Grade inflation or more hard work

Last summer 29.6% of students taking A level Physics gained an A* or A grade in the examination. However, just 10.6% of students taking Media, Film and TV Studies that achieved the same grades. It’s worth recalling these figures when reading the reports of grade inflation in universities with more students than ever achieving First class honours degrees. (source for A level data: Source for University data: HESA) Agreed, the extra 4,000 student studying Physics at A level in 2016 compared with 2010 may be partly responsible for the decline of 3.5% in the number of A* and A grades during the same period, but that is to be expected with a widening of the pool of entrants into the examination. However, the top grade is open to all. Maybe there is some degree of selection here with only those needing the subject for university traditionally taking it at A level.

So, does the increase in student numbers at universities mean there is grade inflation and more should mean greater numbers of lower grades? In the end it depends upon what you want the marking system to achieve. Traditionalists, may want a normal distribution curve of outcomes with a bunching around the middle grades and only limited numbers expected to achieve the highest grades or to fail. This system is great for identifying the really high flyers, but does it disincentive everyone else? Should degree class reward hard work and are students working harder now that have to bear the cost of their university education through the fee system? Has a competitive job market through the years of the recession also signalled to students that outcomes rather than just the university experience matters? This takes us back to the A level results. Are there too many A* and A grades in Physics? Of course not.

Perhaps students are becoming pickier at both choosing courses and even modules within courses with a view to outcomes? To what effect does ‘drop out’ among student affect the outcomes of those that remain. Do students realising they selected the wrong course, perhaps during clearing, quit in larger numbers. We know students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to quit. Is this because they received poorer advice about which course to pick at what university and ended up doing the wrong subject?

There is lots more to explore behind the simple headline data. But, maybe there has been some grade inflation and university quality control mechanisms need to ensure that outcomes keep pace with learning. After all, that is what the external examiner system was supposed to achieve. What do these figures also say about the claim that A levels were being dumbed down and students were arriving at university knowing less and less well equipped for university life? Interestingly I had a conversation on LinkedIn about this point with a teacher in Essex recently.

Personally, I think the outcomes are a tribute to our students, but universities do need to ensure that they monitor their learning outcomes to keep pace with changes elsewhere.

Young graduates still not attracted to teaching in large enough numbers

The good news is that offers for secondary teacher preparation courses aren’t generally any worse than last month. Indeed, in the humanities, the loosening of recruitment targets have probably helped propel offers in history and geography to new high levels. Whether it is fair to  offer places to students to train as a history teacher and take on the extra debt involved when there are likely to be far more trainees than vacancies available in 2018 is a question that presumably everyone involved with teacher preparation is happy to answer in the affirmative. After all, the students know the risk they are running and aren’t callow eighteen year olds fresh from school.

Generally, there must be concern about what is happening to recruitment in the sciences and in particular Chemistry. After several good years recruiting, offers are back to the level last seen in 2013/14, although even that represent an improvement on the situation earlier this year. Hopefully, a significant proportion of those in the unspecified science category are really looking to be Chemistry teachers. We won’t know until the ITT census in the autumn whether or not it is actually the case.

It is undoubtedly the fact that the figure for offers to secondary courses would be far worse if all routes had the same offer to application ratio of School Direct Salaried. This year, just 17% of applicants are currently shown as placed or holding an offer. Last year, the figure at this point in the cycle was 18%. In numerical terms that means a drop from 1,310 last year to just 900 this year, with 740 of those only conditionally placed. By contrast, the School Direct Fee route has a ratio of 22% and SCITTs and higher education have placed or made offers to 28% of their applicants. Indeed, the much maligned university sector has accounted for 6,930 of the 13,150 offers made so far this year: that’s 53% of the total in a sector that was supposed to have been removed from teacher preparation by now under Mr Gove’s school-based training plans. In the primary sector, higher education accounts for just about half of the places and there are more offers for School Direct salaried places than in the secondary sector. However, we don’t know how many of these may be already working in schools in another capacity before transferring onto a teacher preparation programme.

