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.

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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.

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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.

The nonsense of the grade descriptors

This week I have finalised our new Assessment, Marking and Feedback policy and submitted the draft to the Governors for review. This policy was a complete rewrite, incorporating and committing to our latest thinking on assessment without levels and closing the gap marking and feedback. I also spent some time preparing for our assessment without levels network meeting by working on the English assessment framework, which we’re basing on the groundwork from Belmont school and David Didau shared by Dan Brinton. One of the tasks I was trying to do was to match the assessment criteria we had created as closely as I could to the grade descriptors for GCSEs graded 1-9 published in November by the DfE. Except there was a problem. The grade descriptors are completely useless.

It starts with this gem in the “Detail” :

We have developed ‘grade descriptors’ for the new GCSEs graded 9 to 1 in English language, English literature and mathematics. They are different from ‘grade descriptions’, which apply to GCSEs graded A* to G.

I already feel like I’m reading a bureaucratic satire; this could be straight from a Yes Minister script. Before you even click on this link for the English Language descriptions descriptors, there’s this sober warning:

These descriptors are not designed to be used for awarding purposes in 2017. Statistical predictions will be used to set grade outcomes at whole subject level.

So, translated, “here is a descriptor for a grade 8, but it won’t be used to award a grade 8 because that will be decided statistically.” Which begs the question…why publish these at all?

Discouraged, but not deterred, I pressed on to the descriptions descriptors themselves. Here’s a comparison between Grades 5 and 8 for reading in English Language:

Comparing Grade 5 with Grade 8 in new GCSE English Language. Spot the difference?

Comparing Grade 5 with Grade 8 in new GCSE English Language. Spot the difference?

At this point I realised I was on a fool’s errand. If I was going to start chasing the shadows of whether kids were “substantiating” or “supporting” their understanding and opinions with references which were “apt” or  “illuminating” I would surely run mad. The anchor point for Grade 8 is supposed to be the current A*, whilst Grade 5 is the top of C / bottom of B. There would be no way of delineating Grades 6 and 7 in between these two, surely?

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DfE grade descriptors: about this useful (Source)

I sat back, breathed deeply, and remembered this:

I had, for half an hour or so, slipped back into the old “levels” way of thinking. Not being able to tie our English assessment framework to GCSE grades or National Curriculum levels is a blessing. It matters not one jot whether a piece of work is a C, Level 5a, B+, or Grade 6. What matters are the key questions of assessment:

  • What is successful about it?
  • What could be done to improve it?

Identifying the answers to these questions is the key to our assessment policy; communicating those answers the key to the feedback policy. If we get that right, students will get the grades that they are statistically assigned deserve at the end of the course.