Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gove's O-levels take us back to basics

As Parliament prepares to discuss the Education Secretary's proposals to abolish GCSEs and bring back O-levels, it's perhaps worth examining why we abandoned O-levels in the first place:

(i) O-levels were designed to filter children, not to assess capabilities.
O-levels were not intended to provide either a broad education or a recognition of all children's attainment. They were a mechanism to sift from the most academic children those who would be suitable candidates for A-levels, which would in turn identify the lucky 5% who would make it to university.

Consequently O-levels used norm-referencing: fixed percentages of children achieved each grade. By design, every year exactly the same proportion of children were given an A grade, a B grade, and so on.

If you happen to be born in an academically strong year, your answers could receive a worse grade than if you happen to be born in an academically weak year. If society gets dramatically smarter, say because of improvements in nutrition or teaching methods, the results won't reflect this. If teachers get better at identifying who's likely to fail the O-level and enter them for CSE instead, the percentage of failures is not allowed to drop, so many of those who would have got an E grade are then given a fail. And it's not obvious from the results if educational standards are falling, which lets the Education Secretary off the hook!

We now know that 40%+ of children are capable of university-level study, but since O-levels were filtering children rather than assessing attainment, it's now clear that O-levels were holding back huge numbers of children.

Moreover a successful modern economy requires a diverse, adaptable workforce, capable of taking on jobs in emerging areas. Employers need to know what an individual is capable of, not what percentile of the population their scores happened to be in a particular cohort. O-levels didn't tell employers what applicants can do.

(ii) O-levels wrote off most of the population.
Because only the most academic 20% of children took O-levels, CSEs were introduced for the rest, rather than have them leave school with nothing.

But this two-tier system created a rigid divide between children, based on decisions at 13- 14 years old, that had consequences for the rest of their lives. O-levels were a high-stakes social filter that determined who got to continue their education. So this divide disadvantaged the many children who mature later, who discover their motivation only when they encounter specialist subject teachers, who have tough home lives, or who struggle with adolescence. Stigmatised as CSE dullards, 80% of children were unfairly excluded from further education and from a huge range of occupations.

The FT notes:
A third of children who score in the bottom 25 per cent at the age of 11 break out of that grouping by the age of 16. If they are placed in a second-class category at an early age, there is a risk that these children will be written off. This is no recipe for tackling low performance.

(iii) O-levels equated education with academic study.
If you wanted more education, you had to do well at O-levels. But O-levels were intended to identify potential candidates for academic study. This inevitably led to academic study being seen as the only type of education that mattered, to the detriment of technical and vocational education. We now realize that our economy has been held back by failing to nurture the engineers, inventors, designers, programmers, technicians, electricians, plumbers and so on that a modern society needs. Many of the people who have been successful in these occupations have got there in spite of the binary divide - academic study or nothing - that was forced on children at an early age.

Indeed, the biographies of many of the previous generation of "captains of industry", inventors and designers recount how they left school at 15 or 16 because it offered them nothing, and were passionately driven to prove society wrong in its apparent judgement of them as having no talent. This triumph-from-adversity mechanism worked for them, but who knows if they might have achieved even more for the country if they had had the proper education they knew they deserved? And how many massively talented men and women have we never heard of, because instead of being inspired by their ejection from school, left with their spirits crushed?

Moreover, the powerful classical idea that education is a lifelong personal pursuit, worthwhile for its own sake, also lost in the feverish race to be in the top 5%. A better educated society is a more thoughtful society, yet the O-level + CSE system failed to foster creativity and engagement in our cultural life.

(iv) O-levels failed to prepare children for modern society.
Derived from a nineteenth century perception of what an undergraduate would need to know, the narrowness of the O-level curriculum was failing to equip children with the knowledge and skills needed for the world of work.

Moreover, the dominant method of assessment - timed, written examinations, with no modern tools or reference sources allowed - meant that an O-level grade was decided on a single day, enabling children to cram beforehand, without it mattering how much they remembered a week later.

