Opinion: How GCSEs made me envy my son

The heady waft of future and assured pupil disengagement is already pungent only one day after the announcement of the new exam system.  The wrong-headedness of the “reform” is enough to actually make you gasp.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do hate the personal anecdote–beloved of many politicians and responsible in my view for so much political damage (and used to the usual effect yesterday in that disturbing article in the Evening Standard).

But here’s one.  My elder son recently gained 11 A stars in his GSCEs.  He is a very academic child, as I was.  But as he did his coursework and his modules, I was actually envious of him.  Envious because the scope that he covered in each subject and the different methods and styles of learning were ones that I had never experienced when I was at school.  I had to wait for university for that luxury.

In addition he was able to use everyday resources both at home and in the classroom, such as the Internet, to supplement his learning and ensure that the coursework he did was really well researched.  I think I had one text book to teach me all my history for O Level, for example.  As he is at a 1,800-pupil, mixed comprehensive school, he had the ability to share and reflect on much of his studies as he prepared for his GCSEs with a large group of children from differing backgrounds with differing strengths.  I attended an all girls, means-tested, direct grant school, with a narrow focus on academic achievement and cramming for exams.

Who was better educated at the age of 16, me or my son?  I have absolutely no doubt that my son wins by a country mile and detest the fact that pupils in the future will be subject to the sudden death exam system that existed when I was growing up.  The thing is it’s not what you know – tested at one moment in time –  it is how you learn and how you acquire and maintain skills to equip you for life that is important.

This most recent announcement has rocked me in a way that I have no doubt others of you in the party have been rocked.   My feeling is that this is one that simply has to be pulled back–whatever the cost.

* Helen Flynn is an Executive Member of the LDEA. She is a former Parliamentary Candidate and Harrogate Borough Councillor and has served on the Federal Policy Committee and Federal Board. She has been a school governor in a variety of settings for 19 years and currently chairs a multi academy trust in the north of England.

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  • “My elder son recently gained 11 A stars in his GSCEs. ”

    But according to Laws there has been “years of grade inflation under Labour”, so what does that say to your son ?

    I applaud you son and await Laws clarifying his disgraceful comment with evidence that such grade inflation is the reason so many children are doing well rather than their hard work and application and the quality of their schooling..

  • I really don’t see that the EBacc will lead to many changes in the way we examine children. We already have a focus on cramming for exams and no real focus on acquiring real skills. The EBacc isn’t really going to modify this significantly. Let’s just hope it leads to a more rigorous and credible examination system since the current GCSE system does not work and is laughed at abroad.

  • Maybe it’s just me being old fashioned – but I thought that exams were for the purpose of assessing knowledge, and schools/teachers had the job of teaching. People appear to be criticising the change of knowledege assessment by reference to a change of teaching – but they are different things. Just because a course is examined with a single end of period exam doesn’t preclude teachers using coursework, projects, etc. as a teaching method to instill the knowledge and engage with those pupils who perhaps best learn in that style.

  • To Thomas Long above: whay evidence is there that “we already have a focus on cramming for exams and no real focus on acquiring real skills”. I and my contemporaries participated in the old “O” Level system which was a lot worse and less “liberal” than the current system. Who says that “the current GCSE system does not work and is laughed at abroad”? Certainly not the many people who have wanted to come here and study here! You must be living on a different planet to me!!

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th Sep '12 - 4:50pm

    @ Helen Flynn: ” This most recent announcement has rocked me in a way that I have no doubt others of you in the party have been rocked. My feeling is that this is one that simply has to be pulled back–whatever the cost.”

    Helen, yours is an excellent article which accords with my view of the last twenty four hours exactly. I read the Clegg/Gove article in the Evening Standard, and could not believe that a Liberal Democrat Leader could put his name to a piece of Tory propaganda.

    The idea for example, that we are meant to accept for one moment, that the DPM and Education Secretary are anti-establishment – the ‘establishment’ being public servants – headteachers, teachers, lecturers etc. – . is almost laughable. This is from someone, Gove, who openly praises Rupert Murdoch as a ‘great man,’ who tried to help the Murdochs with Rebekah Brooks, open their own academy! For the Leader of our Party to call effectively call teachers ‘enemies of promise’ is barely comprehensible.

    It is good to read articles like yours and that of Jon Hunt, to remind myself that we are Liberal Democrats and that the soul of our party is worth saving – whoever the high profile casualties might be. The party is greater than one or two right-wing, misguided individuals at the top.

  • Lennon

    Nothing stops them doing as you suggest, and I assume they will. What is wrong though is all that work would be disregarded in favour of a final exam which could be undermined by a great variety of things and also would permit that those with good memories and access to crammers would have an advantage.

    Neither option is perfect but I prefer continuous assessment over a final exam anyday and that is from someone who took O Levels

    Thomas Long

    Can you back up your assertions about GCSE. I doubt if anyone abroad looks at our 16 year group qualification. Also, in what way does it not work? Surely any weaknesses can be dealt with more efficiently than reorganising the whole system?

    What is ‘rigorous’ in your definition?

  • Richard Dean 18th Sep '12 - 5:21pm

    The link above to the Evening Standard article doesn’t work for me. But this does..

    Helen – it might help the ordinary reader if you said what it is you object to in the proposals! Many ordinary people might actually agree with or welcome main of the features of the Evening Standard Article reproduced below

    “Our exams in particular need urgent reform. The tests most of our 16-year-olds sit, GCSEs, were designed for an age when most children left school at 16, when only a small minority went to university, when information technology was in its infancy, when the internet was science fiction and when the teaching profession was less prestigious, less well-qualified and less ambitious for every child.

