If you don’t pass the 11+, you probably won’t study Physics as a subject by KS4

Last week the DfE published a whole raft of data about the outcomes for GCSE and other examinations taken at Key Stage 4. Most commentators have looked at outcomes. However, there is also some interesting data in the tables about entries by different types of school and the subjects that their students are entered for at the end of KS4. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/gcse-and-equivalent-results-2017-to-2018-provisional (and in particular the subject tables and within that file, tables S8 and S9.)

GCSE entries in selected subjects of pupils at the end of key stage 4 by school admission basis of state-funded mainstream schools (as a percentage of pupils at the end of key stage 4 in each school type) Selective schools Non-selective schools in highly selective areas Other non-selective schools
English, Mathematics & Science 100 98 98
Combined Science   18 80 71
Computer Science   20 12 13
Any Design & Technology   24 17 21
Information Technology     4   6   9
Business Studies   17 12 14
Geography   56 42 43
History   51 43 46
Any Modern Language   89 35 46
Art and Design   22 29 27
Music   11   4   6
Physical Education   16 13 16
Religious Studies   47 35 39

As might be expected, almost all pupils study English, mathematics and some form of science to the end of KS4. The type of science differs between schools, with selective schools highly likely to put the majority of their students in for separate sciences, whereas non-selective schools are much more likely to opt for combined science. Indeed, in Physics, the figures are 82% for pupils in selective schools; 26% for pupils in non-selective systems and just 18% for pupils in nonselective schools in areas with selective schools. Much of this disparity may be due to the lack of teachers of Physics with sufficient subject knowledge to sustain examination groups at KS4. This lack of Physics in non-selective schools no doubt has an impact on ’A’ level numbers and thus university entrants.

There is also a disparity in modern languages between the percentage studying the subject at the end of KS4 in selective schools and non-selective schools. French still remains the most popular language although Spanish is not far behind. The teaching of German at this level now seems largely confined to selective schools in the state sector.

Although non-selective schools produce higher percentages of candidates in art than do selective schools, the same is not the case with music, where selective schools have a higher percentage still taking the subject at the end of KS4. Selective schools also have higher percentages studying business studies and design and technology than non-selective schools.

There must be a suspicion that pupils in selective schools study more subjects than their counterparts in many non-selective schools.

How far it is easier for selective schools to recruit staff in the subjects where training numbers don’t meet DfE projections cannot be determined from these percentages. However, it might be a fair assumption that selective schools may generally find recruitment less of a challenge even in high costs areas. Such schools may also find retention of staff less of an issue.



To educate: To draw out not to kick out

I am delighted that the governors of St Olaf’s have reversed their policy about those that their school is there to serve. Might this be one case where the diocese has played an important role in changing hearts and minds?

Could this be one of the turning points in education history? Might all state schools now consider the purpose for which they are funded: to educate all and not just promote the seeming best. The quote from C S Lewis, cited in my previous post, really does look like it belongs to a previous age. His Narnia chronicles may still resonate with children and parents, but his views on education certainly shouldn’t. There was an inkling of the national mood last year when the idea of more selective schools was doing the rounds in the more old-fashioned segments of the Conservative Party.

Now is also the time to ditch the culture of league table schooling. Those with a good understanding of the revolution caused by the 1987 Education Reform Act will recall that alongside financial devolution and the National Curriculum ran the concept of ten levels of achievement. This allowed every child to have another level to aspire to achieve. Even a child at level one had a goal and the school could work to help them achieve it. Sadly, somewhere along the line, we ditched the ‘every child has a goal’ for the measure of the gaol achieved by the school as a collective. Naturally, this led to a desire to remove those that weren’t helping the school maximise its potential.

Now, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the 1870 Education Act that helped create schooling for all, it is time to redefine our beliefs in the role of education. We should no longer be looking for reasons to exclude, but for methods to challenge our pupils to succeed. Such a change will reinforce the great work already undertaken by many teachers and could even help to attract more entrants into the profession.

As a next step, the government might like to evaluate whether the over-insistence on the English Baccalaureate is actually hindering the aim of all pupils achieving both personal goals and goals of use to society? As a geographer by background, I welcome pupils studying the subject through to Year 11, but not at the expense of subjects such as design and technology. That subject has been so decimated by government actions that it is suggested that only 315 trainees had taken up offers of places on teacher preparation courses by late August. This is compared with more than 1,100 a few years ago.

Yet, a love of technology, or design and certainly of food can become an important motivator for life after school. Yes, homes and even TV programmes can play their part, but the motivation and support provided by schools remains critical in the development of a child’s education and their future progress as an adult.

The Secretary of State should now reaffirm the purpose of state education as developing the potential of every child entrusted to the State by their families. Those that want to enter a high stakes risk form of education, where lack of success mean exclusion, can still use the private sector.

