If we need GCSE at all, let’s put more faith in teacher assessment

As a coda to my blog on the debate about GCSE grading, here are three points about GCSE reform.

First, at a time when the participation age is being raised to 18, England needs to move to an overarching baccalaureate as a summary of educational achievement at 18 and reduce the extent of the external examinations for 16 year olds. The age-relatedness of exams at 16 is all about accountability and does not suit a good proportion of young people.

Second, with the new GCSE aiming for all students, if it is to be fit for the needs of 21st century employers, it is important that it should be criterion-referenced at each grade and not norm-referenced.

Third, all external qualifications – but especially those at GCSE level – should place more reliance on teacher assessment, moderated by a national network of chartered assessors.

Chartered assessors are experienced teachers, externally accredited to carry out assessment, both internal and external, to national standards.

With the increase in the amount of evidence thus available to assess the achievement of candidates, examination grades would become more reliable, with properly moderated teacher assessment included as part of the grade.

When A-levels and O-levels were introduced in 1951, it was fully intended that they should be phased out as teachers gained greater experience of assessment at these levels. But this never happened.

True, the coursework element of exams grew and external moderation was introduced to maintain standards. But coursework, eventually affected by plagiarism and inadequately moderated, never reached its potential which, in the hands of good teachers, is the perfect adjunct to good teaching.

The best teacher I ever worked with, Len Rowe, used 100 per cent coursework for English for many years, maintaining that the students’ folders contained a wider range of evidence of their ability across the full range of skills in English than could be exhibited in any written examination. When political trust in coursework faded and 100 per cent coursework GCSEs were abolished in the early 1990s, Len retired at the age of 56, wanting to be no part of the new system and writing a searing letter to Lord Griffiths, then the head of the exams body, SEAC.

Coursework will continue to be used in art, technology and music. Modern languages orals and science practicals can and should use teacher assessment. We should put greater faith in the professionalism of teachers by extending coursework well beyond this, enabling the external examination system to be trimmed to a more reasonable size (and cost). But politicians score easy points by deriding the credibility of teacher assessment. To overcome that we need a system of chartered assessors – the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (which I chair) stands ready to deliver such a system.

Exam standards and the GCSE

There are several levels of significance in what has come to be known on twitter and elsewhere as the ‘GCSE fiasco’.

Of greatest importance is the significance for the individual students whose futures may be adversely affected by the GCSE grade decisions.

Then there is the significance for schools and colleges, not only in terms of league table scores but also in the entry arrangements for post-16 courses.

There is significance for teachers, whose students achieved lower grades than they predicted. For many years, the more experienced teachers have been predicting their students’ results with a good degree of accuracy – and suddenly they learn that their predictions are too high. And teachers, having worked to raise student aspirations, care about what their students have achieved too.

The current debate is significant for the government, for Ofqual, for awarding bodies and for the thousands of people who work as examiners and markers, and whose work is now being picked over.

At the root of all this, however, lies an issue that affects the way that all GCSEs and A-levels are graded and is therefore of huge significance to the future of all qualifications in England. This is the question of whether we have a criterion-referenced system – in which work of a certain standard gets the same grade every year – or a norm-referenced system – in which the number of candidates gaining each grade is kept the same each year, even if their performance is improving.

Until Keith Joseph courageously introduced criterion referencing of A-levels and O-levels in 1984, norm-referencing acted as an agent of social conservatism, keeping down the number of students at the higher grades and making it impossible to know whether schools and colleges were raising achievement year on year.

Since then we have been given to understand that the system had been operating on criterion referencing. That is to say, the number of candidates achieving each grade depended on the standard of their work, not on the proportion at each level.

Just as in 2002 when questions were raised about the grading of the then new A-levels, we now know that statistical wizardry is involved in setting grade borderlines, using the prior attainment of that cohort of candidates, i.e. any previous exam results they had obtained. At A-level, this involves the grades achieved at GCSE two years earlier by each cohort – a not unreasonable assumption of the level of intelligence of the cohort, one might think, unless of course the GCSE grades themselves were in turn based on some other less secure previous measure.

Now we know that that prior measure in question turns out to be the key stage 2 results, achieved five years earlier by each GCSE cohort. I have never been a fan of the accuracy of key stage 2 results as an indication of the ability of each 11 year old. As the foundation of the house of subsequent GCSE results, I would put that more into the category of sand than rock.

