How not to save the Petrified Forest… a sideways look at Government School League Tables

In a belated effort to protect the Petrified Forest in Arizona, the Navajo Indian curators decided to put large signs up around the desert edge reminding visitors that “At the current rate of fossil theft by visitors, the Forest will completely disappear within 25 years”.  Soon after the signs went up, heard at the edge was the following conversation, from one visitor to her boyfriend:

Soak up the silence … Monument Valley belongs to the Navajo Nation. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Corbis = The Guardian

“Well, we’d better take our souvenirs now then.”

Thursday morning, 29 January 2015, and the air waves are full of critics and apologists alike for the latest raft of Secondary school statistics, published today.  Here’s the BBC take on that.

What is quite clear is that there is no real connectivity for the country with these tables for GCSE performance and tables of previous years. Some years back, the Department for Education (oversees English schools), OfSTED (inspects English state schools) and Ofqual (regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England) encouraged state schools to take up the lead of many independent schools to swap UK coursework GCSEs/BTECs for terminal international GCSEs.  So state schools did. The  DfE forced UK exam boards to swap coursework for mini-exams during the 2 year course, and these controlled assessments prove to be a ghastly innovation, as pupils entered a 2 year period in which they might face over 100 assessment exams for their GCSEs, Given there are about 300 working days for GCSE, in effect this meant students were taking an exam abut every 4 days.

Faced with no UK alternative, more schools moved some or all of their subjects to the iGCSE route, where assessment is solely by one or two long exams at the end of the 2 year period. Guess what – teachers and pupils liked this, because it meant the 2 years permitted subject knowledge and skill development to occur before a sensible period of 6 weeks revision, prior to critical and judgemental assessment could take place in the May/June of Year 11 (in the UK students 17th year of age). Guess what – standards rose in such schools, because the cut and mow was far more appropriate for adolescent development.

At the same time, the Secretary of State for Education (the politician who leads the DfE) of the day, Michael Gove decided that the English GCSEs needed to lose their course-works (wef Summer 2014) and controlled assessments completely (wef Summer 2017 – Art, Drama and Technology are 3 exceptions), and become terminal examinations like their iGCSE cousins –  the bulk of change to commence later this year, 2015 for Maths and English and the others follow suit next year.

Brilliant, what’s not to like? The removal for example, in English the Speaking and Listening coursework components of English GCSE  results in the grade achieved for English simply reflecting the candidate skills in reading and writing. Now that’s not quite so perfect for pupils and schools reared within a climate where all 4 English skills were valued and promoted.  Inevitably, English GCSE pass rates fell in Summer 2014, with a knock on effect for schools overall record of passing 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. In addition, DfE removed iGCSE English as being an appropriate qualification – so those schools with 100% of candidates taking iGCSE English have dropped like a stone to 0% gaining 5 or more GCSEs.

Some schools chose to pursue both iGCSEs (which are examined in January as well as June) and UK GCSEs, recognising that the new English GCSE was likely to adversely affect some in their cohort. It is alleged that the government also required the exam boards to manipulate statistically pass rates at C and above to ensure that fewer gained a C, in part to demonstrate that the exams were getting more demanding. In my school’s case for example, after 2 major appeals (2011 & 2012) in successive years over the statistical manipulation of pass rates, we have chosen to add both iGCSEs for Maths and English as additional cover for our pupils, to smooth their passage through very turbulent times.

At the time of writing, the DfE have just published the 2014 league tables, and I can see neither the English nor Maths iGCSEs reported that our pupils gained last summer at the end of their GCSE course, so they don’t appear in our GCSE success statistics.

As with hundreds of other schools, state and independent, across the country, we are incensed that the government publication of our GCSE results 2014 bears no relationship or accuracy to the actual results our children received this Summer. Some 40% of all examinations taken in independent schools use the iGCSE, and the DfE’s decision to exclude English and Maths iGCSE as valid indicators of performance means that for some schools, such as Eton ad St Mary’s Ascot, the DfE report 0% gaining 5 or more A*to C GCSEs. In our case, because we use a mix of the 2 qualifications, our actual results for gaining 5 or more GCSEs including English and Maths are 76.5, not 59% as stated.  The 2013-14 Achievements Court Circular is currently with the printers and will travel home with our pupils next Friday.  The Achievements brochure carries a detailed breakdown of all of our examination results this year, as well as the previous 4 years of data from 2010 for comparison purposes.

