the way that we bend Ofsted’s whole-school criteria for teaching and learning to fit single lesson observations. However, in their original form I do believe that the levels are still fit for purpose. When used to assess a portfolio of student work over time and to summarise their achievement across a range of skills and aptitudes, they work well. I happen to think that using “all”, “most” or “some” of the criteria, on a best-fit basis, can even allow for consistent application of sub-levels.

Some of my nerves are down to the statement from the DfE itself. This week teachers have been told that the whole exams system has been overhauled because we can’t be trusted to do internal assessment accurately, we’re failing bright children, and we’re to blame for the rise of the EDL. Forgive me if I think that this brave new world where suddenly Michael Gove trusts to teachers’ professionalism isn’t all that it appears. To whit, “schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests” – does this include Key Stage 3? “We will provide examples of good practice which schools may wish to follow” – a bit passive aggressive, wouldn’t you say? “We will also work with subject associations, education publishers and external test developers to signpost schools to a range of potential approaches.” Translation – we already have. My fear, I suppose, is that schools will be coerced by suggestion into a particular way of assessing through the accountability framework, and obliged to pay publishers for the privilege. At least the National Curriculum, for all its faults, was free.

What should replace levels? There has been no shortage of suggestions.

I’m fully subscribed to the view that kids need to know stuff. I’m right behind the idea that they need cultural capital and should read a whole Shakespeare play and know their times tables. But a curriculum which only tests what they know and not what they can do? That’s not for me. I’d far rather know what a student can do than what they know – not that it’s ever an either-or choice. And, crucially, the assessment has to be subject specific. The Maths curriculum is more likely to be predicated on knowledge; the PE curriculum is far more likely to assess skills. There is plenty of mileage in Joe Kirby’s mastery model, but it needs flesh on the bones to become a viable proposition.

What won’t I miss? I won’t miss tying the levels to ages. The arbitrary and purely political association that was made by the last government that children aged 11 should reach a level 4 to be average – and then the glorious mathematical finesse that saw 75, then 80% of children being “average”. Children develop at different rates. Some progress rapidly through Key Stage 2 and slow, some “click” with Maths in Year 9, some suddenly find a passion for sport aged 15.

The DfE statement says that National Curriculum levels are “complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents.” I won’t miss trying to explain to parents that a level 5 in one subject does not necessarily mean that the same child should be a level 5 in another, and why levels in languages are lower because they start at level zero in Year 7. But I hope I won’t have to substitute that with an explanation of the different systems used by History, RE, Spanish, Computing, Textiles, Art and Drama – each complex, each fit for purpose, but each unique.

Whatever curriculum we put in place must take the lid off learning, setting the highest expectations for all children, removing any barrier to their progress with effective pedagogy and committed, professional teaching. Whatever assessment system we use must capture that progress and give the children themselves, and their parents, a clear view of the path ahead so they can take the next steps. It is a sign of how complex this task is that National Curriculum levels have been wrestling with it since 1989 through APP, end of key stage testing, teacher assessments, progress maps and sublevels – and, judging by the reaction to their demise, they have failed. I hope that whatever we design to replace them can do a better job but I, for one, am daunted by the prospect.

What would do most to improve the status of the teaching profession?

2013veracity

I have blogged before about the limited public image of the teaching profession. About how, despite polling as the second-most-trusted profession on the UK in February 2013, the profession lacks the social status of medicine, science, and the law. Why is this? And what can we do about it?New College Oxford

In November 2012, I was invited back to my Oxford college to speak at a careers day. Alumni of the college from many different employment sectors were there to speak to undergraduates about career options, training routes, and postgraduate opportunities in their respective professions. There were accountants, arts administrators, broadcasters, civil servants, journalists, lawyers, management consultants, medical professionals, manufacturers, musicians, priests, researchers and teachers, amongst many others (including a circus manager). The first session – where the alumni were put together by the degrees they had studied with undergraduates currently on the same courses – showed the diversity of opportunities available to these young people. In the second session the alumni were grouped by their employment sectors in the Hall and waited for undergraduates interested in their sector to visit them to ask questions. I sat with the four other teachers – three state, two independent – to wait. The accountancy, law and management consultancy tables were busy. The priest had an earnest conversation with one undergraduate for about half an hour. The broadcasters and journalists had several visitors. We saw nobody. Not a single undergraduate from my Oxford college came to ask about teaching.

How, then, can we improve the status of teaching so that it becomes as attractive and viable to the high-achieving undergraduates at top universities as those other professions? Is it about pay? I don’t think so – as a teacher I’ve always earned enough to be comfortable and PRP is I think an invidious and unhelpful solution to a non-problem. Is it about career progression? Again, I don’t think so. There are clear and varied progression routes in teaching just as in medicine and law. Is it about entry routes? There may be something here. My PGCE was a necessary step but was a year extra without being in paid work. School Direct, GTP, Teach First and the raft of SCITT approaches go some way to addressing this, although I would still argue it is harder for someone to switch professions into teaching than some other sectors.