Intermittently reductive and tricksy, O-levels failed to inculcate a spirit of independent inquiry. O-levels also failed to rigorously assess proficiency in the kinds of challenges met in modern working environments: dealing with multiple sources, handling messy data, sustained work over a period of time, collaborative tasks, practical aspects, and so on.

My personal view is that the last thing we should be doing is going back to such a grossly unfair system that lacks the rigorous methods and procedures for assessing the knowledge and skills expected of 21st century schoolchildren, whether they end up as professors, engineers, accountants, plumbers, call centre workers, journalists or members of Parliament. See also what respected education journalist Mike Baker has to say on the history of O-levels.

All that said, however, it's a good moment to look back at O-levels and ask whether anything vital has been lost in the transition to GCSEs, and whether there are ways in which British examinations at 16 can be improved.

So I have a few questions.

Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by teaeff

1. Are we really best served by GCSE grades D, E, F and G?

We have got into the habit of referring to "good passes" at GCSE, because we know that there is a huge difference between someone achieving a grade A* in design and technology, and someone achieving a grade G. In one sense that's fine: surely it's better to get a lower grade than nothing at all to show for years of schooling?

But in a typical GCSE, about a third of children get grades D or below. How useful are such grades in practice?

Firstly, grades such as F or G are rather demeaning for the child: A simple "fail" can be portrayed to oneself, family and friends as a near miss that you should be able to put right with a retake; whereas a grade F or G seems to imply that's your level. It must also be terribly demotivating for children who are stuck for two years in a set in which the best they can realistically hope for at the end of it is a grade D, or maybe a C if you were arguably in the wrong set to start with.

Secondly, such grades are very confusing for potential employers: Does this E grade mean the applicant got all the questions half right, or half the questions entirely right? Not terribly useful for judging if this person is up to the job.

Thirdly, these lower grades are damaging for the GCSE as a qualification: The kudos of "having a GCSE" is devalued because of the huge gap between A* and G. And needing to assess down to a grade G means questions have to be included that discriminate at that level, e.g. the infamous "To look at the moon would you use a microscope or a telescope?" question.

But here's the really worrying thing. As Chris Cook in the FT shows, the poorer the household, the greater the chances of a child getting these lower grades. In other words, the education system is continuing to reproduce inequality rather than challenging it.

When he made his statement to the Commons last week, Michael Gove said of this analysis
I have had a look at the Financial Times analysis and think that it suffers from one thing: it itself is a prisoner of the culture of low aspiration which we are tackling.
Meanwhile, the first question to Gove in the Commons was from a fellow Conservative, Graham Stuart, the Chair of the Education Select Committee. He said:
I welcome improved rigour, stretch and achievement for our most able pupils, but the central problem facing this country is not about its most able pupils but about the lowest-performing and, all too often, the poorest. Can the Secretary of State tell us: How will these changes and proposals improve the outcomes for the lowest deciles of achievement in our population? Socially and economically, we cannot afford the tail that we have inherited from the Labour party.
Gove's answer was:
My Honourable Friend makes a very good point. One of the principal problems with our education system is not only that it has fallen behind other nations, but that it is one of the most inequitable, stratified and segregated. The way in which we tackle that is not by dumbing down on qualifications, but by raising expectations at every level.
I have an idea that might help raise expectations.

Most GCSEs are tiered anyway. How about formalising the tiers by having "Foundation" and "Higher" versions of each GCSE? A Foundation GCSE would contain the kinds of things that we expect every school-leaver to know and to be able to do. For each subject, everyone takes Foundation as soon as they're ready, possibly even at the start of secondary school, rather than loading all the stress onto the end of Year 11. And restrict grading to "Pass", "Fail" and "Distinction", to keep things simple. If you fail, you retake until you pass. Then you move onto the Higher GCSE, unless you've reached 16, in which case you might choose to do a BTEC.