Key stage 2 tests – whatever view you might have on their robustness – do not cover speaking and listening, which is central to controlled assessment. As such, it is not sensible to use the KS2 data as predictors for performance in a GCSE that includes controlled assessment.

Regarding the letters between Ofqual and Edexcel, it is not clear how the enlarged Edexcel entry might have influenced the results. For example, the additional candidates could have been disproportionately from selective schools, which could have caused a rise in grades.

What we have at the moment is a strange mix of criterion- and norm-reference methodology. A key outcome of the Tomlinson Inquiry in 2002 was to stress the ‘professional  judgement’ of senior examiners. As such, statistics are but one element in the pointers available to awarding committees.

As a nation we are surely unique in our pre-occupation with fractions of one percentage point changes year on year, resulting in an annual media scrum each August – examining is not the exact science that the public has been led to assume.

Given the investment in education, why are we surprised by improvement? We should expect it – even demand it; the Independent Panel chaired by Eva Baker in 2002 rightly questioned the extent of surprise every August.

As ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said to the Select Committee on 11 September, “Let’s get back to what are the standards”, although this will not be easy when, as Ofqual regulator Glenys Stacey commented, there is huge turbulence in the system of GCSEs, with changes continually being made to the way that assessment takes place, making Ofqual’s job much harder, but also much more important.

As chair of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, I am working to develop the professionalism of those involved in the exams industry, through CIEA membership and accreditation to higher levels of professional recognition. Few workforces can have experienced more change than these people in the last 20 years, and especially in more recent times. The answer should lie not in manipulating grades, but in setting exams of comparable rigour year on year.  Examiners need to know the standards to which they are working, as do the teachers whose skill in predicting outcomes and potential helps to motivate young people to raise their aspirations.

Following Tomlinson’s inquiry in 2002, each awarding body was required to look again at the awards. The accountable officer and his staff sat with the chairs of examiners to re-examine the grades awarded. Examiners were asked if they were satisfied with the outcomes and any concerns about the awarding process. The same process, observed by outside experts, could be run again for GCSEs in 2012.

We owe it to the individual young people taking exams – much more than to the statistics behind each cohort – to make criterion referencing work properly, to be much clearer about what is a grade A and what is a grade C and to implement that consistently, through a highly professionalised assessment workforce, so that there is fairness across all subjects, all awarding bodies and over time.


Then and now: 30 years of education policy

It is 30 years ago this week that I became a head teacher in a very different education world in which, as head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, a local authority secondary school, I had a great deal of autonomy over the curriculum but almost none over finance, and very little accountability to local or national government.

Inspections rarely took place and, when they did, the reports were not published. Local authorities, supposedly ‘running’ state schools, were most interventionist on finance, staffing and minor matters, such as premises maintenance. Central government was still unsure how to exercise power over state education, with secretary of state Keith Joseph the previous year having taken over from Mark Carlisle, who had admitted he ‘knew nothing of state schools, having used them neither for myself nor my children’.

HMI was in the driving seat on curriculum policy, supported by local authority inspectors, who were more active in primary schools than in secondary, but many of whom were of very poor quality, often having fled from classrooms where they had been weak teachers. Examination boards had started making regular changes to O-level and A-level syllabuses, without government interference. Governing bodies were powerless, dominated by local authority appointees and containing few if any parents of the school.

My headship from 1982 to 1998 was neatly divided into two by the introduction of local management of schools (LMS) in 1990. I had been a ‘senior teacher’ from the inception of that role in 1974 and deputy head, both in large comprehensive schools in the north-east, so I had eight years’ experience when I was appointed to headship, a job for which no training or qualification was required, although I had been on a formative three-week management course during 1981-82. I was looking forward to becoming a head, but with great apprehension about the responsibilities. On appointment, I recall saying to the local authority senior adviser that my most important task was to ‘water the plants’, i.e. to encourage a talented staff to implement new ideas and to grow professionally, following a head with very high standards, but who had insisted on making all decisions himself and whose catchphrase was said to be ‘No’.