    Almost everyone now accepts the problem of grade inflation … the Daily Telegraph revealed how exam boards compete to offer softer courses and easier questions, in a race to the bottom which has narrowed the curriculum, encouraged teaching to the test and sent all the wrong signals to our school leaders. …. We have failed to stretch the highest achievers and left lower achievers … floundering … thousands of ordinary students have suffered because the modular design of the English GCSE … has undermined faith in grading and marking.

    So we need new exams for students at the age of 16 — qualifications …. which will ensure the majority of children can flourish and achieve their full potential

    Much of this looks good to me, although obviously a bit wishy-washy. The idea of moderninsing the exams misses the opportunity to design different types of test, but there seems enough looseness in the present proposals that such opportunities might be fitted in – after all, they’re just producing hot air at the moment!

  • Richard Dean 18th Sep '12 - 6:18pm

    Let me put it in another question. Just because your son has a better education than you, is that a reason to stop trying to make further improvements, so that his son will get a better education than him?

    Or is it a particular type of “improvement” that you object to, perhaps as a step back? If so, why?

    Life is a positive sum game. The one-eyed man may be king in the country of the blind, but everyone does better if they ALL can learn to see, including the one-eyed man.

  • Paul McKeown 18th Sep '12 - 6:25pm

    I tend to agree with Richard Dean, above. I’m not sure what the fuss is about, tbh.

    What are the specific objections to the EBacc?

    It seems to me that a lot of the noise I have read or heard regarding the EBacc is objection to proposals from a Conservative, regardless of what the proposals are, and also a general weariness of change from those working in education. I regularly read, though. that university departments in the more rigorous degree courses find the current examination system rather poor at discriminating between ability, which suggests that tougher examinations are needed for the most able. I understand the fear of a return to second class education (secondary moderns and CSEs) for the less able, however this is not the stated objective and no one seems able to state why this should be the result. I know a number of people who work in human resources in other European countries; in my experience they generally have never thought highly of the English education system or its qualifications. The EBacc is at least trying to do something. My challenge to those opposed to it, is not to explain why its wrong, but to propose something better.

  • Helen Flynn 18th Sep '12 - 6:38pm

    What I object to is the withdrawal of coursework and modules and the assumption that having a sudden-death type test introduces more rigour. It strikes me that our understanding of pedagogy and research into and knowledge about how people learn has progressed remarkably since I was at school in the 1970s. In fact is has probably kept a similar pace to other branches of science.

    If there was any sign that Gove had listened to educational professionals and educational research scientists before making this announcement, I might be more inclined to listen to him. Sadly not much evidence of that, only the endless preaching about the Singaporean system, which has in fact recently come under scrutiny in Singapore itself.

    An opportunity has been lost here to rethink when we examine our children, how we do it and how we best equip our children for life and work in the 21st century–whilst valuing every single child. The Tomlinson Report would be a good place to start and is well worth a revisit . See a good article about the Tomlinson Report here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4299151.stm

  • Stuart Mitchell 18th Sep '12 - 6:41pm

    I share the anger with Laws’ comments, and with the thrust of these proposals.

    We have huge numbers of children who – depending on when they sit/have sat their exams – will be forever tarnished by either (a) having their achievements denigrated by the government, their recent passes all written off as worthless; (b) be disregarded as the last children to sit an exam system that has been condemned; or (c) be guinea pigs in a new system, quite possibly set up to create a low benchmark for future success. I have children and nieces in all three categories and I think the way the government is writing off the life chances of many of these kids is disgraceful.

    Having said that, I do support the abolition of coursework. Continuous assessment under exam conditions is fine, but coursework is manna from heaven for cheats and was always a terrible idea. To my eternal shame, when at 6th form college I had a lucrative little business going writing English essays forfriends who had failed the previous year; every one of them passed their resit with flying colours. I don’t see how anybody could defend a system that allows such things to happen.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 6:44pm

    @Richard Dean and Paul McKeown
    I think Chris Riley sums it up nicely on a parallel thread: “ this is very much an example of the thinking that ‘Something Must Be Done. This Is Something. Therefore It Must Be Done’
    In the Evening Standard piece, Gove and Clegg begin with a heartwarming explanation of why they are not typical tories, they list problems with the examination system (also contentious but we’ll ignore that for now), and then state what their solution is. What is missing is any evidence that their solution addresses the perceived problem, let alone fixes it. Is a single three hour exam really the best way to assess a child? How is a brave new world of information technology and the internet addressed by three hours of gripping a pen? Is it only the education of 15 & 16 year olds that matters? The list is endless, and people on this and other threads have offered many good reasons why the proposals might make things worse, and be less fair, less rigorous.
    I want a system of education that is fair, encourages everybody to reach their full potential, and gives them valuable qualifications that accurately reflect their abilities. If I then insist we shoot badgers does that mean it must be a good way to achieve that vision?

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 6:59pm

    @Helen Flynn
    By the way, congratulations to your son. My own son did nearly as well, and I echo all of your sentiments. He studied a far wider range of subjects than I did at O-level: Maths (and Further Maths), English Language and Literature, Dual Science, German, History, Geography, Economics, R.E., and I saw how much work he put into it. Geography coursework required a fieldtrip and the use of interpersonal and IT skills to compile a survey and a report. In history they had to evaluate, interpret and compare different sources of information rather than just memorise a list of facts. Assessed coursework encouraged him to develop research skills and go beyond the restrictions of a curriculum – hopefully good preparation for an EPQ next year (unless that too is abolished for not being assessed by an exam).
    I am proud of my son’s achievements, envious of the opportunities and options that were not available to me in the eighties, and angry that his efforts are dismissed by Gove and Clegg as the result of grade inflation and dumbing down.

