This year’s good GCSE and A level results have been achieved in part by taking a bad idea – setting grade boundaries to take account of the pupils’ performance in previous tests – and turning it into a good one.
Under Labour, the system was the basis of grade inflation. When one set of test results was inflated, results in the next test or examination these pupils took would be too. The government and Ofqual have turned the system round, using it to promote stability rather than inflation, so that overall grades were in line with those pupils could have expected under the previous regime. This is a major achievement, and bodes well for the new GCSE courses that begin next month.
It was touching to read the restrained rejoicing at the good news by our friends at The Guardian, who had been getting ready to crow over a disaster that didn’t happen.
The reduction in early entries, which held back many pupils’ grades, as well as giving them two years of exam pressure instead of one, was a further bright spot. Languages, predictably, were not, with falls in GCSE entries for Spanish (supposedly the subject’s great hope) as well as French and German. The A level position is even worse, particularly in German, where well under ten per cent of those taking GCSE continue to A level. Conservative ministers, particularly Nick Gibb, began the reform of languages teaching during the coalition, getting rid of the quangos that were promoting ineffective teaching methods, and rewriting the whole curriculum from primary school to A level.
Too many headteachers, however, still see little or no value in language learning, and many have maintained provision at its current level only under the pressure of Ebacc. Our election victory gives us a chance to show that improved teaching can give pupils success and enjoyment in language learning, and we may not get another one.
BBC2’s Are Our Kids Tough Enough? provided some new angles on the problems facing school reformers, and the difficulty of bringing in solutions off the shelf. Bohunt School has an outstanding rating from Ofsted, and was confident in its methods. It was the first state school in the country to offer Mandarin with a Confucius Institute teacher and 125 pupils taking the subject. These two extracts from its Ofsted report set the scene:
“High expectations, excellent subject knowledge and effective questioning underpin the outstanding quality of teaching. Lessons are typically taught in a way that both inspires and fosters students’ curiosity.”
“GCSE results across almost every subject are much higher than those seen nationally. Since the school became an academy, rates of progress across all subjects have improved, notably so in English and mathematics. ..Challenging targets set by leaders ensure that students meet their potential in full.”
Bohunt, in Ofsted’s view as well as its own, is ahead of the game and may well be one of the best schools we have.
The Chinese teachers were from elite schools that do not admit the low-attaining pupils we saw so much of in the series. Discussion with a teacher recently returned from China suggested that they are unlike any schools in this country, and the teachers were clearly unprepared for what they met – when Mr Zou told one pupil that he had never met another like him, he was speaking literally.
The indiscipline and complete indifference to work of some of the UK pupils was as shocking as anything we’ve seen from C4’s educating series – I’ve seen most things, but never a pupil bringing a kettle from home and brewing tea at the back of a class.
Some of the pupils were, on the other hand put under impossible stress, unable to understand what was going on – “They’re talking about trigonometry and I can’t even draw a triangle” – or given physical tasks, such as throwing a medicine ball or running long distances, for which they were unprepared. At worst, the stress became distress, and this made very uncomfortable viewing.
The surprise, after so many scenes showing pupils taking no notice of their Chinese teachers, and evidently not working, was that their overall test scores in Mandarin, Maths and Science were over ten points above the school’s average. Bohunt’s head, Neil Strowger, was visibly shocked, as well he might have been. We saw none of the rest of the school, but he was clearly happy with its work, and saw the Chinese system as “like a prison”.
How could they have done better than him and his colleagues when their relationships with pupils were so strained and his so good? Ms Li described the results as “a miracle”, and Mr Strowger said that, “The Inquiry is about to commence.” I hope he publishes the outcome, and that it deals with the proposition that good relationships are no substitute for hard and demanding work. I’m also asking myself some questions about that Ofsted report.