Consultation – stuck on repeat

I started this blog on December 12th 2012 in a fit of righteous indignation about the proposals to introduce a new suite of qualifications called the “English Baccalaureate Certificates” in a post entitled ConsultationAt the time, I didn’t think responding to the consultation on EBCs would make any difference; I thought they were inevitable. But I was wrong.

IMG_1453

In February 2013 Michael Gove withdrew his EBC proposal

Of course, many of the original proposals contained within the EBC idea have made their way into the reformed GCSEs – numbered grading, the removal of coursework – but crucially the notion that rigorous qualifications were only for the most able has not. In the EBC proposal students below the academic standard would have been given a “statement of achievement” instead of a qualification. The reformed GCSEs, for all there is to object to about them, are at least accessible to all students within the same spectrum as the current qualifications – 9-1 encompasses the same range as A*-G.

The fact is, Michael Gove listened to the consultation responses and decided that he would back down from his proposals – proposals to which he was ideologically committed and about which he said he would be willing to overrule Ofqual and press ahead if he believed the changes were right:

“If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it.” – Michael Gove, December 2012

Following the announcement the EBCs were not going ahead, I felt as though my voice mattered. As though I had made a difference. As though answering the questions which were phrased as if the introduction of EBCs was a fait accompli with answers which rejected that assumption was a strategy which worked.

nicky morgan

Nicky Morgan – new education secretary, new EBacc proposal (source)

And here we are again. A different education secretary this time – and one who has pledged to “listen to teachers and work with them” – and a proposal that 90% of students should follow the English Baccalaureate. I don’t have an issue with the notion that a broad base of academic subjects open doors for young people in the future. I think all students studying English, Maths, Sciences, a language and a humanities subject to 16 is a pretty good idea. But I also think that all students have an entitlement to a curriculum that suits them, and to a broad range of arts and design subjects. This policy seems to me an attempt to re-introduce the two-tier element of the EBC proposal, where English Baccalaureate subjects would be awarded EBCs and “the rest” would remain as GCSEs. This proposal devalued subjects beyond the narrow EBacc parameters, and although in the new system all subjects will be GCSEs the same dangers are present. The implementation of the policy as proposed will have a fairly obvious and catastrophic impact on arts, PE, design, technology and performance subjects, and the teachers who teach them, as they will inevitably be squeezed out of the curriculum and replaced by new humanities and languages teachers to accommodate the increased numbers taking those subjects. And, in these days of teacher recruitment shortage, I have no idea where they are going to come from.

The consultation, which closes on 29th January 2016, is again worded as though the implementation of the policy is inevitable.

It doesn’t matter. Find a way to make your voice heard. Question the basis of the questions you’re being asked. Question the assumptions inherent in the consultation questions if you feel they’re invalid. Make your point. If you don’t respond, your silence will be read as agreement, and your complaints will fall on deaf ears after the fact. But now, they’re listening. Someone in the DfE will read your response. It won’t necessarily make a difference – but my experience of responding three years ago shows that it might.

Respond to the consultation here – no matter what your views – before the deadline on 29th January 2016.

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.

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?

Consultation

I have not felt as strongly about an issue in education as I have felt about Michael Gove’s proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates…ever. I emailed colleagues from my present and past schools to encourage them to respond to the DfE consultation. I took to Twitter to encourage all my teacher friends and followers to respond. And I responded myself on behalf of my school.

I found the process of responding to the consultation a particularly disenchanting experience. The obtuseness of the questions they were asking felt like an episode of Yes, Minister. The assumption behind the questions was that the EBC proposal would be enacted, and that we were only being consulted about the how. As I said in response to question 28 of the consultation:

The response was easy to find and understand. The proposal was clear. However, the consultation is mainly focused on matters of technicality and implementation. I was hoping for more of an opportunity to respond to the principles and ideologies of the proposal. This consultation assumes that the proposal will be implemented as it stands. I hope, with all my heart, that it will not be. If it is, it will do irreparable damage to the self-esteem, educational experience, and life-chances of a generation of young people.

There are two drivers to my objection. The first is my own children, the eldest of whom is in Year 2. I do not want him to be subjected to the kind of education that the EBCs will encourage. The second is my own educational philosophy. I do not want to be the person that subjects other to the kind of education that EBCs will encourage. Here is my response to question 18(a):

The proposals have the potential for adverse impact on all pupils. Lower attaining pupils will become disenfranchised from an education system which will lack a meaningful outcome for them. Students who excel and achieve in practical or vocational subjects will see those subjects devalued and squeezed into marginal positions in the curriculum. Students who are capable of taking the EBCs will be forced into a curriculum which emphasises the recall of factual knowledge over the application of transferable skills, and which encourages an outdated, unimaginative and punitive pedagogy from schools. I cannot conceive of a pupil group for whom the introduction of EBCs would have a positive impact. 

In particular, I find the notion of the “Statement of Achievement” abhorrent, an in response to question 16 on that topic I responded:

I find the “Statement of Achievement” the most divisive and odious element of this whole proposal. No matter how it is dressed up or “sold”, there will be no avoiding the perception that the Statement of Achievement is, in fact, a statement of failure. Students benefit from actual achievement, not a statement declaring by its very nature what they have failed to achieve. Any qualification in the education system should be inclusive and allow for the achievement of all. No student could conceivably benefit from this proposal. 

I could go on.

In forwarding the link to the consultation documents to colleagues past and present, I was haunted by Michael Gove’s statement (reported here) to the Education Select Committee when asked what he would do in response to Ofqual’s concern about the EBCs:

He told the committee he would be willing to overrule Ofqual and press ahead if he believed the changes were right: “If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it.”

He won’t listen to Ofqual, the CBI, Jude Law, Stephen Fry. He probably won’t listen to @HeadsRoundTable. So why would I bother?

Simply this. If I hadn’t bothered, I would have been complicit in allowing the sabotage of education in this country. Because the impact of the EBCs will not be on Mr Gove’s head, it will be in the desecration of the educational experience of thousands of young people. And I refuse to stand by and allow that to happen