This is good for employers because it tells them what students with a Foundation GCSE should be able to do, rather than trying to work out whether that E grade means they got all the questions half right or if they got half the questions entirely right. This is good for children, because they get to aim for a qualification that shows they can do something, rather than a grade E, F or G that everyone seems to presume means they're not very bright. It's also good for children, parents and teachers because passing Foundation GCSE indicates who's now ready to take the Higher GCSE, and passing Higher GCSE indicates who's now ready to take a BTEC or an A-level. When the school-leaving age increases to 18, it will be vital to maintain this sense of motivation and progression.

Of course it might be objected that this is simply reintroducing CSEs by the back door. However, the differences are:

(i) Criterion-referencing instead of norm-referencing
Children are assessed on what they can do, rather than on how well everyone else is doing.

(ii) No writing off
Instead of two very different qualifications, it's two syllabi within the same system, and as soon as you've achieved one you can start studying for the next. There's no dividing the sheep from the goats at an early age. The assumption is that everyone will get Foundation eventually, just that it might take some children longer than others.

(iii) No devaluing of technical and vocational education
Unlike the O-level, a Higher GCSE doesn't force people into an academic strait-jacket. As now, it can lead to a BTEC or an A-level.

(iv) Preparation for modern society
There's no return to the narrow curriculum and limited assessment methods of the O-level.

Incidentally, our children are already "among the most tested in the world". I think if this idea of a Foundation GCSE is taken up it's only fair that we drop the remaining SATs. These bureaucratic tests serve little educational purpose for children, parents or teachers. Their role as a means to assess schools could easily be replaced by some kind of sampling.

2. Do improved grades imply standards are falling?

Every year when the results come out, there are predictable reactions:
  • If the grades are up, it must be grade inflation; so standards are falling. "Harumph! Exams were harder in my day..."
  • If the grades are down, it must be because of delinquency and trendy teachers; so standards are falling. "Harumph! Need some discipline..."
  • If the grades are much the same, Britain is being overtaken by third-world countries because schools are complacent and stagnating. "Harumph! Teach 'em the basics, I say, instead of these airy-fairy projects..."
  • Whatever happens to the grades, teachers and parents are very proud of all the hard work their children have put in.
So are exams getting easier? There seems to be insufficient research going on in the area to be able to tell, as Ben Goldacre explains.

Image: © freshidea - Fotolia.com
Moreover, because of criterion-referencing it's entirely possible for grades to increase year-on-year, as teachers discover improved ways to teach tricky topics, as government investment in schools pays off, as individual children are steered away from qualifications that experience suggests they're likely to fail, and as each successive generation of parents is better educated than the last. In fact, isn't this state of affairs what we would want in an ideal world? We want education to improve, don't we?!

However Gove and other educational hawks interpret improved results as evidence of falling standards. In their view, a "standard" is a criterion that determines a grade based not on educational attainment ("You get an A grade if you know and can do blah, blah, blah...") but on national percentiles ("You get an A grade if you're in the top 10% of the country."). This view is grounded in a philosophy of traditionalist conservatism, which emphasises the need for hierarchy and order in society.

No wonder they are shocked when the rest of the country welcomes improved results.

In a norm-referenced system, if education is improving, the proportions of children getting each grade remain fixed. So if we can't tell from the results if education is improving (or declining), what do you do? You can't tell by looking to see if the raw scores are higher: this might just mean the paper was too easy. Instead, you set a sample of children exams from previous years, see how they do, and compare with the current year.

In a criterion-referenced system, the idea that someone who did particularly well on a 1951 O-level should necessarily be as good at fulfilling the wider demands of a 2012 GCSE (and vice versa) is absurd. So again, there is a big mismatch of expectations.

I am amazed at how politicians seem so unwilling to take a position that international comparisons of children's test performances really don't assess all that's important for 21st century society. If we actually want Britain to be up at the top of the maths league table with South Korea, let's reduce the maths curriculum to the content of the international tests, and ditch all the stuff that we think is valuable for the well-educated citizen, the prospective professional, the budding Richard Branson, or the aspiring Cambridge wrangler.

