A level reform and the law of unintended consequences

This week The Perse took part in a local radio debate on exam reform. The politics of the reforms remains a favourite topic of the media, but – given that they are now only months away from implementation – students and their parents must get on with the tough task of working out how to avoid the inevitable associated pitfalls.

Nowhere is this truer than in choice of sixth form. The sixth form is the all-important final stretch of school education, when all the hard work of the previous thirteen years comes to fruition. There is much to accomplish in a relatively short time, and the stakes are high. Good choices, attitude and approach pave the way to opportunity at university and beyond; mistakes invariably lead to missed chances and hard decisions.

Before the days of modules, A levels used to be ‘linear’. The introduction of modular A levels in 2000 was designed to make the qualification more accessible, and to ensure that students who left at the end of Lower Sixth did so with a qualification (AS levels). Modularisation brought myriad unintended consequences, of course – some arguably bad, including grade inflation and reduced time for the extra-curricular activity that is so essential for balance – and some good. In particular, regular exams increased student and teacher accountability and meant that everybody in the classroom worked that bit harder.

The government’s decision to return to exams only at the end of the two year A level course – that is, linear A levels – is driven by a desire to replace piecemeal assessment with a measure of whole subject understanding. There is some debate over whether this is the right approach for all subjects, but broadly it is a noble aspiration; whether or not it is achieved remains to be seen. While we await the results of this latest government educational experiment, the student subjects of it and their parents will need to make very careful decisions about where to study.

Post-reform, there will only be one bite at the examination cherry. Gone are the days when a disappointing grade could be rectified by resitting one module paper. Instead, students will need to take a year out and sit the whole qualification again. The quality of sixth form education has probably never been more important. This puts a premium on the calibre of teachers, and on their ability to meet each student’s needs.  In an ideal world, sixth form classes should be much smaller than their GCSE equivalents so that staff can provide the differentiated teaching and support needed for students to succeed at this more demanding level.

Strong pastoral support at this age strikes a good balance between allowing students to develop the independence needed for study at university and supporting them to ensure they stay sufficiently on-track to get there. Without regular module exams to keep students focused, those who have yet to develop the necessary self-discipline may struggle. This was a common problem with the old linear A levels; some students meandered their way through the first four terms hoping that a late burst of study in the Upper Sixth would put things right. For some, it worked; others found out too late that it led only to disappointing results, missed university offers and a nerve-wracking experience in the clearing process.

We also must not underestimate the pastoral stresses caused by the return to linearity. Generations of students brought up on a diet of modular learning and ‘bite size’ assessment will suddenly have to sit all-or-nothing terminal exams. For some this will be an alien and anxious experience. When we last had linear exams, three Bs would get a student into most good universities. Not so today, when the same universities are asking for A and A* grades. The pressure on students to achieve in the Upper Sixth A level exams will be immense, and this pressure will need careful pastoral management by experienced tutors who really know their tutees and have sufficient quality time to support their needs.

There is considerable evidence of a good correlation between AS modules and eventual degree performance; thus, top universities use AS exam results as a selection tool. Without this data they will need to rely either on GCSE results and A level predicted grades, or introduce new admissions tests to be sat in the autumn of the Upper Sixth. GCSE does not reliably discriminate well at the top end, while a 2013 government study found that only 42% of A level predicted grades were accurate – and that is before the volatility in grades of newly reformed exams. In recent years there has been a growth in the number of admissions tests for competitive courses like medicine and law; this trend seems set to continue. It becomes increasingly important for sixth forms to have well-resourced university advice and preparation programmes.

No doubt reform will be a hot topic at sixth form open evenings this autumn. Students and their parents will be well-advised to ask searching questions of the schools and colleges they are considering.

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Rounded and grounded; why extra-curricular activities matter

This week students and their parents nervously await A level results and the higher education doors they will unlock. It may well be a week of sleepless nights as families deal with the resulting potent mix of excitement and trepidation. Students whose hard work earns them excellent exam results should be proud of their success, but we must never forget that exams are just one measure of what a young person has achieved.  Those aspects of a good education that are least easy to grade can in fact have the biggest impact on a student’s life

In this rollercoaster of a week, when the difference between an A* and an A can feel like make or break, it is interesting to consider the recent remarks of the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) John Cridland, who argues that in fact ‘character and resilience’ are the crucial ingredients for success in the workplace. Mr Cridland holds that schools are too focused on exam results and  should do more to teach pupils resilience, humility, emotional intelligence, team spirit and how to go the extra mile – a more ‘rounded and grounded’ education in short.

For many educators this is a statement of the obvious; good schools have always adopted a more holistic view of education. They recognise the importance of providing not only a rigorous academic education but also the opportunity for young people to develop personal skills and character – and not just in order to do well in the workplace, as is the CBI’s priority, but in order to live life to the full.

Independent schools invest heavily in extra-curricular programmes, and for good reason. Time and again former Perse students tell me that it was the extra-curricular life of the School that, in shaping their characters, had the biggest impact on their careers. Long after O level knowledge was forgotten, the skills learnt on the pitch, the stage or in expeditions were helping Old Perseans thrive in their careers.

Extra-curricular learning is the perfect complement to classroom study.  Ensuring students have many and varied opportunities to participate in sport, outdoor pursuits, music, drama, debating, charitable fundraising, house competitions and many other out-of-classroom activities helps students develop team work, communication, resourcefulness, resilience, emotional intelligence and considerate self-confidence. Students who take on responsibilities for clubs and societies, whether organising the logistics of a camp or planning a charity fair, become more responsible, growing in confidence and stature.

