Tag Archives: A Level

Public exams should be more than a political football

I had my own personal klaxon alert this morning. Hoping to gently ease myself into the Bank Holiday weekend, I thought how better to start my day than a browse through Twitter. A mistake. The BBC Twitter feed caught my eye. It carried a piece which could easily fall under the radar of news worthiness.

The shadow Labour schools minister, Kevin Brennan, had written to Glenys Stacey, chief exams regulator at Ofqual, about Gove’s proposed reforms to ‘A’ Levels: “I understand that the secretary of state’s position on this constitutes a policy direction to you, but in undertaking your work we think that it is important to signal clearly what our position will be following the next general election.” Essentially Mr Brennan is sending a warning shot across the bow of Ofqual that Gove’s mission to decouple ‘AS’ Levels from the two year linear ‘A’ Level qualification could be reversed after the election in 2015. (BBC article here)

I have very mixed feelings about this. On a point of principle I think I agree with the thrust of Mr Brennan’s argument – that the move would “narrow students ‘ A’ level choices, remove a key indicator for assessing university applicants and undermine progress in widening access to higher education.” However, there is another dimension to this debate which we dismiss at our peril. The stability and integrity of the qualifications’ framework.

We had an insight into the shape of things to come last year when a cohort of students were believed to have been let down by the system. The exam boards AQA and Edexcel felt the full force of a backlash against the perceived injustice in the grading of GCSE English. Allegations about political interference motivated by a determination to end grade inflation were noisily refuted by the DfE and Ofqual. However unfortunately damage had been done to the integrity of the examination system.

The extent of the damage is revealed in the results of a poll just published by Ofqual. In its efforts to assess how far confidence in the GCSE qualification had been affected by last year’s debacle, Ofqual carried out a poll of head teachers, teachers, parents and other interested parties. Salutary reading for all concerned, the results show clearly that GCSE has suffered a blow to its credibility. Some 89% of the heads and 77% of the teachers had concerns about the exams. These included unfair grade boundaries, incorrect grades and inaccurate marking.

Given the reforming agenda of the current Secretary of State for Education this poll is music to his ears. His department’s response says it all. A spokesman said Gove had warned that GCSEs suffered from serious weaknesses. “This report shows that these concerns are widespread. The changes we are making will restore confidence in GCSEs … they will be more rigorous, with deeper subject content and match the best equivalent exams in the world.”

Setting aside the view of teachers that Gove has been somehow complicit in exacerbating the problem, the fact remains that our examination framework demands more from us than political posturing. So although I sympathise with Mr Brennan’s desire to counter another strand of the Goveian Revolution at ‘A’ Level, I am deeply concerned that this will create instability in a qualifications’ system which is already creaking under the weight of the change proposed by the DfE. And halting change when planning is already well advanced is just as destabilising as the change itself.

Given the importance of ‘A’ Levels in accessing Higher Education, the possible fall out from getting this wrong is incalculable. GCSE-gate, a cautionary tale, should be warning enough. Politicians must remember that qualifications have a currency beyond the length of a parliament. They are about people’s lives – their hopes, dreams, aspirations. They are therefore too important to become a political football.

League tables measure; people inspire.

There has been a great deal of measuring going on this week courtesy of the DfE. By measuring of course I am referring to the school league tables which attracted the usual column inches in the press. My view of these tables is on record. School league tables are a blunt yardstick – they measure what they measure, and tell you nothing more.

A new league table entered the arena this year. This table identified the educational establishments where students achieved AAB in the facilitating subjects recognised by the elite Russell Group of Universities.  The Stephen Perse Foundation ranked very well with this measurement – we were placed a pleasing fifth in the country.  Yet by definition this table did not include our IBDP students where the average was an excellent 40 / 45 points.

If you look at the HEFCE equivalent to AAB, which is currently 35 points, then we gained a 94 per cent ‘AAB’ rate with our 2012 IB cohort. This would place us at No 1 in the Russell Group league by a wide margin.

Thought for DfE – do we now need a separate Russell Group IB league table? Or, is all this obsessing with measurement a distraction from what really matters – inspiring students to strive for a place in the educational setting of their choice?

This is the real imperative for schools today. Traditionally, guidance has focused on careers advice. Only recently I visited a class where the students were engaged in an online careers guidance exercise. One student was curious as to why she was being prompted by the virtual guidance to become a pet therapist.  Interesting but strangely random.  Although there is a place for this process, process alone can only channel, it cannot open a world of possibilities. It cannot inspire. The clarion call of the Olympics to “Inspire a Generation” served us well as a nation. It surely must be equally relevant to our schools!

The challenge facing educators today is to guide our young people towards a future where the landscape lacks the certainty of the past.  We face a future characterised by the unknowns. Therefore guidance must be harnessed to inspiration.  We are no longer merely a conduit for passing on information relating to specific career routes.  We need to offer a higher level of guidance.  In our school we have developed a programme called Inspire Me which aims to do just this.  The purpose of this ambitious programme is to invite people with interesting life stories and career paths in to school to share these with the students.

Only last week we welcomed back Old Persean, Clare Young, formerly a scientist, now a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police force.  She spoke to the school about her experiences as part of the security team which protected the Olympic torch as it traversed the country last summer.  Her fitness levels had to be extremely high as did her diplomatic skills dealing with a host of celebrities and of course the public during her travels around Britain.  How wonderful for our current cohort of students to listen to the life experiences of someone who, only 15 years ago, was a pupil at their school.  Clare hadn’t imagined she would play her role in an historic sporting event in this country but she was inspired to seize her opportunity.

Of course inspiration must be underpinned with excellent guidance.  An individual should shape their own aspiration and not be shaped by the aspiration of their school.  This year our students’ ambitions have been rewarded with offers from all kinds of Higher Education institutions.  Whilst 30% have Oxbridge offers, others hold offers from a whole host of universities for an extraordinary range of subjects.  Still pending is a Skype interview for a Liberal Arts course in Maastricht, an application to Military Academies in the United States and a much prized place on a midwifery course (bumped into the student in Waitrose who tells me her interview is soon, so best of luck!).

If you want to find out more about our guidance in the sixth form here is the link to the relevant section of our website:

http://sixthform.stephenperse.com/universities-and-careers

I started by referencing league tables – I should like to conclude by noting a rather bizarre feature of the GCSE league tables. Even though our school boasted GCSE examination results which ranked amongst the best in the country we don’t appear at all in this DfE measurement.  Go figure.