There’s something rotten…

… in the state of secondary education in England…

The Daily Telegraph has run a series of stories about *shock horror* the exam boards ‘cheating’, as if they’ve exposed some big and new exciting thing. Hah.

Anyone with any sense could see what was going to happen.

In 2005, when RAISE-online was introduced (a method of identifying underachievement based on exam results) I wrote on the bottom of my meeting summary to my boss ‘We might have 21 vacant Head of Department spots tomorrow’.

Here are the facts:

Primary schools start the process. They are measured on their performance in English and Maths at KS2. The tests are flawed, narrow and rigid. Interpretation of the markscheme allows for little variety or variation. Results are patchy. I spent 3 weeks in a darkened room reviewing thousands of badly marked scripts in 2005. It’s not a perfect system.

Then it used to be that from these, predictions would be made about progress at Secondary. So each child arrives with a target grade. You MUST, as a teacher, by hook or by crook, ensure that these target grades are met because otherwise your underachievement is shown, warts and all, to the world via league tables and Ofsted reports.

So… you have to be prescriptive. You don’t have time in 3 hours a week to do anything more than drill pupils. Heads bring in in-house testing in Y7 and 8 to make sure pupils are ‘at target’, so you spend at least 6 weeks prepping them each year. Year 9 is essentially just a year of drilling, like Y6 was.

You focus on the test because you have to.

At KS3, the test was so badly managed that it collapsed under its own weight and is no longer.

But still, children are forced to live up to a statistically, mathematically and logically flawed ‘target’ and teachers have got to make sure this happens. Despite the fact you are dealing with people, children even, in fact ‘teenagers’, not a production line, you have to ensure that every single pupil meets their potential. Because even three children that don’t, in a school of 1200, mean a 1% dip in your performance. 10 kids off the tracks = 3%.

Despite broken homes, parents who don’t care, absence, illness, social problems, rioting pupils, knife attacks, drugs, alcohol – you name it, not one child in a hundred can be allowed to fail.

Across the whole school, the first target was 5 A*-C. So schools chose ‘easy’ courses or popular courses. Besides the basics, the other subjects at GCSE are, by and large, choices. Options. So children opt with their feet for interesting or easy courses – and academically rigorous courses go out of the window. Modern Languages, History and Geography have all suffered. Media Studies, Drama and other such social courses are on the increase.

And let me point out this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not passing judgement. I’m simply saying that if you allow children to choose, they’ll choose PE and Art and Drama and Media studies because they are taught, often, by enthusiasts, and the subjects are enjoyable. Then they have the so-called vocational courses, which offer 2 or 4 or even 8 ‘GCSE-equivalent’ passes – plenty of points, accreditation and interest. More academic dearth.

So then once options are chosen, teachers have a range of boards who offer the subject. You know you have to succeed, so as a head of department, you pick the exam board which is best for you. Sometimes that means smaller, ‘cosy’ exam boards where you can speak to the chief examiner when you have an issue. Sometimes that means courses that are rumored to be easier. Sometimes, that’s the course that’s the most pleasant for pupils. Sometimes, that’s the course with the most support.

Because you can pick and choose, the methods by which you were attracted are a key ‘draw’ – and thus the exam board play up to these attractions. If you came for support, they give you more. They get more clients. Whatever reason you pick a course for, getting better results is really the ONLY real reason. Because if you don’t do that, you’re damned.

Hanging over you is the league table, a public document becoming more and more complex by the day. And Ofsted.

It used to be that Ofsted came in and watched teaching. Some teachers would pull out a one-off great lesson. They’d prepare the kids rigorously for that one lesson, but, by and large, it didn’t matter if the rest of the year you were shit. Ofsted knew this. So they need other methods to know whether you’re doing a good job or not.

And that method was a league table.

They can compare you to your neighbours, to other schools like you, to other authorities, to other districts, to the whole nation. They can see how little Johnny Broken-Home is comparing to little Arthur Over-Indulged.

Obviously, that system is flawed. So in comes a ‘charitable organisation’ called Fischer Family Trust who created a whole load of analytical data they can use to determine many things. It takes into account things like postcode, age, month of birth, poverty (via free school meals) ethnicity and so on in order to make a prediction about little Johnny Broken-Home’s potential.

Personally, I find this pretty disgusting. It’s essentially your ‘life chance’. And the government throw billions of pounds at those schools with the lowest chances. It hasn’t made much difference other than to boost grades a bit. With 20% of 16-24 year olds ‘NEET’ – not in education, employment or training (i.e. unemployed) in England, it’s not working, is it?