Or maybe if we want to be at the top of the science league table with Finland, we should follow their model by abolishing Key Stage 1, league tables, school inspections, streaming, and national examinations before the age of 18. The lessons we draw from other countries need careful examination and do not necessarily travel well.

In fact I think we have pretty good and well-known evidence that GCSE standards can't be too bad: The proportion of young people who go to university is well over 40% now, up over a third from the last days of O-levels. Maybe university standards are falling as well, and we're all getting dumber and dumberer. ;-)

Anyway before we undertake a monumentally huge upheaval in our school system, I suggest we need rock solid evidence for the claim that standards are falling.

3. Should we make GCSEs more rigorous?

Separate from the issue of whether standards are falling, should we make GCSEs more rigorous anyway?

The meaning of "rigorous" needs some clarification. Does it refer to the worth of available GCSEs, to the quality of syllabi, to the difficulty of getting higher grades, or to the methods used to assess students? To all of the above? Or to something else?

(i) the worth of available GCSEs

GCSEs in "Leisure and Tourism", "Physical Education", "Hairdressing" or "Media Studies" are an anathema to some people. Not just woolly content, they would say, such qualifications are not fit for academic study, and allowing such GCSEs misleads children into thinking such qualifications will be taken seriously.

Although I only made up one of the example GCSEs in the previous paragraph, I think such criticisms can fall into the trap of imagining that only academic qualifications are worthwhile. Moreover, I am sure that experts in these fields can devise a curriculum for 16-year-olds every bit as demanding as History or French, although obviously demanding in quite different ways.

Nevertheless, I would question whether such qualifications are appropriate at 16. If (as I think) it's desirable for all children to study English Language (plus, where appropriate, Welsh or other national language), English Literature, Maths, one or more science subject, History, a modern foreign language, one or more design and technology subject, and one or more expressive arts subject, there's a danger of overloading children with exams. Vocational subjects and subjects that aren't considered core might well be appropriate as part of the 16-18 curriculum.

(ii) the quality of syllabi

Some people have the idea that GCSEs have woolly content like the episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa's math class is encouraged to reflect "How do numbers make you feel? What does a plus sign smell like? Is the number 7 odd, or just different?".

Given the range of very serious stakeholders in GCSE syllabi - industry, professional organisations, universities, politicians - this particular concern seems unlikely to be true.
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."
On the other hand, a more common belief among educational hawks is that a high quality qualification should have a curriculum that is rooted in a classical grammar school education, emphasising theoretical knowledge over applied; memorisation and proficiency over understanding; utility over creativity. GCSEs do not have these emphases.

While few hawks propose the idea that 2013 exams should be testing the same knowledge and skills as 1951 O-levels, there is a perception among many hawks that, for example, the memorisation of "kings and queens", dates of battles, and similar facts constitutes an innately more educational value than understanding the causes of the First World War. They see being able to reproduce a diagram of the inner ear as more challenging and lasting than knowledge of current limitations of gene therapies. They see an encyclopaedic knowledge of cloud types as a better test of ability than understanding the controversies surrounding climate change.

I personally don't buy any of that, but it's right that stakeholders explain their reasoning in detail in particular subjects.

(iii) the difficulty of getting higher grades

As noted above, staunch advocates of norm-referencing are almost inevitably going to be dissatisfied with the level of difficulty with which higher grades are obtained under a criterion-referenced system. So they will need to make a case for going back to norm-referencing, rather than giving credit where credit is due. See James Atherton's arguments, for example.

I've outlined earlier why I think such arguments are problematic. In particular, requiring that a fixed proportion of children fail exams makes no sense to me. Melanie Phillips would describe my attitude as "All Must Have Prizes". On the contrary, I as a taxpayer have just paid for 12 years of education for these children: As a simple matter of accounting for this money, I want to know what they can do, and I want them to have a certificate that tells employers what they can do. I don't want them to have just a cruddy bit of paper that says "FAIL" and a crushed attitude to learning likely to return the country to the levels of prosperity we saw in the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, and here I'm agreeing with Gove, I suggest that whether assessment is criterion-referenced or norm-referenced, if education were improving each year we wouldn't actually want to "maintain standards" at all. We'd want to tweak the curriculum each year to include new demands that would stretch those at the top. Otherwise this would eventually lead to a situation in which tiny differences between marks mean the difference between an A and a fail.