Last month, I raised concerns about the situation in London where offers across both primary and secondary courses now total 4,370 compared with 4,800 at this point last year. Total applicant numbers in England are still below the 36,000 mark, more than 1,000 down on this point last year.

Although there are more 23 year olds applying this year than last, applications from younger graduates  of 21 or 22 still remain below last year and there are fewer career changers in their 30s this year. Last night, I saw two of the Royal Navy TV adverts, but I cannot recall when I last saw a TV advert for teaching: perhaps I am looking at the wrong channels.

With many schools being less likely to recruit applicants over the summer months, despite incentives to do so, the next month is likely to represent the final opportunity to improve on the predicted outcome for this year and a resulting challenging job market in 2018.


What happens to graduates?

Last week the DfE published and interesting bulletin about graduate outcomes for all subjects by university using three time periods. The full details can be found at However, there needs to be a word of warning for anyone looking at the ‘Education’ information. Firstly, this should relate only to undergraduate outcomes, so PGCE and similar courses ought to be excluded, unless they are specifically a first degree outcome. Secondly, the JACS code used for ‘Education’ annoyingly covers both courses leading to QTS and those that just relate to the academic study of education in some or all of its guises. This lack of demarcation between professional and non-professional degrees is somewhat irritating, as at some universities there are students on both programmes and it seems impossible to differentiate their outcomes. This also makes comparing the education data with other subjects less than totally helpful.

However, Education, along with nursing, has a relatively flat profile in relation to median earnings five years after graduation. In subjects, such as law, the profile is exaggerated at both ends, with Band one universities providing the bulk of those at the higher end of the scale, with band two and three universities more frequently towards the lower end of the scale. Indeed, in law, the difference is around threefold in earnings with the median at the top end being around £60,000 after five years of graduation from one university. For Education, the highest median is around the £35,000 mark.

In most subjects, male graduates earn more than their female companions who studied alongside them as undergraduates. Indeed, for all subjects except English Studies, male median earnings exceed female median earnings at more than 50% of institutions offering that subject. In 12 subjects, male earnings are greater than female earnings at more than 75% of institutions.

It is in the remaining in employment information that the lack of separation between those on professional education degrees and others may be more starkly seen. Nursing degrees score the highest in terms of those with sustained employment or further study. Education graduates while towards the top of the list are probably not as high up the table as they would have been if those on QTS courses had been considered separately.  Hopefully, the work that the NfER are doing at present on retention in teaching compared with other professions may throw some light onto this question.

For the graduates of 2008-09 that entered the job market in the depth of the recession, those with education degrees seem to have managed relatively well in terms of sustained employment, with only a relatively small proportion being self-employed. By contrast, those with degrees in the creative arts and design had the lowest proportion with sustained employment of study and a relatively high proportion of self-employed graduates.

This is interesting research from the DfE but, apart from the issue of professional and non-professional degrees in the same subject area there are also issues such as the subjects where a percentage of graduates may be working overseas after five years and not likely to feature in the data collected. Still, this looks like an exercise that will reveal the graduates most likely to repay their student loans.


Do you want to work in a grammar school?

Grammar schools were a product of the nineteenth century that lingered overlong into the twentieth and have no place in the modern world. We should not ensure the effective education of those gifted and talented in some areas by separating them from the rest of society at an early age. Even where their education is fundamentally different, whether for future ballet dancers, musicians, footballers or choristers, some degree of integration with others less skilled in these areas should be the norm.

Since intellectual ability isn’t fully developed at eleven, the grounds for grammar schools seem more social than educational, even when cloaked in the guise of meritocracy. Scare resources are best employed developing better education for all, not in keeping a few Tory voters in the fold.

Before any decision is taken, and this wasn’t a manifesto pledge, the government should undertake some polling on the effect of the introduction of new selective schools across the country on both the current teacher workforce as well as the views of those that might want to become a teacher.