  • “as the result of grade inflation and dumbing down.”

    So if there is not grade inflation then why were GCSE results less good a decade or more ago. I assume the students then were not stupider, lazier or less well taught?

    How do we get 99% pass rates in GCSE’s when 20% of school leavers are “so iliterate an innumerate that they struggle to cope with everyday life”?

  • Peter Downes 18th Sep '12 - 7:27pm

    I think Helen is basically right. Too much emphasis on an end-of-course high stakes test is inappropriate in today’s world. We should be supportting the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) who want to see accredited teacher assessors in schools so that there is more confidence in the reliability of teacher and course assessment.

    Today’s messages have been thoroughly confusing. Gove and Clegg appear to be saying that it will be more difficult to get a high grade, suggesting a pre-determined % for top grades, whereas David Laws says ‘ther will be no cap on aspiration’.

    I wonder if they understand the difference between norm-referenced and criterion-referenced assessment? The old GCE was essentially a norm-referenced exam – a pre-determined proportion of the pupils was allowed to ‘pass’, I was a Chair of Examiners for many years and whenever we wanted to allow a higher than usual % for the top grades, I had to appear before the MD of the Exam Board and justify myself. A national norm-referenced exam would simply be a national competition to put all the candidates in a rank order.

    Criterion-referencing recognises what pupils can actually do. If they meet the criteria, they get the appropriate grades. When pupils work harder and teachers teacher better, more of them meet the criteria. This is then dismissed by Gove as grade inflation and dumbing down. In reality, standards are rising, not falling.

    However, let us reluctantly admit that Gove has had one good idea – only one exam board for each subject. That should put an end to schools shopping around to identify the ‘easiest’ exam board. These boards are commercial operations and need to attract customers. They are in the market-place and are therfore in competition. I wonder if Gove realises that the free market, which he so obviously applauds, has contributed to grade inflation?!

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th Sep '12 - 7:37pm

    @Hywel: “as the result of grade inflation and dumbing down.”
    “So if there is not grade inflation then why were GCSE results less good a decade or more ago. I assume the students then were not stupider, lazier or less well taught?

    Perhaps we need to look at this in another way – results have improved because teaching has improved and students work harder. it’s not that students ten or more years ago were stupid but that teaching techniques have de-mystified the learning process for many young people.

    How do we get 99% pass rates in GCSE’s when 20% of school leavers are “so iliterate an innumerate that they struggle to cope with everyday life?”

    We have had high pass rates in GCSE because unlike O level grades D-G are considered passes. it’s a matter of how one interprets the results. 20% of school leavers who have a simple literacy and numeracy ability contrasts markedly with thirty years ago when, under the CSE, 40% left school with simple skills in literacy/numeracy and barely a CSE to their name.

    However, when I was at school in the 1970s/80s – the Govian golden age of rigour and elitism, there was a fatalism about education – if you didn’t get to grammar school, the chances were you would not go to university and leave school to get a job.

    Nowadays, such fatalism is anathema – it was routine then. Teachers then were part of the culture of fatalism. This has largely been eradicated in the current teaching force (in my personal experience).

    The Tories are peddling a rhetoric about teachers being happy with failure when the actual culture in most schools is towards achievement and aspiration.

    Such a contrast with my own school experience – The Tories have short, blunted memories unfortunately and a nostalgia for a golden age that never was. I know, I was there.

  • Helen Flynn 18th Sep '12 - 7:50pm

    I would echo Peter Downes’ comment about the one good bit is having one exam board per subject. What struck me like a slap in the face by a wet fish when I heard Gove on the radio the other night and then Nick Gibb afterwards justifying these “reforms” on the grounds of rigour, was: why on earth do they not leave GCSEs as they are for now and just have one exam board per subject, andforget about the Ebacc certificate nonsense? Surely that would be “job done”? It’s not rocket science. But then again I suppose they have to be seen to be doing new things to justify being “important people” rather than just doing the outstandingly obvious simple changes……Not as many headlines there.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 7:55pm

    Consider athletics (sporting analogies were popular a few weeks ago). Compared with 10 years ago, athletes throw greater distances or run faster times at every distance. We celebrate their success, their progress, their improvement.
    We don’t moan that a second is longer now or a metre is shorter.
    Also, to improve the performance of an athlete, we would look at the coaching, the training regime, their diet, their lifestyle, and make improvements to all of them. All that Gove and Clegg are proposing is to change the stopwatch.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 8:02pm

    I just want to echo Helen Flynn and Peter Downes points. Multiple competing examining boards has long been seen as a problem, and is an example of the sort of confused approach to the “market” that Gove and Clegg trumpet elsewhere.

  • “My elder son recently gained 11 A stars in his GSCEs.”
    This is something that I think hasn’t been discussed, is under the present system it has been possible to study more subjects and by sit exams at various times accumulate GCSE’s, whereas under the O-level and early GCSE system/education ethos, pupils typically studied 7 subjects and sat exams in all in the same June.

  • “Consider athletics (sporting analogies were popular a few weeks ago). Compared with 10 years ago, athletes throw greater distances or run faster times at every distance. We celebrate their success, their progress, their improvement.”