Of course, year-by-year employers, schools and universities would want certain kinds of consistency. You wouldn't want wild shifts. How would the sudden introduction of O-levels (thus automatically requiring a large increase in the proportion that fail) help employers, who would suddenly be faced with a barrage of applicants who think they're rubbish at everything and have the grades to prove it? Instead, I would argue we would want to prevent results skewing upwards: not by unfairly giving lower grades for the same answers, but by making the curriculum very slightly harder as national educational attainment improves.

In a sense, this process probably already goes on to some extent, as ideas that used to be at the cutting-edge of research (quantum theory, representations of women, economic interpretations of history, say) get taught at undergraduate level, and then (in some form) at A-level, and maybe even become part of everyday knowledge. But perhaps we need to hear more about such changes to the curriculum: Anything that makes the curriculum harder needs to be clearly flagged, to ensure that those who use lower results to bash teachers are aware.

(iv) the methods used to assess students

Earlier I will have slightly startled educational hawks by referring to O-levels as lacking rigour in assessing proficiency in the kinds of challenges met in modern working environments. The hawks' perennial complaint is that the most rigorous assessment is that timed, written exam.

GCSEs make it too easy for students, they say, because a range of assessment methods are used, including coursework ("Their parents do the work, or it's copied off the internet or their friends."); calculators ("The calculator gives them all the answers! These days they can't even add up for themselves."); having source material in the exam ("They're allowed to cheat by bringing in all their books"); scope for interpretation ("Examiners give marks for any old rubbish, and get sacked if they're too strict."); and multiple choice ("You can do it randomly, and still get a C!")

However, I'm very happy that how we're testing in exams is much closer to the reality of work. How is restricting maths and science solely to problems that don't require calculators useful? How kind of engineer isn't allowed to refer to the manual? Do all historians agree with each other? There is also a lot of ignorance around about contemporary assessment. Coursework is often done under very controlled conditions. There's also a mental arithmetic component to Maths GCSE. One duff question ridiculed in a newspaper doesn't mean all the questions are duff.

In my view, the current, almost universal, clamour for a single exam board is a bit of a red herring. It's vital to the success of exam boards that they maintain their integrity, so I've no doubt that they and Ofqual have strict procedures in place to check the validity of assessments and the consistency between boards and over time. A "race to the bottom" would be madness, and so I doubt it's happening. And if it is, it should be stopped. But, in any case, I would hope the curriculum can adapt, as society becomes better educated, as job demands change, and as academic knowledge advances. A single exam board simply restricts choice, without changing anything about year-on-year consistency or comparability across subjects.

And as for the now ubiquitous claim that Ofqual has provided evidence of a "gradual decline in standards" and that "not enough has been demanded of students", well I'm afraid that's just a politician's clever spin.

There could arguably be more openness by Ofqual and exam boards about instances when assessment arrangements have had to be improved. However, I can quite understand the temptation to keep confidential what is likely to be shamelessly misrepresented in newspapers!

So might there be other ways to increase rigour in relation to assessment methods? Yes. Much of office life these days relies on effective use of the internet: searching, weighing up sources, and dealing with unknowns or incommensurable systems. Yet using these important skills in current exams would, of course, constitute cheating. But just as the invention of the steel-nibbed pen meant that assessing handwriting with a quill pen became irrelevant, and just as the invention of the calculator meant that the slide rule no longer features in exams, so too we need to consider how it is possible to assess accurately and fairly if the internet were to hand.

To be honest, I can see many challenges for such an idea, and they might be insuperable. However, I'd suggest assessment is not rigorous if it simply assesses what is easy to assess, rather than assessing what we expect of an educated person in a modern society.

