All change

One of the problems of living beyond a certain age is an awareness that certain things happen more than once. This Thursday is another example of such an event. GCSE grade change from letters to numbers and there are more grades available. Well, I recall when the London University Board went the other way in 1963. Numbers in 1962; letter grades in 1963. Actually, a universal grading system across all Examination Boards didn’t materialise until well into the 1970s as candidate numbers taking the exams mushroomed, after comprehensive re-organisation did away with most of the selective systems of the 1944 Education Act. Part of the universal grading need may also have been to ensure comparability between GCE and CSE, the other examination that had sprung up.

Changing the grades from letters into numbers this week will undoubtedly upset Human Resource departments across the country as they will have to explain to those hiring youngsters from this year onwards that the old norms they are familiar with have changed. But, to an educated population that should be manageable. There is a useful table on Wkipedia at identify the changed and relative standards between grades.

A far bigger change took place in 1984 when norm referencing was replaced by criterion referencing. Previously, the percentage of top grades was limited and did not identify the ability of specific candidates. It was as if, of the 100 candidates taking their driving test today, only 10% could pass regardless of how well all candidates had been prepared. There may well be situations where that sort of ranking is appropriate, but the Secondary Examinations Council clearly recognised that public examinations were not one of them. One of the results of the change to the system was a more ruthless attitude to entry policies in some subjects, and wide differences between the percentage of A* and A grades between subjects, as this blog has pointed out in the past. Where schools only enter candidates that are expected to do well and need the subject for their next course of study, grades are likely to be higher on average. Where there is open access, there is likely to be less of a bunching at the top grades.

None of this is to denigrate in any way the work of students, teachers and their families in the preparation for the examination season. As ever, I pay tribute to those that have undergone the experience. Regular readers of this blog will also know that in the 1960s, I had to take English Language GCE some six times before achieving a pass. At that point I fully understood the purpose behind the motivational tale of Robert the Bruce watching a spider trying to spin its web.

So, as ever, my thanks to the education community for their work and to parents for their support, but above all my best wishes and thanks to the candidates that either already have or will receive their results this week. I hope you go on to a recognition that learning should a lifelong activity and not just a stage to be endured at school, even if how we measure it can be a movable feast.


A tale of Two Counties

My attention has been drawn to a publication called: A Tale of Two Counties: Reflections on Secondary Education 50 Years after Circular 10/65. Written by Nuala Burgess from Kings College London for the group Comprehensive Future and published on the 25 January 2017 it is downloadable free from

As one reviewer wrote, this publication is written in an easy to follow style by Kings College researcher Nuala Burgess. It looks at secondary education in two English counties that in socio-economic terms are similar, but in educational terms are poles apart. Both Buckinghamshire and Hampshire have been Conservative controlled since God was a boy. Yet the approach of these two Tory councils is completely different.

As we know Bucks has retained selective schools and has an entry test for its grammar schools, whereas Hants chose a non-selective system mostly based upon 11-16 comprehensives that grew out of the secondary modern schools, with its selective schools mostly becoming sixth form colleges; at that time part of the school system.

It doesn’t pay to be poor in Bucks, where few children on free school meals make it into the county’s 13 grammar schools. Presumably, Conservative in Bucks either think poor children at thick or are prepared to avoid asking the question ‘why do those pupils entering grammar schools largely come from better off families’. Might it be something to do with the private tutor industry that thrives in and around the edges of the county?

In Hampshire, Tory councillors are more likely to be concerned about the education of all pupils. This fact is reflected in the different approaches to converting schools to academy status in the two counties.

In many ways, this is a reflection of the on-going debate about whether schooling is a local or a national service? In Hampshire, even though the County no longer has responsibility for school budgets per se, the County does seem to feel a responsibility for the education of the young people within its boundaries. I wonder whether that is also the view in Bucks, or at least to the same extent. Judging by their recent attempt to change the home to school transport policy, I feel councillors have a different and more hands-off approach.