For existing secondary school teachers, the question is simple: If your school were to lose 30% of its most able pupils, would you continue to teach here?

For potential teachers the question is: would you be willing to teach in a school where 30% of the age range didn’t attend?

For primary school teachers, the question has to be whether they would prepare children for the selection process?

Making a teacher supply crisis worse won’t help the education of those not selected form a grammar school place.

To introduce grammar schools without a comprehensive education plan for every child the State has been entrusted with educating is unbelievably short-sighted: something only a narrow-minded government would contemplate. To cloak the introduction of grammar schools in the social mobility agenda without offering any evidence that such schools create more mobility than the alternative is to pander to the views of the few and to disregard the needs of the many.

What plans do the government have for those left out of a grammar school in a bulge year because grammar school places cannot be turned on an off? Will the government create a system to cope with 30% of the peak pupil numbers in the mid-2020s and allow either a less rigorous selection procedure until then or will it leave places empty? The alternative seems to me to be that it will set the limit on places now and see more parents denied places as pupil numbers increase?

What is certain is that the present per pupil funding formula cannot work within a two-tier system as the redundancies in Kent have already shown. Perhaps this is the real reason why the National Funding Formula consultation has been delayed, to allow for the incorporation of a different method of funding of grammar schools to non-selective schools within the new system?

Will Council taxpayers in areas that don’t want selective education be forced to pay the transport costs of pupils attending such schools and will the government reimburse them or expect them to take the cash away from other hard pressed services?

I am all in favour of local democracy in education, but not in a government sponsored free-for-all.


Missing the target is a known. By how much is still a known unknown.

This week’s Education Journal carried a piece by Chris Waterman, my co-author of the new book on Teacher Training Places in 2013. His article was entitled ‘Teacher supply: how the Rumsfeldian model is coming along’ and it considers the knowns; known unknowns; unknown unknowns; and the ‘don’t want to know questions’ around the current confusing teacher preparation landscape. I won’t rehearse the various discussions under each of the headings, save to say that earlier this week I worked out that less than a quarter of training places in Chemistry on the School Direct route were being shown as filled on the DfE web site compared with about double that figure for the higher education routes in the subject.

Now, as I have maintained before that difference in acceptances could well be because of schools requiring higher standards than universities from their would-be trainees. If so, then there is little more than three months left to find the trainees to fill the remaining places at a time when the market for graduates appears to be reviving. If the schools and universities haven’t selected from those who have already applied, why should those who apply now be any better in calibre? An analysis of application patterns over recent years has shown that once the rush of applications from finalists who haven’t yet thought about life after university is over there are relatively few other applicants as the summer months pass by. Now, this year may be different, but it is difficult to see why it should be if the overall market for graduates is better than in recent years, as those yet to make a decision about their future have more choice than in recent years, unlike their colleagues in many other European countries.

One thing that might help recruitment is a review of the benefits from the various routes. On some routes you receive a salary, plus pension contributions, plus pay National insurance that unlocks other State benefits, whereas on other routes you are a students and get nothing more than the right to repay the loan as a tax of 9% for the first 30 years you are in teaching. It is indeed unlikely that many students with a degree plus a PGCE will ever repay the full amount of their loans unless the government changes the rules. How long the Treasury will accept this situation is an interesting question as there are already rumblings about the long-term cost to the Exchequer. I think it would be sensible to return to a level playing field where all who wanted to become a teacher were treated in the same way. After all, the Ministry of Defence doesn’t give officer cadets destined for the infantry a different financial package to those entering the armoured regiments or the engineers. I am quite surprised that a clever lawyer hasn’t cited the Human Rights legislation to show it is unfair to fund the education of some intending teachers in one way, and those of others in another less rewarding manner.

As half-term week comes to an end, and second half of the summer term starts is slide towards the summer holidays, I am confident enough to predict that the glory days of recent years, when every subject except computer science was filling all their places for trainee teachers, has come to an end. The question is: how large will be the deficit across the board by the time courses start in September?