    This has been said rather a lot, but it’s not really the right comparison, is it? The question to ask is whether the population as a whole is able to run significantly faster than it was 10 or 20 years ago. That I doubt.

  • In 20 years of the GCSE, A-C grades in English have risen from 57% to 64%. Hardly rampant grade inflation.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 8:51pm

    @Richard “In 20 years of the GCSE, A-C grades in English have risen from 57% to 64%. Hardly rampant grade inflation.”
    In that same period, the proportion of men below 10 seconds in the Olympics 100m final has increased from 12.5% (good old Linford) to 87.5% (poor old Asafa had a bad day so must be written off as a failure for the rest of his life). But according to Clegg and Gove this is just because of time deflation and coaching for the event, so something must be done to slow them down. Hurrah.

  • @Peter – and who do most people rate as better, Bolt or Charlie Paddock?

    Exam results as a judgement of one moment in time is one thing. But they are used as a comparative measure 10 years later when people taking exams in 2012 are compared to people who took them in 2002.

  • “In that same period, the proportion of men below 10 seconds in the Olympics 100m final has increased from 12.5% (good old Linford) to 87.5% (poor old Asafa had a bad day so must be written off as a failure for the rest of his life). But according to Clegg and Gove this is just because of time deflation and coaching for the event, so something must be done to slow them down. Hurrah.”

    Apples and pears my son.

    Given the enormous sample size, its unlikely that any particular cohort going through the exam system is more intelligent than those above or below, therefore the spread of intelligence is going to be the same.

    Therefore, if exam results get better over time, we can infer that it is due to one or more of the following reasons:

    – better teaching
    – more effort
    – easier exams
    – shifting grade boundaries

    Given that (a) exam boards compete for business on the basis of how well the pupils do when taking their exams, (b) pressure on schools to rise up league tables and (c) pressure on governments to show they are improving standards in education and its not hard to draw conclusions.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '12 - 11:19pm

    Richard Dean

    You quote this bit of the Gove/Clegg Evening Standard article:

    Our exams in particular need urgent reform. The tests most of our 16-year-olds sit, GCSEs, were designed for an age when most children left school at 16, when only a small minority went to university, when information technology was in its infancy, when the internet was science fiction and when the teaching profession was less prestigious, less well-qualified and less ambitious for every child

    Well, there was so much other nonsense in the article that I have not got round to commenting on this bit.

    So, now to do so. GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s using very much the same language that is being used here to condemn them. GCSEs then were meant to be the modern thing for the age when most children stayed on at school, going to university was becoming the norm, computers were coming into home use. It was O-levels then that were condemned as old-fashioned and for the age when “most children left school at 16, when only a small minority went to university, when information technology was in its infancy” etc.

    This shows up the sloppiness of the “it’s modern so it’s good” argument. Here, as in many other cases, what’s “modern” is whatever the politician using this argument likes, if any politician uses “it’s modern” as the main argument, one should beware, it’s a sign that the other arguments for what is being proposed are dubious, if they exist at all.

  • This is interesting re: grade inflation. Peter Wilby wrote this in the New Statesman on 6 September. It makes the economic and political case for messing with exams and grades. Surely a strong reason why education policy should be cross-party and as de-politicised as is humanly possible:

    “When you listen to the row over this year’s GCSE results, you might think a C grade was some fixed, verifiable quantity like the distance from London to Manchester or the value of pi. In reality, exam success rates are determined by economic requirements.

    Whatever the examinations industry tells you, it is impossible to guarantee that a C grade in, say, physics can be the same for an exam taken in 2012 as for one taken in 1990. Both subject content and examining methods have changed drastically. The claim that grades can be comparable over different subjects is equally absurd. In what sense can a grade B in maths be deemed equivalent to a grade B in art?

    Exams are rationing devices. For more than 30 years, politicians argued that, if we are to compete with China and India, we need more highly qualified workers and should therefore increase the education rations. Grade inflation occurs at every level, including in universities where more than 60 per cent now get Firsts and Upper Seconds against barely half (of a much smaller cohort) in the 1990s. It isn’t confined to this country: grade inflation is pretty much a worldwide phenomenon.

    Now, politicians sing a different tune. We need to cut wages and increase working hours, they suggest, so that we can compete with Asia in sweated labour. Besides, we’re running short of funds and can’t support so many universities and degree courses. So we should reduce the rations and produce fewer young people qualified for higher education and professional jobs. ”

    Could be argued that this is the driver behind the recent Ebacc certificate announcements.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '12 - 11:43pm

    Richard Dean

    Much of this looks good to me, although obviously a bit wishy-washy

    I am actually very sympathetic to the argument that we need a move towards qualifications which are more around the core subjects, and having seen it myself in the years I’ve been teaching at university, I accept the argument that there has been a serious grade inflation problem – in my experience a grade C in GCSE Maths indicates a level of performance that years ago would have been expected at the end of primary school. The students I teach all come in with at least B in GCSE Maths, yet I find I have to teach them mathematics which I covered at secondary school in the years before we even started O-levels.

