Leaving the arts behind is a risk

My apologies to regular readers for the absence of any posts over the past few days, but I was at the Lib Dem Conference in Bournemouth over the weekend and have been catching up on local matters since returning.

Earlier this week EPI, The Education Policy Institute, published an interesting report into ‘Entries in Arts Subjects at Key Stage 4’. https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Entries_to_arts_subjects_at_Key_Stage_4.pdf Authored by their researcher, Rebecca Jones it paints a depressing picture of falling numbers of entries, even after allowing for the recent decline in the secondary school population. In 2016 there were the lowest number of entries in a decade.  Provisional data relating to 2017 exam entries indicate that the decline observed in the most recent years is continuing

The fall came after a period of increasing entries up to 2013. How far the government’s determination to push the EBacc has caused the fall is a matter for discussion, but the idea of concentrating on a wider measure, such as Progress8 or Attainment8 could well offer a possible way forward to halt the decline.

According to the EPI report, there is a clear and consistent North-South divide in entries to arts subjects, with Southern regions showing higher entry rates than Northern regions. In 2016, the North East experienced a particularly sharp drop in arts entries. The proportion of pupils entering at least one arts subject now ranges from 57.3 per cent in the South West region to 47.8 per cent in the North East, a gap of 9.5 percentage points.

An interesting finding by the EPI team was that before 2013, pupils with high prior attainment were more likely than those with medium or low prior attainment to enter at least one arts subject. This pattern has since been reversed, and those with medium or low prior attainment are now more likely to have at least one arts entry. In 2016, the gap was 3.5 percentage points (54.4 per cent for pupils with medium and low prior attainment, compared with 50.9 per cent for those with high prior attainment).

EPI also found that there is a very large gender gap in entries to arts subjects. In 2016, 64.7 per cent of girls took at least one arts subject, compared with 42.5 per cent of boys, a gap of 22.3 percentage points.

There are substantial gaps in arts entries between pupils from different ethnic backgrounds. Black Caribbean pupils have particularly high entry rates, whilst pupils from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds are much less likely to have at least one arts entry than those from other ethnic groups. I wonder whether the examination boards need to look at syllabuses to see whether they are attractive to those from a wide range of cultures.

For the purposes of the EPI report, arts qualifications were defined as those relating to the following subject areas: art and design; drama and theatre; media, film, and TV studies; music; dance; and performing arts. The EPI analysis does not classify design and technology as an arts subject. Design and technology was excluded from the category of arts qualifications in the EPI report because it includes subjects which have very little overlap with the arts, such as systems and control, and electronic products. It is also categorised separately from art and design in official publications by the Department for Education, including the national curriculum and statistical releases. However, it seems likely that design and technology may have suffered in the same manner as arts subjects since Ebacc was introduced. The government certainly does not seem to fully appreciate its importance in the school curriculum.

The details of the EPI report are of interest to those with concerns about the details. However, the headline finding should concern everyone interested in the role of education in helping to create a civilized society.



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.

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