Browsing the archives for the Ofqual tag.

Fiddling Results by Lowering Grade Thresholds Is Counter-productive

by Calvin Robinson on August 29, 2017.

Written for the Daily Mail on A-Level results day 2017 (Thursday, 17th August 2017):

It has become one of the time-honoured rituals of modern British education.   Every year, the release of A-level results in mid-August is accompanied by images of celebrating teenagers, some leaping for joy as they delight in their success, others tearfully hugging their friends in relief.

This year the celebrations have been given an extra impetus, thanks to a rise in the number for top grades awarded for the first time since 2011.   After a modest decline over the last six years, this summer saw 26.3 per cent of A-level entries receive A or A*, up 0.5 per cent on 2016.  The increase comes even though the syllabus this year was tougher in 13 subjects, following reforms introduced by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who wanted to see more rigour in the system.   Only last week, before the results were announced, there were predictions of chaos and decline.   But these dire warnings never materialized.

But while the government was dialling up the academic rigour, examiners have been dumbing down their marking. While individual pupils can rightly celebrate their results, celebration by the educational establishment must be tempered by the recognition that the exam authorities, by their own admission, have wilfully sought to undermine the drive for greater robustness by lowering pass marks.   Gove tried to take a sword to the culture of low expectations and illusory achievement.    The educational establishment has, once again, blunted his instrument.   As a consequence of this flawed marking policy, we are at risk of ending up with the same old grade inflation, lack of integrity and statistical manipulation that have done so much to discredit the exam regime.

What is extraordinary is that the education chiefs are quite open about its approach.   In a remarkable interview published last weekend, Sally Collier, the head of the exam quango Ofqual, admitted that she had decided to lower grade thresholds in the exact same 13 A-level exams to which the Gove reforms had been applied.    Her aim, she declared, was to avoid a dramatic fall in results, thereby ensuring that the same proportion of pupils – roughly a quarter – would achieve the top grades as they did last year.   Justifying her move, she resorted to the kind of cringing, non-judgemental language that so typifies the progressive mentality.  “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well.  All our kids are brilliant,” she said, adding that “the most important thing for our students is that they get the praise they deserve for having undertaken new courses of study.”

As a teacher myself, I despair of rhetoric like that.   It does pupils no favours at all.   Far from encouraging them, such indiscriminate cheerleading actually undermines their real achievements and diligence.     If everyone has to be told they are “brilliant”, what is the point of hard work?   Sally Collier might think that she is supportive, but she is the opposite as she seeks to perpetuate a discredited system that is crying out for real change.

I love my work, teaching A-level Computer Science.    It is a job that gives me tremendous job satisfaction as I have the chance to pass on my knowledge and equip the next generation for our increasingly hi-tech world.    But I want my pupils to be challenged so that they can show they really understand their subject.    Mollycoddling them with meaningless praise and inflated grades is no way to help them achieve.

It is precisely my belief in academic rigour that led me to support the Government’s reforms.     The old regime was simply not working.    Employers complained that school leavers did not have the skills or attitude for the workplace.    Amid an unrelenting glut of top grades, universities found it hard to identify the most able pupils.     I saw many of the problems for myself.     There was far too much emphasis on coursework, which meant that pupils could have their hands held by their teachers – and sometimes by overzealous parents – as they were guided through the process.     Moreover the modular nature of many courses meant that pupils could often keep resitting a particular test until they passed it.    The entire structure meant that entrants were assessed, not on their real talent and understanding of their subject, but on their ability to jump through a series of arbitrary hoops.

The revamped system has offers greater thoroughness.     In the focus on genuine academic discipline, much of the waffle and softness has disappeared.    I see it in my own subject of computing, which has been turned into a proper science.   That is a key reason why it now appeals to more pupils.    It is telling that, since the subject became harder, the numbers taking it have increased, up by 38 per cent this year.  Gratifyingly, the number of girls on computer science courses have also gone up, by 34 per cent.   That confounds the gender stereotyping of the politically correct brigade who think that girls can only be enticed into areas traditionally dominated by boys by making subjects less tough.     We should not pander to such prejudice.

The greatest service schools can provide is to make high demands of their pupils.   Good grades should be hard to achieve, rewarding talent and diligence, just as getting good university places should be difficult to get.   If both become easy, then they are devalued.      Competition and aspiration are not dirty words.   They are concepts that should be integral to education.    The last thing that pupils need is for our examination system to degenerate into an academic version of those “all must have prizes” sports days that now proliferate in our schools because of a misguided terror of elitism.     Mere participation can now bring its own reward, while I know of schools which hold races for those unable to compete with the best, which ironically seems like its own curious form of humiliation.

Yet this is the degraded world that Sally Collier of Ofqual seems to envisage, with her belief in universal brilliance.      It has become fashionable in education to talk about “excellence for all”.    Excellent teaching for all, yes, but excellent grades? That’s just another indication of warped thinking.   If everyone achieves perfect grades, how do we find the truly outstanding?     Isn’t the very term “excellent” meaningless if everyone is said to have attained that threshold?   In such circumstances, it is nothing more than the benchmark of average.    That is exactly what could happen with qualifications and grades if the education establishment is allowed to prevail.

In her weekend interview Sally Collier said that, in a period of reform, “you would expect grades to fall but we are protecting students.”     Yet she is doing the very opposite of providing protection.   By indulging in her fiddles, she is denigrating their hard work and underming the process of learning.    The Government’s tougher A-levels should be the start of a wholesale reform of the education system: one that stops schools being mere exam factories, that values technical instruction as much as university academia, that actually meets the skill and professional needs of our nation in the face of fierce international competition, and that promotes the reality of success rather than a statistical illusion.

Michael Gove once famously spoke of the “Blob” in education, that politically correct nexus of town halls, managers, trade unions, lecturers, training colleges and media outlets who would do everything possible to thwart reform.    Sadly, Ofqual’s distortions this week reveal that the Blob remains as powerful as ever.

Education
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