But Ofsted compare schools’ potential with schools’ actual results. Only, it’s not a whole school picture. It’s based only on KS2-4 progress, and that can only be based on flawed data from Y6 comparing it to GCSE data. And since only English and Maths are assessed at KS2, when the child is 11, then you know which two subjects bear the brunt of the inspection.

And there’s another problem. Ofsted use the numbers to identify schools to inspect. And they’ve made up their minds before the visit (now a spot-check, 48-hours’ notice thing) and the visit is just to confirm what they know. They expect head teachers to provide them with tracking data and analysis and to say they’ve been observing lessons and self-monitoring. And all they’re doing is comparing if what the school thinks of itself matches with what the data tells them.

If the data tells them there’s a problem, they – in a 3 day visit – decide to slap a ‘special measures’ warning on the school. From that, you have a year to improve. And if you don’t, they’ll close you and re-brand you.

So as a head of Maths or English, or any other subject (excuse me if I piss you off by saying you’re ‘unimportant’. I don’t think you are, but Ofsted don’t really care about you…) you have to pick the right course. That means the easiest, the best-supported, the most simple.

And because the exam boards have desperate, needy teachers who rely on them, and they need more desperate, needy teachers, they behave in human ways. They give them what they want. The paper becomes transparent, past papers are discussed, tips are given. This way, you keep parents, heads, governing bodies, Ofsted, the media, the local authority and the government happy.

But the whole system is set up to measure statistics and numbers, not children. It’s set up to measure and account, so it’s based on things that are easily measured and accountable, like numbers, rather than quality of schooling.

There were inevitable outcomes as soon as league tables were produced. The first is that because they were clumsy and mathematically flawed, they would become increasingly sophisticated and in-depth. Thus you now have the new measure 5 A*-C including English and Maths (because who cares if they’ve got 5 A*-C in PE, drama, art, music and media studies and not in English and Maths? Well, Ofsted and the workplace don’t care. I’m saying these are all valuable, but I’m a lone voice on that…) because someone who’s got an A* in GCSE PE and an E in English isn’t useful in an office, are they? Despite that PE teaches them self-reflection, confidence, peer assessment, team work etc – these aren’t easy to measure, so it’s become a ‘useless’ subject, if engaging for pupils – you can’t measure it easily – so don’t measure it at all. And if you can’t predict how their teamwork skills should grow, then you can’t set targets, so don’t bother. Just measure the things you can) and value-added data, because we all know it’s not fair to compare 5 A*-C from a school full of Johnny Broken-Homes with a school full of Arthur Over-Indulgeds.

The only problem is, if you don’t have value-added data, you can’t compare the two. So you compare what you can. English and maths. And you compare them ruthlessly and without any qualitative data, because that’s too hard to analyse.

And that means that heads put pressure (and do very little by way of support) on core departments. You have to do the best you can in the best way you can.

I mentioned my salary in the last post. It was a good salary. However, I was still teaching 18 hours out of the 25 school hours. In my remaining 7 hours of ‘9-4 time’ I was supposed to work for at least 1 hour with the graduate teacher the school had taken on because we were short-staffed. I was also supposed to work for 1 hour with a newly qualified teacher. My planning and departmental planning and analysis, marking, lesson planning and so on had to go in those other four hours.

Because we had a member of staff off for cancer treatment and two maternity leaves, I picked up two extra classes. There was no funding for other members of staff, so we all shared up one of the timetables. Because we had no representation on the senior leadership team, we were given classrooms all over the school. History, who attracted 22 GCSE students, but had two deputy heads, had a full suite of classrooms. As a school of 1600, I had one class in Art and then another class in the MFL department and I had a 5 minute walk between them.

Because we were forced to only have one after-school meeting per week, and the agendas were often set (one was ‘how can we teach about healthy minds in English?’ and we only had one teacher training day to ourselves, I had precisely 7 hours to deliver every piece of update or subject knowledge or expertise to my department. Each member of my department was allowed precisely two days on courses and each one had to be value-for-money – i.e. we had to be able to do something with it afterwards, and that something must affect our results otherwise it wasn’t worth it. Beauticians are required to have more ‘development’ than this in order to keep a licence.

And so I was in school from 7 a.m. latest to 5 or 6 p.m. and then I was planning, marking or writing reports.

Plus, I marked. I marked exam papers at first because it gave me another £1000 on my £14,000 salary. Then I marked because I learned a lot through it. I’ll be frank. I learned how to teach to the test. I learned all the little things that would make a big difference, and all the little quirks. I got to see papers from other schools, the outcome of other teaching methods. I saw interesting work and I saw shit work. I learned how to and how not to.