4. Should we be using qualifications at 16 to judge capacity for university study?

One criticism of GCSEs is that by failing to discriminate at the upper end, they fail to give universities sufficient information about suitability for undergraduate study.

Image: CC BY-SA 2.0 by jameskm03
I think this view has some merit. Qualifications at 16 are trying to do a variety of things: to provide evidence of what an individual has learned; to motivate and reward hard work in the preceding years; to ensure a good basic education for as many as possible; to act as a focus for inculcating social norms; to guide career choices; to fulfil requirements for certain occupations and for further study; to provide information on the performance of schools and teachers; and to help schools and teachers improve their methods.

That's a lot of diverse purposes, and I bet I've forgotten a few important ones! Cambridge University says "Our research shows that post-16 examination performance is a much better predictor of degree success". I don't think this is any surprise, given these diverse purposes, and given that for many adolescents the preceding years may well have been emotionally turbulent.

So whether we should be trying to make qualifications at 16 a better predictor of suitability for university, I'm not so sure. What's more, I'm not convinced it's necessary. A-levels are designed to have that function, and a big reason why a university might use O-levels rather than A-levels to make judgements is that universities are required to make judgements before A-level results are known.

There have been repeated sincere attempts to try to solve this problem of university applications, and there is not space here to explore the issues, but in my view this is a problem that needs addressing. We know that A-level students from poorer backgrounds and from state schools are under-represented at the top universities, and one of the main reasons often cited by universities is that they don't apply in the first place. Application after the A-level results are known creates a more level playing field, in which the basis for deciding where to apply is not predicted grades, or what students from the year above did, or where parents went, or how well connected the teachers are... but the students' actual grades.

We currently have a bizarre system in which we say we want students from poorer backgrounds and from state schools to aim higher, but we fail to give them the one thing that could boost their confidence into doing that: their results.

5. Some further questions

There are few other questions I'd like to ask about qualifications at 16. For example:
  • What should we do to improve the status of technical and vocational pathways? As the FT says: "In England the path for a would-be university student is clear and schools know how to guide pupils down it. But for others there is little help and too often even less respect for non-academic qualifications."
  • Is "5 GCSEs at A*-C" the best measure to use of school performance?
  • What evidence is there that academy schools or free schools get better results, separate from the benefits of the additional money they are given compared with other schools?
  • Should teachers, as professionals, not have a role to play in helping shape new education proposals such as Gove's? I have a gut feeling that real educational improvement comes from enabling teachers to try new ways of teaching, not from dramatic new initiatives by ambitious Education ministers.
  • How important are teachers' qualifications? There have been claims in the past that teachers with better degrees (in their subject) make better teachers, or that requiring masters degrees will improve teaching. What evidence is there for these kinds of claims?

Concluding thoughts

I've outlined here why I think a return to O-levels would be a mistake, but I've also tried to identify a few ways it might be possible to improve GCSEs.

My view is that O-levels were designed to filter children, not to assess capabilities. They were consequently responsible for writing off most of the population; for holding back technical and vocational education, and for failing to prepare children for modern society. I have singled out norm-referencing as particularly pernicious. Instead of trying to artificially stratifying society, it's much better to give credit where credit is due.

I agree with Graham Stuart that the major educational challenge for the country is how to improve outcomes for the long tail of performance in the population. Even after the massive (and welcome) investment by Labour, our education system still seems to be reproducing economic and social inequalities, and we all want to know what to do about that.

Among the suggestions for improvements, I've proposed...
  • turning the lower GCSE grades into a Foundation certificate, to be taken by all children;
  • abolishing the remaining SATs;
  • using A-level results rather than O-level results or A-level predictions as the basis for university applications;
  • consulting teachers when big changes are proposed.
As with all big proposals, there should be piloting and evaluation before any decision is taken.

Incidentally, although it's a bit unfair on Gove, here's an entertaining performance by Ed Balls when he was Education Secretary in 2009:

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