A grade or a pass?

There has been much discussion, not least on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, about gaining a pass at GCSE with only 17% correct answers. Now is it a pass or a grade? The concept of a pass implies a minimum standard, whereas the grade shows what candidates know. If you make the exam harder, candidates may well do less well, unless the top end wasn’t stretching the most able sufficiently.

Now it appears that a clean grade system linked to what pupils have demonstrated they know in the form of examination administered this year in English and maths might have produced significant changes to outcomes if early murmurings are correct. How you allow for comparisons over time then becomes a challenge for the authorities.

I wonder whether Ministers originally thought of a simple solution; Grade 9 = 90%, down to Grade 1 =10% in 10% groupings allied to the number grade? Such a system would have been a radical change and meant comparisons with previous years were no longer possible. But, that has happened in the past, and as I made clear in the previous post, grades are a relatively recent invention, introduced only after examinations at sixteen became commonplace for all.

I was also interested in the quote from the secondary school heads association, ASCL that ‘GCSE exams are putting pupils’ mental health at risk, Young people taking a typical set of the reformed GCSEs will sit about eight hours more of exams than under the old system’. Such a comment doesn’t surprise me. However, if we are going to return to the degree of difficulty in examinations set for previous generations, do we also need to look at the number of public examinations those pupils sat and how the school timetable was arranged.

One of the trends ever since Matriculation and School Certificate disappeared in 1951 to become first GCEs and then GCSEs has been for students to take more subjects. This is allied to the debate about whether we want our young people to know more about less or less about more? A wider curriculum inevitably means many will struggle to obtain good grades across the board on the timings allowed within the school week if exams are made harder and comparable with when fewer subjects were studied; hence the possible growth in private tutoring to supplement the work of schools and the social disparity in achievement this creates. All this without any discussion on the competence of teachers in teaching their subject, a key discussion point in mathematics where there has been a teacher shortage.

Should we have say five hard GCSEs or nine relatively easier ones allowing time for physical activities and other non-examined subjects? This is a societal decision, but we may well be damaging our young people if we try to achieve both by making content harder and keeping the number of subjects the same. After all, there are still the same number of hours in a week.

What is the correct approach for twenty first century England. I suspect that secondary schools will eventually follow the primary sector in narrowing the curriculum to allow more time for the basics, especially English and mathematics. As a result, standards will rise in these subjects, but the curriculum will narrow. Will a narrower curriculum be welcome for many pupils or will they react in a manner that sees them become more disaffected? We shall see.

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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GCE_Ordinary_Level_(United_Kingdom) 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.

Trying to succeed is not failing

The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme has been looking at pupils stuck in the cycle of multiple resits as the government tries to ensure everyone, or as many young people as possible, reach the established milestone of Grades C in English and mathematics.

Now, I can see both sides of the debate on this issue after a lifetime in education and also from personal experience. The three years of my sixth form career was punctuated by the regular visit to the examination hall to try and pass English Language ‘O’ level. While my ‘A’ level studies were progressing well, and much better than my progress during the previous five years at secondary school, I carried the millstone around my neck of not having passed English Language ‘O’ level. In passing, regular readers of this blog will have noticed the longer-term effects of a poor start in our native tongue on my writing style.

Anyway, in the third year of the sixth form, I eventually passed, but only after nine months without any additional teaching. As a result, I was able to go to university, but my UCCA application, as it was in those ways, was heavily dependent upon universities and courses that didn’t require either Latin or English at ‘O’ level, since at that point I had neither. I would probably have ended up at LSE anyway – required neither – as I did, but the choice might have been wider.

I do understand the motivation of governments to ensure higher attainment in literacy and numeracy skills for our population as a whole, but I sat on a panel discussion in Abingdon on Friday night last week and listened to a FE lecturer calling for greater understanding of the range of examinations and functional skills we could accept from those for whom the traditional examination isn’t a good test. I have a lot of sympathy for that view. One size probably doesn’t fit all in this case. A range of skills test linked to the new investment in technical qualifications might be a helpful way forward.

So, my message to these young people forced to re-sit is, don’t give up and don’t regard it as an imposition. But, my message to government is, do consider the appropriate nature of the examination and one size and shape probably doesn’t fit all.

What we must never do is deter either young people or indeed learners of any age by making them think learning is just a chore to be endured. In later life, I have written many thousands of words and I am grateful that the school made me continue to re-take English language. Now, English literature was a different matter: that subject I passed first time.



Robert the Bruce Day

I call today Robert the Bruce Day after the Scottish King who endured a number of failures and, so the tale goes, was inspired to carry on campaigning when all seemed lost by watching a spider fail to complete is web. Despite several failures, the story goes, the spider didn’t give up and continued trying until it eventually succeeded.

