August is education’s cruellest month, and yet this one was uncommonly kind. Major changes have been introduced without scuppering the legitimate expectations of candidates, and early entries, which put crushing pressure on teenagers and spoiled the chances of many to achieve top grades, are down by almost a quarter of a million.
GCSE grades have risen slightly overall, and sharply in maths, and the second year of the new spelling and grammar test has gone well, with three-quarters of children reaching the expected standard. There has even been a slight improvement in primary SAT results, though there are still concerns about their marking, which allows grade boundaries to be moved around too freely for results to be reliable.
Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, the architects of reform, have been proved right, and Ofqual has had an administrative triumph. The Independent’s grudgingly honest report of the results contrasted with its prophecies of doom over the preceding six months.
The only opponent with the confidence to come out with guns blazing after the results was Brian Lightman, general secretary of the heads’ union, the Association of School and College Leaders, carefully referred to in The Guardian as a “teaching union”. Mr Lightman’s case, supported by Dame Joan McVittie of Woodside High School, Tottenham, was that the changes had damaged the results of schools in disadvantaged areas, and were a threat to social mobility. This
coincided with Ofqual’s analysis showing greater “volatility” among schools that had previously relied on resits and used modular exams rather than the new “linear” pattern.
The Guardian protected Mr Lightman by not allowing comment on the article – comment is free, but some can comment more freely than others. Quaestor would have been quick to argue that the obstacle to social mobility was not the examinations, but the approach of the schools, which had been using coursework and spoken English to compensate for weaknesses in pupils’ literacy skills rather than reorienting their teaching so as to build them up. Under the previous regime, marking of the spoken language of candidates on the C/D borderline had been disproportionately higher than that of their written work.
This did not, as Dame Joan suggests, amount to an accusation of “fiddling”, but reflected an imbalance in the candidates’ skills. Certifying literacy skills that candidates did not possess set them up to struggle, and often to drop out, either at A level or in the expanded university sector.
Mr Lightman said that some private schools had complained about the new system, and I had a conversation last week that showed that one of the costliest of them was making very effective use of the old one. A parent told me that they had written all of their offspring’s A level course work in one subject and got an A. The head of department, who did not believe in coursework, would normally write the pupils’ coursework for them, and awarded himself B and C grades – too many As would have aroused suspicion. The parent was also a teacher, and had experienced similar cheating at GCSE – some parents were employing tutors, not just to teach their children, but to do their coursework. After reporting this to the head of department, the parent/teacher was told to grade the work C and see of the board spotted it.
“Controlled assessment”, in which a timed coursework task was completed in school was only a little better – the tutor, parent, or sometimes teacher – pressure corrupts – could write the work, the candidate studying it and memorising as much of it as possible, and then reproducing it in school, if not to the original standard, to something close to it. This turned school life into a long, tortuous, grind for pupils, with constant short term cramming at the expense of genuine learning. The progressives had become the new Gradgrinds.
Nicky Morgan now has the problem of bridging the gap between the reality of these improvements and the way people see them. Mr Lightman’s organisation has boots on the ground all over the country, and his members are promoting his view energetically in local media even they celebrate their own schools’ results. Anne McElvoy reported in the Mail On Sunday discontent with education is not confined to the attacks on Michael Gove, but has given Labour a lead in education that is similar to, and as little deserved as, their lead in health. These good results may help Nicky Morgan to turn this round.