Why GCSE and A level grade inflation doesn’t matter much

The second bout of pushmepullyou debate over exam results started today with the publication of the latest GCSE results. For the 23rd year running, the proportion of entries receiving a grade A*-C has risen, now reaching 69.8%. On the one hand, happy candidates and politicians have been celebrating the hard work that led to those grades. On the other, curmudgeons who spent last week alternating between fulminating over the news media’s keenness to show attractive blonde girls jumping up and down after getting their A level grades and moaning about how the 97.8% A*-E pass rate meant that the qualification was worthless.

I don’t really think there is a lot to be gained by long term comparisons between the grades achieved in long-separated years. I’m not going to spend tonight slapping my back over the statistical evidence that might show that I did the hardest ever GCSEs (being in the first cohort in 1988) or beating myself up over the possibility that the GCSEs I did weren’t as hard as the 4 O levels I did the year before (why oh why couldn’t they have let me take “easy” GCSE RE instead of doing the O level and besmirching my CV with a rogue C grade?). Both GCSEs and A levels have changed in their role in the intervening years. When GCSEs were introduced to replace O levels and CSEs the average level of attainment was represented by the F Grade which was intended to reflect a CSE 3 or 4. Prior to 1988, CSE 2s and 3s were adequate for entry into skilled trade apprenticeships and other real work and O levels were qualifications aimed at those with higher academic ability levels as possibly the last school exams they would do.

It is quite different now. As more children are encouraged or effectively forced into staying in full time education, GCSEs are less and less an end in themselves but more the entry point into further academic study. If there is a target of getting half the population to have experienced Higher Education (ie post-A Level), it is only logical that those who in 1988 would have been targeted to receive GCSEs at around Grade E or F should be able to get GCSE grades that fit them for doing A Levels and beyond. A C grade today is not comparable with a C grade in 1988 because the rationale behind the setting and marking of the exams is so very different.

This has a similar effect at A Level. If around half of school children are expected to aim towards Higher Education, that means they will need to have the exams that qualify them for Higher Education. This fits neatly with the near 100% pass rate at A Level on the basis of more than half of all children staying on in the sixth form. Those getting D and E grades at A Level now would have been expected not to have come near to 5 GCSEs at A-C in 1988 just by reference to their position in any table of academic ability. However, someone who has just done their GCSEs or A levels this year is very unlikely to come up in competition against me for any job, just as I am unlikely to be competing with say, Toby Young with his BCC at A Level in 1983. So, in reality, the only time the vast majority will compare intergenerational exam results is this one week in the year when it makes for a story in the media. The stuff we were able to do at the time and since because of or despite the qualification each got makes much more difference in practice. There are of course some exceptions – such as those looking to start degrees now but did their school exams 10-15 or more years ago or those who have been (ludicrously) refused promotion after many years of experience by dim-witted HR policies designating roles as graduate-only. But these are outliers which can be dealt with.

Now, there are bad things about this. Particularly bad is the fact that it pushes children who may not be particularly academically inclined into staying in academically-focused education until 18 and increasingly 21. As studying for a degree is so expensive, this also burdens people who a generation ago would have been willing and able to find good work and careers from the age of 16 into debt in order to take jobs that in reality they could quite easily have managed without that additional education. While there will have been some children who have been given the opportunity to shine or develop academic interests which in the past would have been more closed by just getting on with working and making a living, I think these will be in the minority. The inflation in the level of qualification that employers can now demand for entry level jobs also makes it much harder for those who decide to drop out of education at 16 with few qualifications to get into work. Whereas in the past they would be competing with people around their own age who had perhaps a few more GCSEs or at slightly better grades, now they are facing competition from people who are 5 years older, desperate to pay off student debts and with apparently good qualifications which at the very least make them look like they have applied themselves.

What is more important than the grades themselves and how they compare to the grades of the past is whether the education received by all students, particularly the forgotten minority who got few or no GCSEs at grade C or above, is adequate and appropriate to give them a chance of making something of their lives after school. Very little is ever heard about the quality of education given to those “at the bottom” but it is unlikely to be very positive when the CBI and others complain about the poor literacy, numeracy and general skills of graduates.

Rather than whining about how exams were properly hard “in our day” or berating the unemployable “scum” who didn’t manage even those “easier” GCSEs, it would be better to look at how to provide useful and good quality education to those who aren’t today jumping for joy at the 15 GCSE A*s they just got in the post. Something that is certain though is that just making the exams easier and the marking more lenient will not solve that problem any more than it has for those who were hardworking and fortunate enough to have got the grades they needed in the last week.