    Despite this, I am appalled by the Gove/Clegg article in the Evening Standard. The reason is that it is full of propaganda lines that used to be associated only with the right-wing of the Conservative Party. The case for what is being proposed here did not have to be argued in this way, but the fact that it is argued this way, with its horrible last sentence which actually deeply insults teachers and local government people who are what is meant by the “entrenched establishment”, means that any sense in it will not get heard. The very people who need to be won over will be put off by this. Nick Clegg should just not have put his name to it. If he agrees with its tone and its right-wing propaganda, he’s just moved so far away from what our party is about, that he certainly should no longer be its leader. If he agrees with the illogical and unfactual nature of many of its statements, he does not have the sense needed to be a leader we can trust with making policy. If he just left it to Gove and his team to write and didn’t bother to check it through properly before putting his name to it, he’s too foolish to be our leader. If he gave it to his “advisers” to check over, it shows him up as an incapable leader for having advisers so far removed from what our party stands for and from the real experience many of its active members have which tells them what nonsense much of this is. If he or his advisers just couldn’t spot the right-wing Tory propaganda sneaked into this article, so let it pass because they thought it “good”, it shows a staggering level of incompetency, and suggest he certainly is not capable of defending our corner in the coalition.

    So if this is what the article makes me feel, as someone who actually has quite some sympathy with the underlying idea it is trying to promote, what does it do to those who need a little more convincing? Reading this it is hard not to think that Clegg is now in the process of deliberately trying to wreck the party he is supposed to be leading.

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Sep '12 - 11:44pm

    What I object to is the withdrawal of coursework and modules and the assumption that having a sudden-death type test introduces more rigour.

    Well, a specific justification for that was given: that coursework and modules strongly favour children from wealthy middle-class families with a high degree of parental involvement, and penalise children who don’t have those advantages.

    I don’t know whether that happens to be true or not, but the “everyday resources” described in the article here do sound to me like exactly the sort of thing that children from deprived backgrounds don’t get to have. So this article would tend to support a move away from coursework and modules. But that’s not a very strong argument, and I don’t know the truth of the matter.

    Can we maybe have a debate about the facts now?

  • Paul McKeown – “The more rigorous subjects” What do you mean by this word, Paul? During the frenetic days of this debate, I have seen many times requests to clarify the word rigour and its adjective, rigorous. Looking at the context of many of the incidences of the word, including Paul’s here, it seems to mean harder to the user. Looking at Michael Gove’s use, this seems to be what is coming through. Additionally, we know that there is a real blind spot in Britain for subjects with a mathematical or statistical content, and this is something that successive generations have struggled with – rather stereotypically we have learned generally over the last few years that such cultures as India and China do better with mathematical learning. But no, Gove’s definition appears wider, if he wishes to include English among his “rigorous” subjects, so it’s not JUST about maths.

    Looking at students who do higher level studies in most subjects, whether it be history, psychology, media studies, or textile technology, all will contain elements of analysis, problem solving, in-depth understanding etc, and as someone with some background in accreditation of competences in work situations, there are “hard” topics all the way around.
    Some people find understanding of, say, historical or social perspectives, more difficult than mathematical solutions. Thank goodness, really, because this gives us an ability to put square pegs in square holes!

    When an academic discusses “intellectual rigour” (s)he would usually mean a form of thoroughness – ensuring you look at every angle of something to achieve a solution, a meaning, an analysis (whatever the desired outcome) in order to get some sort of best fit. Looked at that way, is Gove speaking of the educationalists’ exam/ assessment design, rather than the nature of the syllabus content? Bearing in mind that he is dismissing certain types of assessment design (use of coursework, for instance, presumably because the assessment is thought to be more subjective, and the production of the material to be assessed cannot be guaranteed as the work of the individual being assessed). But, equally, Gove also seems to be dismissing certain subjects, perhaps media studies or textile technology, so maybe his definition of “rigorous” isn’t as exclusive as just assessment design?

    Perhaps, Gove has an attachment to underlying “building blocks” subjects – whether the 3 Rs, or “pure sciences”, or languages, classically taught. Whatever, I should think Gove would be a nightmare to teach when it comes to broader implications of topics or themes. He clearly does not have the attitudes or skill set to make a good Education Secretary.
    Because Gove uses “rigour” as a key concept to underpin his changes (sometimes – can’t see it with Free Schools, but there), we should ensure we make clear how we are using the word, and to what it applies, because I think it is the key to thinking on both educational content, and methods in assessment / testing. To most of those I speak to in education, Gove is a nightmare, and we need to stop or ameliorate the damage he is doing, before he ruins entire generations.

    We live in a very small, extraordinarily complex world, with interrelationships everywhere. A key feature of any good teaching, and outcomes, is to ensure there is relevance and meaning to those learning, to enable good outcomes. Without recognising the variety of thematic interrelationships (leading to the likes of media studies), of learning style and psychological make-up of those learning, we impoverish our education and training, at all levels.

    Our leader should know better than to come out in support of such a one-eyed view of education. He needs to demonstrate his “passion for education” in a more meaningful manner. We are coming close to a real starting point in thinking for many Lib Dems here – I see us losing another big slice of support.

  • In reply to Andrew Suffield. We have to support progression in all areas of life, particularly when this is backed up by sound scientific research and endeavour. I think that is a sign of civilisation. Things like modules, controlled assessment and coursework come from evidence-based , peer reviewed educational research based on what works best in classrooms. This is a process of evolution–if you like it is a natural progression based on the value we ascribe to science. I do not think that coursework, etc, favours the middle class, and do remember that virtually every school in the land now has interactive whiteboards in most classrooms, giving children ample acces to internet-enabled technology at school. True ,middle class kids may have more access to this at home, but whole school initiatives such as Ipad schemes, currently being rolled out in many schools, ensure that every child has such a device, irrespective of whether they can afford one.

