Review of 2011 – 2. Something so objectionable they pay you for it

I started this blog a few days after being made redundant. Living in Leeds and finding that even having a broad geographical area I’d be willing to commute to didn’t help in securing work (down to Nottingham, up to Newcastle, and anwhere between Hull and Manchester across the country) despite being a highly qualified and experienced lawyer was something of a shock.

I was lucky enough, before the redundancy settlement ran out, to find a London-based employer and project which allowed me to work remotely from Leeds for 7 months. Now I just need to secure something for 2012. A permanent job that allows me to live at home and see my wife and son daily is probably a couple of years into the distance.

Sadly, things seem to be much worse for younger people. The immediate impact of youth unemployment is different to that for older people. They at least, largely have the option of staying with their parents and throwing their search out wide, considering volunteering abroad, travelling, further study and so on. With a family and a mortgage, plus having to overcome a degree of feeling entitled to have a life that wasn’t such a struggle after years of work and “doing the right thing” in studying and achieving highly the pressures of getting used to the idea of living away from what you have spent years building in terms of family life or even losing them as you are forced into working out a completely different lifestyle are hard.

But, at least I was lucky enough to be reasonably confident of finding work when I graduated without needing to to do substantial amounts of networking and unpaid work experience. My qualifications were sufficient in themselves to get my foot in the door and there were opportunities for those who had not spent as much time in education – school friends who had left education at 16 had managed to get careers, homes, cars and families while I was still flat sharing in my mid twenties. Today’s equivalents would all be burdened with student debt or in insecure unskilled employment as there wasn’t much else available for those who hadn’t stayed on at school and university.

Perhaps things might be turning round to give opportunities to those who do not wish to stay in full time education past childhood. It is unfortunate that for branding purposes it is seen as necessary to describe decent apprenticeships as “graduate level” but at least there is starting to be a choice again rather than an ineluctable conveyor belt leading to degrees that are neither useful nor valuable. That doesn’t mean that elitism should be a dirty word – the opposite in fact, if there are proper opportunities for ordinary people we ought to be able to be comfortable about providing opportunities for those who are talented rather than trying to level everyone down.

With some luck things will be rosier in 13 years time when OMB finishes school.

It aint what you do it’s where you do it

Britain’s largest exam board, AQA is announcing proposals to factor the type of school that A level candidates have attended into “university points” to be awarded alongside their A level grades. Unsurprisingly, this measure of social engineering has been criticised by usual suspects like Toby Young ( http://tgr.ph/oCSAwP ).

The point of the proposal seems to be to attempt to redress educational disadvantages faced by students attending schools with a wide range of abilities or other factors which might impact on students’ raw academic performance when measured against more uniform standards like a mark scheme being applied blindly to all candidates. There has been some research, notably by the Sutton Trust, that suggests that comprehensive-educated students tend to out-perform similarly qualified and some higher qualified independent school students at university. The implication is that focusing on A level scores at the point of university entrance might lead to students being admitted to competitive courses at selective universities who are likely to do less well in those courses than other candidates with lower entry marks.

This takes the debate away from the easy criticism of social engineering or attempting to bash independent schools for ideological reasons and is covered interestingly in a blog post by Cardiff Law School Professor Richard Moorhead ( http://bit.ly/r1Yykx ) from earlier in the year.

Unfortunately, I think that the proposal is both self-interested and potentially self-defeating. It is self-interested because, I suspect, its principal motivation is a commercial one. AQA, like the other examination boards is a profit-making business, competing with the other examination boards to put together syllabuses and qualifications which will be adopted by the most schools and colleges around the country (and internationally). The vast majority of schools in England and Wales are state comprehensive schools. This proposal is neatly targeted at each of them with the message – enter your students for our exams and they will get an advantage when applying to university.

I think it will also be self-defeating. This is because the only real value in the proposal is in enabling students applying to selective universities to differentiate themselves from similarly or higher qualified students from more privileged schools or who are lower down the order of merit in their own schools. However, those selective universities, even if broadly supportive of attempts to provide them with better information to use in differentiating between candidates, might not agree with the methodology used. Other syllabuses and examination boards might develop a degree of kudos about them, or the kudos that they might already have might be crystallised by AQA’s move. In the past the Oxford & Cambridge Board exams used to be favoured by the old public schools, whether rightly or wrongly on the basis of the syllabuses looking more traditional and perhaps the association with those great universities. In a system where doing an AQA paper might be perceived as attempting to get special pleading in well before even attending a first class in the sixth form the benefits of the “university points” from AQA might be diluted. That would reflect on schools, but more importantly and unfairly, on candidates. If other boards declined to follow AQA’s lead or adopted different systems for grading schools and relative performance within them, there would be little value to the points to universities and consequently to the candidates taking the papers.

If such a system has merit it cannot be led as a commercial strategy by one exam board. I’m uneasy about the concept of grading people according to their social background but if it is to be done at all it needs to be done as an overtly political act capable of democratic scrutiny. Most people can be relatively sanguine about seeing a difference in the ability and effort needed by a student from a “sink” school with unsupportive parents who spends their sixth form working two part time jobs and comes out with AAA and on the other hand, the boy who is coasting along in the third stream at Eton and gets the same results. That’s why even the critics of the proposal use other, less obvious examples like “the child from a poor family who scrimp and save and the school gives their child a scholarship” – that child is one who would be at the top end of the ability scale wherever they went and will not have worked significantly less hard to get there than anyone else.

The thing is, the sink school prodigy and the Etonian coaster would be very obviously different without there being any artificial “university points” but, would the sink school prodigy be all that different from the Etonian prodigy who might have been wealthy and privileged but otherwise no different? Deciding that the system should actively punish the Etonian prodigy for the fact that he went to Eton is a very political act. Perhaps it would be a popular one. But it should be a political decision because of it.

If there is to be a process for accounting for educational background, I think a good approach would be to tie it in to the value add provided by a school. The data has been compiled for some time and could easily be revived. It is intended to show a difference between schools and whether they manage to go beyond merely meeting the expected level of attainment relative to the abilities and characteristics of their intakes. UCAS points scores could be based upon a multiple of scores for the grades achieved and the school’s value add score. There would be no possibility of avoidance at least for those schools that prepared their students for A levels. I explored some more of the detail here in my second comment on Professor Moorhead’s piece linked above.

But, the best approach would be to reverse the grade inflation which is the ultimate cause of difficulty for universities seeking to select the best candidates and then to leave it to individual admissions tutors to decide on the basis of their own experiences and policies what allowance to make for individual candidates’ personal histories. When the majority of Etonians get AAA alongside the personal “gloss” and confidence of such an education of course there will be difficulties for those who have overcome all barriers to gain similar grades as a local outlier. So make it so that the 60th best Etonian in the year gets the C and D grades he would have done a generation ago.

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.