There will be some pupils that receive their GCSE results today that won’t have made the required grades in either or both of English and mathematics. Now we can argue long and hard about the suitability of the curriculum for all sixteen year olds studying these subjects, but we are where we are. The government has decreed that every person in learning or education should continue to study these subjects until they are at the required standard.

I can sympathise. Back in the golden age of grammar schools I failed what was then ‘O’ level English at age 16. Indeed, I failed it at age 17 and age 18 as well. In total, I failed the subject some five times before finally achieving a pass in not one but two different Examination Boards at the same time; the January of my third year in the Sixth Form.

Fortunately, I was inspired by the Robert the Bruce story when in primary school. It may have had something to do with Bruce Castle Park in Tottenham, just down the road from where I went to primary school. Just as likely, was the way, W W Ashton, the head teacher, told the story. Any way the notion of not giving up stuck. This helped me through the slog of repeating the same examination following yet more tuition throughout the first two years of the Sixth Form. Curiously, in the term before the final examinations I passed, I didn’t have any more tuition, but time to think and assimilate what was needed.

I guess my basic failings in spelling and grammar that regular readers of this blog may have noticed from time to time may not have helped my cause. They certainly meant I never expected either to have written a column in a national education publication for over a decade or to have been a regular writer of a blog. In that respect, technology has been a great help: this would not have been possible with the development of the microchip.

So, my message is one of hope. Don’t give up. If at first you fail, try, try again. Who knows what you might achieve in the end.


The Politician’s Curve or is it Curse?

For the past quarter century I have watched with interest the annual ritual of the examination results season. There are a number of basic approaches used by politicians when questioned about the outcomes. All start by congratulating candidates on their hard work, and the results they have achieved. They then either express concern about the level of the outcomes, often harking back to some previous ‘golden age’ or they complain that too many have achieved the top grades and hark back to some previous ‘golden age’. Either way the present is always seen as in need of reform to meet the standards of the past. In recent years, the past has been replaced to some extent by reference to other education systems. Often our system is seen as ‘falling behind’ the best in the world.

One by-product of this political imperative for ‘improvement’, in whatever guise it takes, is a desire among some politicians to re-introduce a norm referencing system. This is where each year a set proportion of entrants to an exam receive the top grade, and most candidates are clustered around the middle grades. At its crudest, half are above average and half below average. Of course, more than half are generally below average as it is not normally possibly to control exactly for the numbers those who are ill on the day or fail to turn up for some other reason.

The alternative system used in recent years is based upon achievement of candidates against expected outcomes. Under this system, familiar to most adults through the driving test, anyone can pass if they achieve the appropriate level. So, theoretically, the top grade is open to all. However, by determining the standard of the questions the chances of that happening are unlikely. Indeed, standards can be raised by making the test harder, as has happened with the driving test with the addition of the theory test, and a wider range of practical tests to meet for challenging road conditions. Such changes make comparison between years difficult, if not impossible.

In reality, only in English and Mathematics are any forms of comparison really possible as it is only these two subjects that are studied by all pupils. In other subjects, the decisions about who studies them, and who is entered for an examination, can influence the outcomes.

Take two GCSE subjects for England in the provisional results for 2013. The cumulative outcomes were:

Subject A

A* 16.0%

A   41.3%

B   69.2%

C   90.8%

Subject B

A*   3.3%

A   16.3%

B   40.2%

C   66.6%

Now decide which set of results is for Physics and which for Media Studies. To help you there were 152,152 entries in subject A, and 55,005 in subject B. Another possible clue is that there is probably more of a shortage of Physics teachers than or Media Studies teachers. So, that’s clear then, subject A is Media Studies, and subject B is Physics. Well no, actually it is the other way around. 90% of entries in Physics received an A*-C grade compared with just two thirds in Media Studies. It is worth reflecting that under a norm referencing system far fewer would have received the top grade in Physics, but more would probably have done so in Media Studies.

Do we now make Physics GCSE harder, even if it means fewer study it to GCSE, or do we make Media Studies easier or is there a good reason why the outcomes are so different? I don’t know the answer to that question. Despite there being three times more entrants in Physics than in Media Studies, perhaps only those likely to succeed are entered for the subject, whereas anyone studying Media Studies takes the examination. That may explain why only 0.1% of those who took Physics received an unclassified grade compared with 1.3% of the entrants in Media Studies.

In the end, an examination system has to be fit for purpose. What that purpose is must be clear to all. With the participation age for education now increasing to 18 over the next few years, it might be worthwhile asking what purpose is served by an expensive external examination at 16.

Source of results data; http://www.jcq.org.uk/examination-results/gcses/gcse-and-entry-level-certificate-results-summer-2013