    I simply do not think that sudden death exams are the answer. The in no way relate to most areas of real life. I thought we had moved on from this. What is so sad is how Gove devalues progression in pedagogy and educational research, in favour of hanging on to his own pet theories and what he believes is the best system, based largely on his own educational experience, I suspect.

  • Cllr. Nigel Jones 19th Sep '12 - 12:31pm

    There is a need to first improve the GCSE now ; a lecturer from the London Institute of Education said on TV the other night that this was already being planned. Then we need to rethink the whole system to allow for higher standards for the more academic students, to accept that assessment does not just mean exams, that students learn by doing, for the fact that students will remain in school/college until 18 and to properly integrate academic and vocational education (as is Liberal Democrat policy).
    However, I am furious that yet again Nick Clegg (aided by David Laws now) is proclaiming a proposal as good, just because we have won a compromise to a bad Tory idea. What is more Nick Clegg has continued to undermine our identity as a party, by not saying that the proposals are a pragmatic compromise and that they are not Liberal Democrat policy. I hope that at the federal conference people will have the courage to challenge the way our leaders are continuing to play the coalition.

    Cllr. Nigel Jones
    Newcastle u nder Lyme

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Sep '12 - 12:59pm

    @Tim13: ” Our leader should know better than to come out in support of such a one-eyed view of education.”

    I agree with much of your analysis of Gove’s appropriation of the word ‘rigour’ to mean a return to the study of a narrow range of subjects, the content of which is approved by Gove and is tested in such a way as to select out those who are less good at all or nothing tests.

    Gove’s understanding of education is that we all succeed if we all put in enough effort – it’s the classic ‘I pulled myself up by my bootstraps’ thinking. His philosophy of education is not an enabling one but based on sinking or swimming.

    Naturally those at the top, thrive because they are equipped with the innate ability – those without natural ability in spades, can get to the top by sheer effort.

    The problem with this philosophy is that it presents us with a binary view of human nature, ie: those with innate brilliance and those who have less natural gifts but willingness to graft.

    Human nature, unfortunately for Gove and the Tories is a little less simple and a rather more messy. Each person is a complex mixture of abilities and drives. The education system has developed in the past thirty years to be able to deal with these complexities.

    There are flaws in the current system – literacy and numeracy in early years and primary must be given top priority – this is the foundation for learning. GCSE should be revised to stretch the very top 5% in subjects like Maths; I’m in favour of minimising modules but retaining a coursework/project-work element because it broadens learning.

    The most concerning aspect of this EBacc controversy is the enthusiastic way in which Clegg and Laws have accepted a Tory view of education – this is very troubling for long-time Liberal Democrats like me.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '12 - 3:14pm

    Helen Flynn

    I simply do not think that sudden death exams are the answer. The in no way relate to most areas of real life. I thought we had moved on from this

    They are a snapshot of what’s in the mind. This can be useful, but of course we should understand its limitation. In going on and on about this we should beware of not encouraging the very tendency we are trying to avoid – that is, of placing too much attention on exact grades and how they are calculated. They measure what they measure, it’s a fairly rough measure, and that’s it. I mean, who really cares about GCSE results? They’re almost forgotten once people have gone on to further study or their first jobs.

    An exam should not be a memory test. If it is, it’s a bad exam, if the subject it’s examining can only be examined in that way, then it’s a bad subject. That’s one of the reasons the “vocational” qualifications pushed in schools in recent years got a bad name – too many of them were taught and/or assessed in a way that was far too heavily memorisation based. Either that, or the non-exam assessment was more “reward for hard work” than measure of actual skill. This is shown up by the common line we hear “I worked hard, therefore I deserve a good grade”. When I’m being facetious, I refer to this sort of assessment as “colouring in”. OK, it’s not as bad as that (at least I hope not), but I mean something you might give kids to do to keep them quietly occupied rather than expend more effort educating them.

    In the end, any qualification is worth only what those who take on those with the qualification finds its gives them. Whatever points any politician gives it mean nothing if in practice having the qualification tells us nothing about what the person who has it is able to do.

    In my field, which is software development, “sudden death” assessment is exactly what the employers use to recruit. It’s called the “code interview”. You’re given a problem, and you have to write computer code by hand in a short time that would solve it. Why do they do it that way – after all, when we write code professionally we do so sitting at a computer and not artificially time limited? Because they’ve found it works. If it’s there so embedded in the mind that it comes out naturally when asked to do it in the artificial “sudden death” situation, you really do have the skills. If you say (as many of my students say when they find they are assessed by sit-down exams) “but that’s not how it’s done normally, I can write code when I’m sat at a computer but not by hand”, chances are that it hasn’t really sunk in, you don’t have the deep understanding, you can maybe come to a solution by trial and error, but that’s not the same as by logic. That is why a memorisation based approach to education is so bad, because it can get you so far but no further, and you are lost when what you are doing goes further. It’s rather like learning stick sentences in a foreign language rather than learning the principles of the language itself, it maybe can get you by as a tourist, but not to do business in the language. That’s why students who have come so far in qualifications which are over based on memorisation often come so badly unstuck further on, they just can’t get out of confusing memorisation with learning.

    OK, now what I am writing here is about my own experience in my own subject. It’s saying why for me at least, exams do work. What I am saying may apply to a greater or lesser extent in other subjects. However, part of the pressure for the EBacc does come from the practical experience of people like myself, so please do not knock it, or suggest it is completely divorced from reality.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '12 - 4:10pm

    I find that sudden-death exams at university level are very good indicators of whether a student has actually taken in course material.