On the curriculum at Durham Johnston in 1982, the timetable structure was changed to enable more student choice at what would later come to be known as key stage 4, different A-level and O-level syllabuses were chosen to suit the interests and experience of a well-qualified staff, Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) mode 3 courses were designed, taught and assessed by the school itself – with some light moderation by the awarding body – to try to motivate those for whom O-level was too tough. Computers were starting to be used and taught about and GCSE was still six years away. Emphasis was placed on the quality of teaching for 11 to 14 year olds with a curriculum that prepared them for the next stage.

Up to 1990, there was some flexibility over the structure of the staff, but not much. The number of teachers and support staff and the number of responsibility posts at each grade were determined by the local authority. So I was told in February or March that the school would have, for example, 62.5 teachers, with one deputy head, two senior teachers, four teachers at grade D, ten at grade C, etc. The number and roles of the very few support staff were also centrally prescribed.

And worse was to come on staffing. During the falling rolls of the 1980s, the school was not allowed to make any appointments to teaching posts until all possibilities had been exhausted in the local authority redeployment system. As a large school that was always full, this meant taking teachers who would not have been appointed in open competition and only being able to appoint new young staff after 31 May when the best had already been snapped up elsewhere. Only by drawing up job descriptions that were very round holes was the school permitted to avoid taking the square pegs in the redeployment pool.

The school budget over which I had control was about £30,000, to be used to buy books and equipment and, increasingly, computers. There was no money for the maintenance of premises, where the school had to wait its turn as its building and decorative state deteriorated year by year. Any repairs to the building – even a broken window – had to go through the local authority and could take ages.

It is difficult to convey the extent of the change brought in by LMS  – the budget increased to over £2 million with control over the number and structure of the staff and the ability to make appointments at any time of year without compulsory recourse to redeployed staff, the opportunity to increase the number of support staff and extend their work over a wide range of roles, to decorate the school, to start an artist-in-residence scheme, to start carpeting the school (staffroom and modern languages classrooms first), and to encourage ideas with financial backing.

In 1984, HMI reports on individual school inspections started to be published and Durham Johnston was one of the first. We were given nine months’ notice of the date and a team of 20 HMIs visited the school for a week, leaving no stone unturned. On the Monday evening, I welcomed the team with a wine reception as fellow professionals helping us to improve the school. Most judged us according to our aims, some according to their preconceived idea of how a subject should be taught.

After thirty years of government fiddling with national education policy, we now have an almost continuous argument arising from the tension between raising achievement and the standard of the examinations. Until this tension is resolved in favour of raising achievement, it is difficult to see how public policy on education can sensibly move forward.

This tension is inexorably tied to the debate on accountability, which is still far from the intelligent accountability for which I first called in 2003 after Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures, A Question of Trust. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin in public service.  We have to accept that a high degree of accountability is bound to be associated with the extent of autonomy that heads have in England – as much autonomy as anywhere in the world and far more than most.

The three strongest drivers of policy in individual schools are values, finance and accountability. The values that drive those who work in education seem to me to remain as strong as ever – perhaps stronger than they have ever been, as we seek to close the gaps between the achievements of those from different backgrounds. Finance makes for some tough decisions, but is measurably far better than it was in 1982. Accountability has narrowed the curriculum for many young people, as schools concentrate on what mid-19th century educationists at the time of the Revised Code called the ‘paying subjects’, the modern equivalent of which are the key stage 2 tests for primary schools and the English baccalaureate subjects at age 16.

Then there is the ‘constant rhetoric of decline’ (Matthew Taylor, Observer, 2 Sept 2012), which has sapped teacher morale year after year. It used to be the late Rhodes Boyson who would pop up every August and complain about falling standards. Secretaries of State, goaded by certain newspapers, are often to be found at the forefront of the complainants, as they seek to create the dissatisfaction out of which they can then implement their shiny new policies and claim improvements for the credit of their party. James Callaghan started it with his Ruskin College speech in October 1976, bringing the school curriculum out of the secret garden and into the political fray, where it has been ever since.

Achievement is measurably higher in 2012 than in 1982 and much else in education has improved too, not least the work of the National College for School Leadership and the recognition that all the required expertise to improve the system lies in the schools themselves, not in Whitehall, not in local authority offices, and not in the corporate sector. Leading a school is a much more fulfilling job than it was in 1982, albeit with far more accountability and vulnerability. But it could have been so much better – the constant policy changes have diverted attention and sapped energy from school leaders and teachers. Only if a secretary of state has the courage to say that all future education policy changes will be firmly rooted in evidence will the system achieve its potential.