It made me a ‘better’ teacher in the way that counted: measurement. Unless you mark, the markscheme is meaningless and you only see your own kids’ results. It’s pretty much the only way I got to be a ‘great’ teacher – and that was in the eyes of the statistics. My results were better.

And then came the moment when someone said ‘those results are too good. They must be cheating’ – and despite the fact they analysed over a million pieces of data and found NOT ONE SINGLE PIECE that was linked to me or written by me, and what they did find was ludicrous – exactly what every single other department in the land was doing – I found it impossible to stay.

Now the Telegraph think they are revealing some big secret. But let me ask you: when the only thing that matters is what you can measure, what the hell did you think was going to happen?

Now England is left with a flawed test system built on flawed analysis built on something that was never intended to be used in this way and yes, it’s rotten. It stinks.

That’s why I don’t do it any more.

Ironically, the exam board were the only people who supported me, I mean really supported me. And it’s the only teaching work I still do for other people. It’s my only actual employment where I am paid by someone other than the actual client. But go ahead, Daily Telegraph, find flaws in a symptom of the whole diseased system.

Heaven forbid you might actually get to the root cause: a sequence of governments and quangos and quasi-legal non-appointed bodies who have led you down the track that says assessment is the be-all and end-all of the education system, because it’s the only thing that can be easily measured.

My key word there is ‘easily’. Enjoyment, transferability, becoming a successful, mentally healthy person – they’re all tough to analyse. Not impossible, but qualitative. And we all know ‘soft data’ is ‘dirty data’.

So bad statisticians caused this. People who think numbers can measure stuff and they’re the best way to measure stuff. Any good statistician will point out the flaws of the system in an instant: flaws that have been overlooked in this great stampede towards ‘accountability’.


Maybe tomorrow I might say how I think the system SHOULD work. But who cares what I think? Yet again, I feel like Cassandra pointing out what is true and suffering the very terrible curse of having nobody take it on board.


6 thoughts on “There’s something rotten…

  1. Fortunately many many of these kids will survive the system. Every generation has its crackpot education ideas and no system has ever been resourced enough to nuture every single child in an ideal way. I’m not saying it isn’t worth trying to change an iniquitous system, but just to remember that people sort their lives out for themselves, often very positively in the longer term.

    1. Yes… and you have reminded me of the most important point. The whole system had children at heart – the league tables are about ensuring their progress. The exams are about giving them a skill for the real world. it’s given me a bit of a focus for today’s blog!

  2. Remember the song “We don’t need no education” (sic). Too right, if the only education available today is what’s on offer in schools all over Europe, not just in the UK, then keep your kids at home and start afresh or, if you’re lucky enough to have little ones, start them off right. Education should have nothing to do with intelligence. You get your share and that’s that. Marks are meaningless but passion will get you through whatever life throws at you. Passionate teachers obtain results, the others should be fired.

    1. That’s so funny Michele – you have just said in 50 words what I was struggling to say in 3,400!! But yes, you are spot-on. I think the Finnish model has a lot to show us, and we need to look at what we all do well – but that all comes down to passionate teachers.

  3. I’m just reading through some of your old posts. Education is my passion having spent the past 34 years working as a science teacher. I think there are too many people in Government who know the cost of everything but the true value of nothing.

    I can relate to many of your points. Often we build a house of cards, where every half term we have to be seen to be adding part-sub-levels of progress to our pupils. Nobody has yet been able to convince me of what a part-sub-level of progress looks like. OH was an OFSTED inspector and I don’t think he knew either!

    Last year I decided that I could no longer try to convince my department (incidently a very successful one, as like you I was a quick learner and adept at jumping through hoops) either and ‘stepped back’. When the hoops got higher and smaller it seemed the right time to begin to phase myself out. I now enjoy just teaching. I get much less non contact time but have far less to do. I get so much more job satisfaction.

    With G4S due to take over the probation service I’m wondering how long it will be before Mr Gove contracts out education to them. Hang on…. Capita now runs my LEA- at a profit!!

    1. When Capita ran the Secondary National Strategy, I worked in part for them as a consultant. We called them Crapita. I never, ever, not once, met anyone more important than my own line-manager. I often wondered who was at the top, if anyone. It seemed very Orwellian. I have never been happier to be out on my own, doing my own thing than I am now. You hit the nail on the head: the probation service, then the health service and then the educational services… It’s a colossal destruction of something I treasure. A free education from those interested in children and interested in inspiring them is all that is needed. How hard can that be?

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