    As others have noted, coursework can be cheated, and it favours students with parental support and few friends to spend the time with. But I found also that coursework depends critically on the advice given by teachers to students as the work progressed, so that I was effectively marking the helpers who helped the student, rather that the student. In cooperative projects, bad students can drag down good ones, good ones can pull up bad ones, so that again, the process does not end up assessing individuals. Given that a student has often doen a huge amount of work on coursework, there is also a string reluctance to give Fail as a grade – consequently the mark statistics tend to be skewed upwards at the low end.

    Teachers can also have a vested interest in coursework, because it can reduce teachers’ workloads -the guidance given along the way is often verbal and on-the-spot, so requiring little out-of-class preparation, and there is probably less marking to do overall.

    By contrast, sudden-death tests, whether written or oral or practical, do actually test the skills that a student alone has. Of course students can be nervous, or learn by rote the previous night, but in practice the people who do best in such tests are the people who have learned and internalized the skills over the entire semester, rather than committed them to only short-term memory.

    Sudden-death tests provide a good discipline for students too, and allow students to assess for themselves which subjects they are best at. Sudden-death tests can usually be re-done next semester, so failure in one need not imply a lasting barrier to development. They are not really sudden-death, more like sharp-judgment tests.

    Sharp-judgment tests are also good preparations for life. A joiner making a cabinet needs all the skills needed to make the cabinet and needs them in the short period of time that is required to assemble the materials and tools and make the cabinet. It’s not much use if the joiner has to go back to text books at every step. No point either if a hairdresser has to do half your hair one week, read up the next stage, and do the rest the following week! In my profession of civil engineer I must make judgments of building safety every week – I have to have all the skills needed for this all in the same week.

    Although I sympathize with parents who see their children doing well in the present system, I am conscious that we must act for the good of ALL if we are to be a political party with aspirations to government. Our testing systems are necessary parts of the processes of guiding people towards their best paths, and sometimes that will necessarily mean that some paths become less available to some people as they move along.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Sep '12 - 4:21pm

    @Richard Dean: ” Teachers can also have a vested interest in coursework, because it can reduce teachers’ workloads -the guidance given along the way is often verbal and on-the-spot, so requiring little out-of-class preparation, and there is probably less marking to do overall.”

    I read the above statement with disbelief! I used to teach a subject which had two pieces of assessed coursework and a final examination. The preparation needed by me to enable students to do the coursework, coupled with marking drafts, preparing resources/input for the students, was huge. I had two classes of thirty GCSE students doing coursework – you do the Maths regarding the amount of marking, correcting and commenting! After the coursework was submitted, I was responsible for the administration, marking and moderation of the entire year group’s coursework – over 100 scripts – not a reduction in workload but a big increase.

    However, I think that the students gained much needed skills in writing an extended essay and much deep learning went on. It was worth the extra work in the long run.

    I don’t know if you are a teacher but if you taught a subject involving essay writing as I did, you could not possibly, realistically make such an unsubstantiated comment about the reduction in workload with coursework.

    I am guessing it’s your hunch based on … who knows…

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '12 - 5:36pm

    @Matthew Huntbach and Richard Dean
    I think you both make excellent points, but I don’t think the debate is about whether exams are good or bad per se, but whether excluding all other forms of assessment is good or bad.

    I recently sat a 3 hour Geology exam. It was open book and had 3 parts which covered all of the important aspects of the course: a multiple choice section (which was very thorough), a practical section (studying and identifying rock and fossil specifications), and a choice of one from two long questions. It was tough, but I believe fair. But the same course also used continuous assessment (marked assignments) towards my final grade (a distinction, thank you!). Also, we had a specimen exam paper, access to past papers, an exam tutorial, and a very good idea of the nature and range of content of the exam. I think it would be very difficult to write such an exam suitable for schoolchildren with a wide range in ability. And then repeat it every year. And to do so in a way that avoids teaching to the test as past papers become available.

    Matthew, I believe that at QMUL as well as terminal exams you also seem to have some continuous assessment, labwork and projects. And rather than assess everything in one exam at the end of three or four years, maybe you have resittable exams on different modules at the end of (or within) each year. Richard, I don’t know about civil engineering, but in a chemical engineering degree a design project, often carried out in a group, is a requirement for a degree to be recognised by the IChemE. If this is best practice in universities, then why not in schools?

    I believe that it should be about balance. Exams have their place, but surely for something so vital we should be able to design a system that is more than a 2 year build-up to a 3 hour test in a style that is more 18th century than 21st.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '12 - 5:48pm

    I agree that many forms of test should be considered. But do we know that IChemE is actually defining “best practice”?

    In real industry, it is probably rare to have design projects managed and run soley be recent graduates. More often there will be a senior engineer running a project, assigning and judging the work done by junior engineers. So a better way to prepare for practice might be to have school and university projects arranged just like that. Which is rather different from much present practice, with a much higher workload by the senior leader.

  • James Kempton 19th Sep '12 - 7:11pm

    Really interesting thread.
    I agree with the sentiment that our experience as a junior coalition partner is that announcements generally need to begin with,” we wouldn’t have started from here but …..”
    On this one, I agree we are a country mile away from parity of accreditation for academic and vocation skills. But it does not stop being our policy just because we have not been able to get it agreed.
    That said pressing the government on setting a timetable for extending the new arrangements to cover the accreditation of non-Ebacc subjects does seem to me to be a battle worth fighting for – and one where we can put the case for something other than end point examination.
    Is anyone planning to respond to the DfE consultation?


