Passing the buck: A right fine mess at the Department for Education

Well, there it is. According to the TES, in the brave new world of Justine Greening’s Department for Education, a GCSE pass is now a grade 4. Except when it is a 5, because a 5 is also a pass. And just to remind you, the top grade is a 9, and the bottom grade a 1. Except maybe it’s a zero. Nobody really knows anymore, so don’t feel too left out.

And don’t panic, if you’re a student, a parent or a teacher. Because all will be well. Don’t listen to anyone who complains about the government not knowing what a GCSE pass actually means a mere 6 weeks before the exams. If we all stay united, Britain is unstoppable, remember. It’s just the moaners who bring us all down.

Still sceptical? As well you might be. It’s worth recalling how we ended up here, with the government announcing that a GCSE pass is both a grade 4 and a grade 5 rather like Boris Johnson when he announced he wanted to have his euro cake and eat it.

That’s the problem with nonsense. Like misbehaviour in schools, when one minister gets away with it, the others all start to copy. First it was Boris, then David Davis and Liam Fox with their pirouettes on the Single Market and immigration, and now it’s Justine Greening in education.

Incredibly, she claims to be providing “certainty” by replacing a system everyone understands, has understood for years and which worked reasonably well as far as we were all concerned, with a system that says to kids and parents that you now can have a “standard pass” (grade 4) or a “strong pass” grade 5, in place of knowing where you were with a good old grade C.

Even better, schools will be judged and held accountable (note the poker-faced lack of irony or self-reflection whenever politicians use that phrase!) by BOTH these two measures, just to add to the stress on teachers, Heads, and governing bodies. That’s as well as the new accountability measures known as Progress 8, which are already causing debate as schools accuse each other of denying kids the chance to take a full range of GCSEs in order to massage the figures.

There’s something of an Ealing comedy or Thick of It feeling to what happens in government these days, which is of course unrelated to the fashionable belief in Tory circles that bumbling about like an old Etonian or impersonating former Prime Ministers are qualifications for high office.

But there’s a tragedy, too. Progress 8, which judges schools on the progress made by all their students rather than just the narrow group that sit on the C/D borderline, is a welcome step forward.

The mistake made by Gove, and repeated by his successors, is to have a fixation on the notion of a “pass” grade without being sure what that should mean.  Similarly, the obsession with a battery of performance measures merely incentivises the gaming of the system by the unscrupulous, and undermines the efforts of the honest by resetting the doomsday clock every year at one minute to midnight.

For this is a new educational landscape. Fail now, and your school can be taken over.  Displease the mighty, and your walls will crumble.

How sad, then, that at the centre of power we have an emperor with new clothes, while our kids and teachers head into the last few weeks of term with little clue how to interpret the orders being hurriedly shouted out from the top.

* Lee Howgate is a Lib Dem activist who lives in South Devon. He is a senior leader at a large comprehensive school in Cornwall, and formerly worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with experience in Russia and the EU. You can follow him on tumblr where he posts as leetheliberal

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  • Allan Brame 29th Mar '17 - 9:52am

    To compound matters, there is no way of knowing where the grade boundaries will be drawn for these new GCSEs. We are assured that broadly the same percentage of students will be awarded a 4 as used to get a C. But schools will be measured on the proportion gaining a 5 – equivalent to an old top grade C.
    This is known as driving up standards.
    And of course they know that schools such as the one where I am a governor will struggle with this. We have nearly 60% on free school meals, with a predominance of white boys from working class families.
    And ‘Progress 8’ is predicated upon the notion that a) Key Stage 2 assessments are accurate and b) that students should progress smoothly through their secondary education like units on a conveyor belt.
    Many come from broken families; live on estates where drug-taking is rife; have parents with little experience of academic success; where there is no quiet space at home conducive to study – but all that counts for nothing when the school’s performance is judged.
    Teachers offer all the support they can with homework clubs, extra sessions on Friday evenings and in the holidays, but the dice are loaded against them. Support from the Local Authority is limited, because most local schools have become academies – the threat hanging over our school every August as the GCSE results are scrutinised.
    We are on course to notch up a respectable percentage of Grade 4s. We wait anxiously to see how many inch over the line to Grade 5.

  • Steve Trevethan 30th Mar '17 - 8:39am

    Thank you for a most interesting and important piece.
    “Tell me how people are to be measured and I can tell you how they will behave.” Is current educational measurement more about the control of the populace than about their enablement?
    How are GCSEs currently referenced?
    Norm? Criterion? Something else?

  • Many years ago, as a new member of the Education Committee I recall a wise old HMI quoting a farmer in connection with persistent testing – “You don’t make a pig no ‘eavier by keep weighin un”

  • Richard Fortescue 30th Mar '17 - 9:24pm

    Steve, my understanding is that the 9-1 grading is explicitly a return to norm referencing. But, as someone teaching 9-1 GCSEs, I am not wholly confident in how it will work…

    BrianD – yup, there is truth there! On the other hand, assessment is an essential part of guiding students’ progress in their learning.

    I believe that criterion referenced examination was a sound approach and I am not enthusiatic about norm referencing for GCSEs. Norm referencing is competitive examination, it is about ‘selecting the best’. Criterion referencing is about ‘recognising attainment’, showing what level a particular student has reached. Teachers tend to favour the latter as it is more motivational for the students they teach.

    I am keen on higher demand in courses for the most able students, I am dismayed by the unrealistic demands on less able students, and like many colleagues I am struggling with the workload of delivering new courses to most of the classes I teach.

    High aspiration for our students is essential. The narrowing of the curriculum inherent in Mr Gove’s ‘reforms’ makes the assumption that all of our children can be little Michaels. I am not convinced they all can be, I know they don’t all want to be, and many teachers and parents don’t want that for them either. We need to recognise and celebrate the students’ diverse talents, skills and interests and offer an education that allows all to flourish in their own way.

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