Or is it about public perception? The truth of public opinions of teachers, shown in the IPSOS-MORI poll above, is that they are held in very high regard. But the rhetoric in the press tells a very different story.

goveblob

I agree with Cherrylkd that our teaching unions do little to help in the circus of unreasonable extremism masquerading as conference season. Even the NAHT fell victim to this at their recent AGM, heckling and jeering at Michael Gove despite Bernadette Hunter’s attempts to pass this off as expressions of “exasperation and indignation“. What the unions don’t seem to realise is that Michael Gove wants them to go hard-line. The strikes and jeering will play into his hands as his response to the NAHT conference in the Times, his letter to schools branding the NUT/NASUWT pay policy “illegal”, and his “blob” accusations show. I can’t help feeling he views PRP as a a tool to break the unions; his Thatcher moment. He relishes the thought of their ineffective action and the negative spin he will easily be able to put on the strikes to come, confirming the “enemies of promise” narrative he has already set in motion. It will make it easy for him to brand any arguments coming from the left in education as guilty by association.

It is of course horrendous that the Secretary of State for Education and Chief Inspector of Schools between them are leading lights in undermining and denigrating the profession in their public statements. “Stop moaning” says Wilshaw. “Low expectations” says Gove. What’s even worse is that their criticisms may be true of some members of our profession, and that the unions seem to confirm the narrative in their obstreperous resistance to and blanket rejection of any kind of progress or change, even when it might actually be a good thing (progress measure based on the best 8, for example).

The vast majority of teachers, I believe, share Ross McGill’s view:

However, RedorGreenPen has written brilliantly about how easy it is for a teacher with the highest expectations (and redorgreenpen is clearly one of those) to have those expectations eroded with weak leadership and a lack of support systems. And this is where I believe the solutions begin – with school leadership. If the profession is to live up to the trust that the public places in us and defy the “enemies of promise” label so readily bandied around by those in charge at policy level, school leaders must do all we can to empower teachers to maintain the high standards they aspire to for the young people in our charge. We should avoid the traps of defective school leadership laid out by Joe Kirby in “What makes great school leadership?” and fulfil the seven positives:

  1. Entrench the ethos
  2. Avoid fads
  3. Walk the talk
  4. Ban excuses
  5. Focus on teaching
  6. Ensure consistency
  7. Build trust

We should heed the words of Rob Carter in “What would you say?“, Stephen Tierney in “Advice to new senior leaders“, Kev Bartle in “Ten Commandments for School Leaders” and Peter Smith in “7 things successful heads of department do“. Above all we should behave professionally and responsibly, engaging with problems and tackling change constructively, rationally and calmly. We wouldn’t want our teachers jeering and heckling us in staff meetings, we wouldn’t want our students behaving like that in lessons. Although that is the dominant mode in parliament, we can set a better example.

This post is a response to the May #blogsync topic hosted at Edutronic.

Limited public image

The public trusts teachers. Honestly – they do. Look, here’s the proof, from the Ipsos MORI Trust Poll in February 2013:

2013veracity

The public place more trust in teachers than in TV newsreaders and judges. 86% of British adults trust teachers to tell the truth, whereas only 18% would trust a politician to do so. On the balance of probabilities, then, it’s clearly quite likely that Michael Gove is spinning a line when he describes us as “Enemies of Promise” or “The Blob”, or when he argues that we should work for longer each day and with less holiday, or when Sir Michael Wilshaw says we don’t know the meaning of the word “stress”. Yet the damage done to the morale of the profession by these attacks – what Polly Toynbee calls “teacher bashing” – is immense.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the profession itself contributes to the erosion of our public image with utterly impractical union conference motions passed – teaching should be capped at 20 hours a week, for example. Little wonder that even within the NUT a group has sprung up to decry the hard-left headline grabbers. Ian Grayson, a member of the NUT national executive, said:

“The vast majority of NUT members are well-educated, reasonable people who just don’t feel the same way as the extreme left who take the podium. Industrial action has a place, but we oppose calls for perpetual industrial action. We would tend towards a programme of constructive dialogue instead.”

Unsurprisingly, Grayson’s stance didn’t get a lot of media coverage. Instead, Gove went on the offensive with his attack on The Blob and implication that we’re workshy chancers who should work for longer, despite the international evidence that more contact time does not improve educational outcomes.  He is pressing on with the introduction of a performance related pay system which all the evidence is against to tackle the problem of a failing education system which isn’t, if you look at the evidence, actually failing.

So how can we tackle this erosion of our wonderful profession?  What can we possibly do? Go on strike? A strike will surely play into the hands of an education secretary spoiling for a fight. It makes it easy for him to brand teachers “enemies of promise” and accuse them of not caring about the kids and their hard working families. Taking him on anywhere but at the ballot box is not going to help.

Instead we need to build on the “programme of constructive dialogue” that has begun. Groups like the Heads Roundtable have shown that it is far more productive to offer a rational, evidenced alternative solution to what is offered than to stand shouting “No! We don’t like it! Stop! We have no confidence in you!”. Debra Kidd, whose brilliant performance on Channel 4 news represented the profession so well, has written a persuasive call to get behind Mick Waters’ education spring. And Michael Gove himself has given schools and teachers the freedom to set our own pay and conditions, to design and implement our own curricula, and to run schools the way we think they should be run. This is how our profession can succeed. We have more power than perhaps we realise.

If we teach well and set the agenda in our own schools, our great profession can be impervious to the attacks and accusations that are thrown at us. The trust that is placed in us to cherish, nurture and teach the most precious asset that any person will ever have – their children – will only be repaid if we continue to do that job brilliantly and with the kind of dedication that is the daily norm for the vast majority of teachers. It isn’t easy, and it’s likely to get tougher and tougher as economic, social and political conditions challenge us. But teachers are equal to it if we keep our attention firmly on what matters – the young people entrusted to us. Because if we do what we do, and do it well, we will be unassailable.