As we still have a mix of subjects using traditional GCSEs, at least we are not reported at ground 0%. But the local and national press will nevertheless report large moves in the swings and roundabouts of school performance, with potential reputational damage for all involved. As for the independent sector, approximately 40% of all GCSE exams sat are as iGCSEs – you can see the ISC information sheet on that here: Year-11-Results-2014.  The accurate figure for the percentage of candidates gaining 5 or more GCSes graded A* to C is 86%, and you can see those figures, accurate for all ISC schools in 2014 as reported to  DfE here, on the ISC site.

I am sure we will be reported as providing for our children well, with the 5 or more statistic showing we are well ahead of the basement level (40%).  But that’s simply not the point.  It really is very senseless for the DfE to capture the vast amounts of data on schools, and then each year, change the rules about what actually should be published, and then sound off about how well their statistics are reflecting a country’s efforts to realign for the 21st century against the tiger competitive economies of the far east that are said to educate their children so much more effectively than the UK.  Actually what Britain hears from those economies in Europe and the Far East is that their very rigour in technical examinations is destroying the creativity in their students that modern economies require.  They are sending delegations to England to see the best of what we offer and enquire how our schools (such as Claires Court) are able to juggle both academic needs with intellectual and creative skill development. Just 12 months ago we had some 150 teachers from Sweden here to explore how teaching and learning worked in a digitally empowered institution.

It is difficult to believe DfE could make things worse, but they have. As a result of the Gove reforms, DfE/Ofqual have insisted that practical examinations in Science are removed from the A level programme, because they believe the terminal only exam will give us greater rigour/make the exams harder, such exams to start next year. This week, in a speech to the Carlton club, Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan has called for Ofqual to put these practical exams back into the A levels, because of the significant pressure from Universities and employers alike demanding that the outcome from A levels must be more than just an exam result – a successful A level student should also have strong laboratory-based practical skills. Not surprisingly, the exam boards are digging their heels in now, because after 2 years of argument with Ofqual, they have last month received approval for their new A level course, whereby the practical skills are embedded in the end of course exams, which are to examine much harder technical and mathematical skills than hitherto.  When the people in charge of education run the system like a push me-pull you train, is it any wonder that those ‘spectators’ to the politics decide to take their school into a different qualification framework that has remained stable for decades.

I am told the Navajo quickly took their signs down, when they saw an dramatic increase in theft from their ‘Petrified Forest’.  You don’t improve peoples’ behaviour by making them fearful of the future. People learn to do better things because that which is important is valued, time after time, season after season, generation after generation. Claires Court exists as both an Academic Institution, in which knowledge, skills and the ability to pass exams are nurtured and as an Educational Community in which all  are supported, pupils, teachers, parents and their families to a greater end goal than ‘pilfering’ – oh, and we don’t want a petrified Educational forest in the first place!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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2 Responses to How not to save the Petrified Forest… a sideways look at Government School League Tables

  1. Esme says:

    Being an Oak Tree by Esme Bates From Poems 2014 by Esme Bates Available world-wide on paperback or kindle.

    “So you like drama?” Kyle queries
    “Do you pretend to be an oak tree?” he mocks,
    “Swaying in the breeze!” he sarcastically scoffs,
    “With your trees as branches!” he teasingly titters and retorts,
    I don’t react but smile,
    (It must be difficult being Kyle.)
    “Oh, being an oak tree,
    Would be a wonderful thing to be!”

    If I was an oak tree I would grow stronger every year,
    My feet with roots into the ground, that disappear,
    I would sense the sun and push through in awe,
    My legs the strong trunk pushing down into the floor,
    I would grow taller, stronger and still keep going,
    My arms the branches loose and flowing,
    I would never stop,
    My face the bird’s nest where I would fly,
    I would shoot for the sky!

    I would bask and thrive in the sun,
    Having so much fun!
    Adding to my growth rings year after year,
    Nothing that I would fear!
    As my leaves unfurl-
    In the sun I would be cosy, held and curl.

    When the storm arrives and my leaves are wrenched from me.
    Leaving me bare and exposed,
    My roots will run deep,
    To stand strong against the winds pull,
    When the other trees fall all around me,
    With their shallow anchors,
    There I would stand for another year,
    Oh, an oak tree,
    Is a wonderful thing to be.

  2. Esme says:

    PS Is it work experience time yet? If any of the arty senior boys want to see their drawings of any of my poems published in the next edition it would be fun to see and share the shapes, colours and textures that any of the poems may inspire. I cannot pay them – the thrill for them would be seeing their work published. Can probably stretch to a £10 i -tunes voucher for each contributor or something? Just a fun idea if any of them are looking for an art-basedl work experience.

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