  • Andrew Waller 19th Sep '12 - 9:14pm

    Good article Helen. There are many Lib Dem governors who will be looking at this objectively and asking what will that do for our pupils and will it help them to reach their full potential ? Getting all pupils, of whatever ability fully engaged is what this country needs for economic success. If this is a step backwards then it is almost as though we have not learned the lessons of the 1870s when Gladstone said “‘Undoubtedly, the conduct of the campaign, on the German side, has given a marked triumph to the cause of systematic popular education’ following the defeats of the established empires in 1866 and 1870.

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '12 - 11:30pm

    @Richard Dean
    Sorry – I actually meant that the whole bundle of measures I’d mentioned was best practice – group projects, course work, labwork, projects (individual and group), resittable non-terminal exams, etc. A design project is important for chemical engineers to see how a range of skills and knowledge come together, but is just one example of the sort of good practice that Gove and Clegg are ignoring for 16 year olds.
    Going off-topic briefly, your suggestion about managing school and university group projects with people of mixed experiences (i.e. from different academic years) is a very interesting one – it would give older students a chance to develop mentoring skills.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '12 - 11:36pm

    Peter Watson

    Matthew, I believe that at QMUL as well as terminal exams you also seem to have some continuous assessment, labwork and projects. And rather than assess everything in one exam at the end of three or four years, maybe you have resittable exams on different modules at the end of (or within) each year.

    At QMUL (where I work) the balance of coursework/exam is up to individual lecturers, there is not some college-wide enforced pattern. In most cases, however, the exam is the major part of the assessment. Unfortunately, my experience is that marks for coursework in programming are very untrustworthy because it really is difficult to police it for plagiarism. A student hands you some lines of code, and funnily enough he’s solved the problem in almost exactly the way as his smarter mate – well, he insists he did it on his own, how can you prove he didn’t? The fact that when given an almost identical problem in an exam he can hardly put together a line of code (though his mate puts in an almost perfect solution) suggests what we saw wasn’t really his work. The main reason I have some coursework marks is that I find it does at least get the students to do the exercises – and doing the exercises really is the only way to learn this stuff. When there’s no mark attached to a lab exercise, when it’s just used for training and feedback, my experience is most of the class just don’t bother with it. Then when the first time they hit that sort of problem it’s in the exam, not surprisingly they do badly. A huge problem here, enforced by cultural assumptions about exams being “memory tests”, and “vocational” qualifications which turn out to be over-weighted towards memorising definitions, is the tendency of students to think the way to pass exams is to spend the days before it memorising the material – which NEVER works. The exam is really a test of what has become absorbed as problem solving skills throughout the teaching period if they have worked steadily on the practical exercises. My advice to them is to get plenty of fresh air and a good night’s sleep before the exam, so they do it with refreshed brains, and don’t “revise” because revision is useless, my exams are never a memory test.

    Yes, there’s exam every year for the modules taken in that year, though the weighting of marks is 1:2:6 for 1st, 2nd and 3rd year, so the final year counts for over half the marks. Yes, an individual project is a big part of the final year marks, but it’s done with individual supervision i.e. I meet the students whose projects I am supervising one-to-one every week, and the final assessment includes an oral presentation, so all that helps ensure we are reasonably certain it’s the student’s own work.

    On resits, they can only resit a module if they failed it previously, and if they resit the maximum mark they can get for it is just a pass mark, no higher. Also, the maximum number of resit attempts they can take is two – and is now being reduced to one. So you can’t e.g. resit to get an A if you already have a B, and you can’t use the tactic of deliberately failing because you didn’t like the look of the exam and hope the resit will be more to your taste. So, all in all, very different from the concept of unlimited resits to increase your grade which we now see in the school exam system. Actually, my experience is that if they fail my module first time round, it’s rare they will pick up and pass it as resit – my exams are an accurate test of skill, I get it right first time round (and mostly as they are failing because they didn’t do the lab work, they still fail the resit because they still didn’t do the lab work so still didn’t learn – sadly the failures tend to be victims of the “exams are about memorisation” fallacy, and erroneously suppose that if only they stay up even later the night before and memorise the notes they never understood, they will pass the resit).

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '12 - 11:52pm

    Peter Watson

    surely for something so vital

    We should lighten up here – we’re talking about GCSEs, which are not “vital”. When I was my department’s admissions tutor I might glance at an applicant’s GCSEs for all of 10 seconds, and that’s probably the most attention they are ever going to get from anyone outside. Now most pupils are staying on post-16, GCSEs are almost irrelevant, later qualifications will always override them, and once you’re in employment no-one bothers much about exam results of any sort – it’s experience that counts.

    We wouldn’t be getting so hung up about A-level results either if it were not for the cultural assumption that there are only two universities in this country which really count, so the fine distinction which means getting into one of these or not is what we should spend all our time worrying about. This idea that your life is wrecked if you get a grade one lower than expected so get into a university ten places lower in the league tables than the one you were originally heading for is a cause of so much unnecessary stress. Lighten up – there’s enough university places for everyone (and thanks to our enlightened government no-one need fear lack of money stops you going because you can all get loans to pay the fees and only have to pay off the loans if you earn enough later to do so – I am only being semi-sarcastic here).

  • “My elder son recently gained 11 A stars in his GSCEs.”

    If I wanted to persuade people that there is no such thing as grade inflation, that is not a sentence I would write.

    Especially as it is not long since an official at one exam board was caught on tape telling schools that they should use their exams because they were so easy.

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