Well-meaning policies not racist teaching to blame for low black attainment

Periodically the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website goes into meltdown over the plight of low educational achievement by black children. It has happened again today with an article headlined by a sub-editor angling for a job at a tabloid – “There’s no black in the baccalaureate” by Professor David Gillborn http://bit.ly/kIcSMg . The thesis put forward by the article is that black children are denied educational opportunity by a massive conspiracy of racist teachers throughout the country. Black children are not allowed to take the most valuable subjects at school and, of course, being the Guardian, this is only going to be made much worse by those dastardly Tories.

What the article doesn’t address is that the institutional racism it bemoans was meant to have been eradicated by now (it links to an article about a DfES report from 2006 concluding there was institutional racism in schools but that this could be addressed by 2010). That steps had apparently been taken to do so. That teaching is a profession filled with the core readership of the Guardian and education was for 13 years of the previous government subject to incredible amounts of policy direction aimed at making the system more inclusive.

As a school governor and someone who knows a fair number of teachers I find it difficult to believe that teachers are generally racist. If anything, my impression is that they are, or try very hard to be, professionally anti-racist. The general, if wrong-headed, view by the profession that mere membership of the BNP ought to be enough to disqualify a teacher from working as teachers is only part of this.

However, I do agree that education has developed institutional racism. Not of the caricature type sketched in the article and the linked report from 2006 but a much more serious and harmful one. Institutional racism introduced unintentionally while attempting to achieve the opposite by “progressive” policy-makers.

The cause of this unintended institutional racism is the use and abuse of the entire culture and apparatus of using ever more granular data to inform and drive education policy. League tables were the starting point but are the tip of this particular iceberg. Over more than ten years educational policy and its implementation in estimating outcomes for schools and individual pupils and setting targets for both has been based upon highly detailed data gathering and statistical analysis. Much of this has been conducted by the Fischer Family Trust (FFT) http://bit.ly/gtazg9 which works with every English local education authority (LEA) and provides them and their schools with highly sophisticated datasets and software for analysing pupil test score and assessment data. This is used to generate both estimates and targets for individual pupils and schools.

Well, you may ask, what’s wrong with basing education strategies on cold, hard, factual data and objective analysis? Surely that must be better than the bad old days (as described in the 2006 report) of letting teachers subjective prejudices rule the roost? The problem is that the almost irresistable temptation is to be ruled by the apparent objectivity of the data and clever statistical analysis tools. An outline of the data and analyses available can be found at http://bit.ly/izy0Wq .  Although the FFT itself cautions against unsophisticated use of its data and emphasises the importance of teacher’s judgements based on actual knowledge and experience of the children they teach, it is very difficult to go out on a limb against the numbers that are generated and the estimates of where individual children at a particular school “ought” to end up.

The FFT data is highly granular. It breaks down pupil attainment level probabilities by gender, whether they are born early or late in a school year, subject, postcode, school type economic class and ethnicity amongst other factors. Combined with actual data for individual pupils such as how they have historically done in tests, it produces remarkably accurate looking projections of what each child might achieve.

How does this explain the worrying phenomenon highlighted in the article of black children achieving the poorest grades? Simply, that the data of past low attainment by that group is then used to estimate and set targets in respect of members of that group in the future. Just as league table positioning incentivises schools to focus on getting those predicted D grades at GCSE up to a C, all that is needed for a school to appear to be doing a good job for black children is for it to get them to achieve at or slightly above the poor level historically achieved by that demographic. However, this applies also to other ethnicities, classes, etc – so the Chinese children who come out best by most statistical measures of attainment are targeted to meet or exceed those higher standards.

My son is about to start at Primary school this coming September. He will be starting in Reception with 4 other children from our street and the one behind it. They all come from broadly similar socio-economic backgrounds as all of our houses are similar, each has two co-habiting parents and so on. If they were of the same level of intelligence and attainment on starting school, the ordinary expectation would be, should be, that they ought to be treated the same and have similar expectations as to how they might progress through education. However, that is not how things work where tools like the FFT data analyses come into play. From day one of Reception Class onwards, the estimates for each and the targets that will be set for them to enable the school to determine whether it is succeeding will differ quite dramatically on the basis of their ethnicity and gender. From a personal perspective this isn’t so bad as fortuitously our son is in an ethnic category that is historically high attaining. It would be rather worse for his prospects were he to be black.