Since those that attend the county’s non-selective schools are likely to remain in Bucks after leaving education and will mostly enter the local labour market, it might be thought that in investment terms ensuring the best education of these pupils would be beneficial to the future prosperity of the county. After all, the grammar school pupils mostly go to university and can then end up working anywhere.

Perhaps some of lack of productivity as a nation can be put down to Tory councils such as Buckinghamshire not doing enough to ensure an education system that develops the skills and abilities of all pupils regardless of their background. For a government that wants to improve the national productivity levels to embark on a return to selective education seems odd to say the least.


Teachers are not born but made

I want my doctor to stand up every time I enter the surgery; take my blood pressure at every appointment, and write clearly in handwriting I can read. Actually, delete the last requirement since doctors all use word processors these days, and replace it with a requirement to write in language I can understand. This should be part of all their basis training. Now, I would never presume to impose training requirements on doctors, because as a lay person I have views, but not the expertise to do so, but I do expect them to be trained, and GP training can take four years.

In education it is different; perhaps because everyone went to some sort of school, commentators of all descriptions feel free to pronounce not only what training is needed for teachers but that no training is needed at all. Teachers are born they conclude, and don’t require to be made. Speaking from personal experience that view is just plain bunkum. Let me remind you what was said 50 years ago:

“In the primary and secondary modern schools teaching methods and techniques, with all the specialized knowledge that lies behind them, are as essential as mastery of subject matter. The prospect of these schools staffed to an increasing extent by untrained graduates is, in our view, intolerable.”

Now I am perfectly sure that anyone with the appropriate subject knowledge can teach after a fashion in private schools where parents and children want to succeed, and classroom management isn’t an issue. But even in the selective school I attended in the 1950s and 1960s there were untrained graduate teachers that couldn’t control classes. I recall one sixth form teacher prevented from starting a lesson by the ‘A’ level group placing the desks between the window wall and the door so that he was effectively barred from entering the classroom. Insubordination was not uncommon, and often vicious and personal in its manifestation. Untrained teachers often didn’t have any skills to combat this until they learnt them on the job over time; some learnt faster than others; and some never learnt them at all.

In January 1971, I embarked on my own career as a teacher by joining the staff of Tottenham School in Haringey. I was an untrained graduate persuaded to fill a casual vacancy by a head desperate to have a full staffroom that January. Frankly, I taught nothing to anyone for the first two terms. I had no skills, but lots of subject knowledge I couldn’t pass on to the pupils. Gradually, over the next five years I acquired the skills so that I believe that I could eventually teach any group of pupils and also manage the other parts of a teacher’s role to the level required in those days; a much lower standard than is required today. Along the way I resorted to all sorts of interesting control techniques such as Friday afternoon films played backwards through the projector as a reward for good behaviour, and punishing whole classes for the poor behaviour of a few pupils. I noticed that many of the trained teachers made much better progress than I achieved with pupils, but the lure of a salary was too great rather than a return to college for another year.

Interestingly, when I started working in teacher education in the 1980s I found the same lack of training for tutors. There was no training in classroom observation or understanding of how to be an effective trainer of adults as opposed to teacher of children.

Teaching is not an easy profession, not because it is difficult to acquire the subject knowledge, but because it is a challenge to pass that knowledge on to the next generation. Parental pressure to learn may help with some children but except where the school can threaten to remove the pupil that alone is not enough to bolster a graduate armed with subject knowledge and nothing else or to support them in the classroom and in their wider responsibilities for young people across 190 days of the year.

More than 150 years ago this was recognised by those recruiting teachers for elementary schools, and also by Dickens in his novels where teachers and educators receive something of a mixed press. Let me end with a quote from The National Society Annual Report of 1842 about selecting trainee teachers:

It is not every person who can be fitted for the office of schoolteacher. Good temper and good sense, gentleness coupled with firmness, a certain seriousness of character blended with cheerfulness, and even liveliness of disposition and manner; a love of children, and that sympathy with their feelings which experience alone can never supply – such are the moral requirements which we seek in those to whom we commit the education of the young.

This was the criteria from which they wished to add the training, recognising even then that these qualities alone were insufficient to make good teachers. It seems that some will never learn.