This is not because the teachers are racist. In the particular example I’m certain they are not (and they are confident and successful enough not to rely too heavily on FFT). It is because if the school he attended was not confident enough to discount things like FFT data it wouldn’t matter how hard he worked and how much he managed to achieve, he would always be predicted not to progress as much as he might had he had a different ethnicity even with all other factors being the same. When it comes to choosing subjects at GCSE, this would increase the probability that he might be discouraged from taking “hard” subjects that would contribute to gaining the EBacc qualification. A reasonable hypothesis might be that schools with lower Ofsted ratings and positions in league tables may be more inclined to game things to maximise their chances of showing improvement – if black or other under-achieving groups (such as white working class boys) are more likely to attend such schools the impact of using FFT data in an unsophisticated way will be even greater on those groups.

Individual teacher prejudice would compound this as a notional racist teacher may be less inclined to disagree with the low estimates turned out by the statistical analysis, but it would be a secondary factor; the counter-example would be a teacher who was prejudiced against Chinese children – it would be difficult for them to get away with setting targets below the high ones generated by the FFT data and teaching towards that.

Perhaps the answer is to let go of the cost and complexity of collecting, analysing and  interpreting all that data. To wean ourselves off our addiction to comparative study of spuriously objective quantitative descriptions. To become very wary of deducing from a description of how things are a prescription of how they ought to be.

Rather than castigating teachers as a group for their racism, institutionalised or otherwise, the answer would be to trust that on the whole teachers go into teaching to do the best they can for all the children they teach. Free schools might succeed by harnessing this even if the particular educational styles they adopt might be driven by subjective and debatable views of quality and success. So it might be less important whether they focus, like West London Free School, on the Classics than that they start from a perspective that all their pupils regardless of background can achieve a good number of creditable grades in “hard” subjects.

It would be a radical government that reacted to such success (if of course, Free Schools are successful) by providing these freedoms to schools more generally. Of course, it would be even more radical to do this without waiting to see how the Free Schools fare. I hope that this might be what is happening with the drive for many more schools to become Academies – a change that has received a fraction of the publicity of the 8 Free Schools coming in the first ripple. That wouldn’t have to mean that no data was collected about school and pupil achievement – there would still be an extent to which it was useful for some management purposes, just that it would revert to its proper subordinate position. For example, I imagine that it was helpful for my old school to know that while everyone in A and B set French got at least a C at GCSE/O level and that more than half the D set got more than a C, none of the C set got above a D – either there was a setting failure or failings in the C set’s teaching even though there were no official league tables at the time.

Finally, a small confession. I wouldn’t have achieved the EBac qualification myself as I was allowed to drop both History and Geography for GCSE. I haven’t done too badly educationally or professionally though so part of my radical proposal would be not to worry too much about proportions getting the EBacc as long as individual pupils studied things that were of value to them and achieved according to their ability and application. For some this might mean getting the EBacc, but not for all (as an aside my guess is that the EBacc would be much more valuable as a differentiator between children who leave school at 16 than those more academic children who go on to A levels, Higher Education and beyond).

Elitism defended and criticised

A couple of interesting blogs on elitism today. First Ben Archibald on Reclaiming Elitism at http://nabidana.com/uncategorized/reclaiming-elitism/ and second Prof Richard Moorhead on whether it is wrong for elite universities to favour public school pupils at http://lawyerwatch.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/is-the-profession-wrong-to-favour-public-school-pupils/#comment-314 .

There’s nothing wrong with having, supporting and developing those with “elite” abilities provided that this is not at the cost of ignoring or providing insufficient care to those, the majority, who are non-elite. So, investing in the 2012 Olympics and in the development of British athletes who can do well at those Games is fine, provided that this doesn’t mean that ordinary people are less able to participate in sports than they might otherwise have been. Grammar schools would be OK if we could be confident that they were providing education of that sort to all who would benefit from it and that those who would benefit from other sorts of education got that to at least as high a standard.

The second blog looks at the evidence produced in December 2010 by the Sutton Trust looking at the impact of school type on degree performance. Broadly this concluded that comprehensive school-educated students who received BBB at A level outperformed at degree level grammar and independent school-educated students with the same A level scores. The comprehensive-educated BBB students on average performed similarly to those from selective schools with AAB or ABB. This suggests that the “elite” are mispopulating themselves by favouring those from public schools because the public school products are achieving less than those from comprehensives of similar ability. Two of the solutions to this would be to make entrance requirements for all comprehensive students lower or to engage “talent coaches” as many elite US universities do to go and find diamonds in the rough. The first would shift the windfall of luck from students from selective schools who might coast more at university to those from the highest performing comprehensive schools. The second would trust to the discretion and skill of the talent coaches. This seems somehow wrong and a bit too “American” but is it really so different from getting spotted by a scout from a Premier League football team, a casting director doing a tour of Rep Theatre or an A&R man happening to hear your band when it is supporting the band he was meant to be seeing?

As long as lacking luck doesn’t mean inevitable failure, luck and elitism aren’t such dirty words.