The education that takes place beyond the classroom allows students to learn in a less structured environment free from model answers, contrived assessment criteria and restrictive syllabuses. In the extra-curricular sphere students do not just provide answers, they set themselves questions in the physical, artistic, and entrepreneurial challenges they take on. These exercises are often open-ended; students have the space to make decisions and own tasks, and many of the activities require genuinely high levels of team work, communication, and leadership.

There are no artificial A* caps on extra-curricular attainment. What is more, students who push themselves can experience the joys that stem from great success and learn how to manage the disappointments that come with failure. And of course extra-curricular activities are often fun; the pure enjoyment of playing a sport, climbing a mountain or performing in a play makes youth and school special.

I welcome Mr Cridland’s call for more emphasis on the development of students’ life skills and qualities, and that this should become a focus for Ofsted inspections. However, I end with a note of caution.  Inspections tend to be associated with minimum standards, national guidance and expected levels of attainment against which schools and pupils are judged. Such prescription could be self-defeating if applied to extra-curricular education, where the value of activities lies in their breadth and unstructured nature, which allows them to flex to the needs, interests and ambitions of the young people involved.

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Time for technology to improve the examination process

GCSE is an exam taken by pupils of all abilities. This poses some assessment challenges, not least in the creation of papers that can stretch and challenge the most able students and accurately differentiate between them, whilst at the same time allowing less able pupils to demonstrate core knowledge and skills. Historically the answer has been to tier some GCSEs into easier foundation and more challenging higher tier papers. Typically schools would decide which students to enter for what tier; those taking foundation papers could attain GCSE grades G to C and no higher, while those sitting higher tier exams could access the E to A* grades.

The proposed reforms to GCSE are set to significantly reduce the amount of tiering, such that it may only survive in mathematics. At one level this is a good thing as students being entered for foundation tier papers had their attainment capped at a C grade. No matter how good their answers on a foundation paper, the result was always the same, a C. Restrictions on attainment rightly sit at odds with the aspirations of pupils, parents and teachers. It is thus understandable that Ofqual has concluded that “In the future, wherever possible, qualifications will be un-tiered, so that all students will take the same exams. This means all students will have the opportunity to be awarded the highest grade if their performance in the assessment merits it.”

However, the removal of tiering will create problems that could reduce the effectiveness and accuracy of the examination process. Un-tiered papers will mean that more candidates will face questions which are too easy or too hard for them. Weaker candidates could become demoralised by ‘challenging’ questions, whilst stronger candidates will not be stretched by easy questions which fail to differentiate at the top of the ability range. The latter is a particular worry with the introduction of a new top grade at GCSE which will divide the current A* into two. How can this be accurately done unless papers contain a sufficient number of demanding top end questions? Yet these demanding questions may well be inaccessible to weaker pupils. The worry is that in a single GCSE top end differentiation will not be by ability but by examination technique. Excellent students will all cluster in the 95-100% range with the only differences being down to minor slips because questions were misread, key words not used, or working not shown in its entirety. As such, top grades may go to the most accurate students and not the most able.

Weaker students may also fall foul of universal papers. Faced by challenging questions, students may become anxious, lose their examination nerve and panic. This could result in significant underachievement.

So what is the answer to the tiering question? Perhaps it lies in technology and computerised adaptive testing (CAT) where computer programmes tailor a test to a candidate’s ability. There is an understandable reluctance to predetermine an examination result before the exam has even started by entering the child for a higher or foundation tier. The one exam approach, which keeps all the GCSE grade doors open for all pupils, is fairer, but it could lead to less accurate assessment and less reliable results (a real problem if university entry is dependent on GCSE grades). The use of CAT could mean that all students begin an online exam answering exactly the same questions in a core section of multiple choice questions, instantly and accurately marked by the computer. The results achieved on the core section could then allow the computer to select harder or easier tiers of questions for a subsequent part 2 exam to ensure candidates are being set work of an appropriate level of difficulty. CAT could thus really stretch and challenge budding Einsteins, allowing them to show the true extent of their intellectual talents whilst also allowing weaker students to demonstrate their core competencies, all within a common format with a universal component.

Technological advances mean we can rethink assessment, and using a basic form of CAT to tailor the level of difficulty of parts of an exam to reflect candidate ability could be the answer. The process of sitting an exam has remained relatively unchanged for decades. With so much at stake on the results we need to use new technologies to produce differentiated exams which more accurately test and record pupil ability.


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Independent schools a safe haven during the exam reform storm

One of the largest programmes of simultaneous examination reforms is about to hit English schools, with both the GCSE and A level poised to undergo an overhaul. Describing the range and pace of the proposed changes as ‘ambitious’ would be an understatement – the GCSE is to become more challenging and to be marked using a new nine-point grade scale, while the A level moves from modular to linear.

The first new qualifications are scheduled for teaching in September 2015. Whatever your opinion about the reforms themselves, the latest indications are that final details about the qualifications will not be available until this autumn, almost immediately after which schools must start publishing details of 2015/16 course structures to would-be entrants. This gives them next to no time to consider their response and advise students (and their parents) what all of this means for curriculum choices and university entry.

History suggests that in the immediate aftermath of changes to the examination system two things happen: pupil attainment falls and assessment becomes less reliable – two significant negatives, neither of which should come as a surprise to anyone seeking to learn from past experience.

Starting with the classroom, when a new qualification is introduced or an existing one significantly changed, teachers need feedback from the exam board on how candidates have performed – something that can only be given after the first exams have been sat and marked – to allow them to refine their teaching. Pupil attainment would therefore naturally be lower for the couple of years following the reforms. This creates a headache for exam boards wanting to ensure grade parity – it would not be fair for those candidates who have the misfortune to be the first to sit the new or revised exams to do worse than their predecessors based purely on timing. Exam boards typically adjust the grade boundaries temporarily to address this artificial decrease in pupil attainment, but if this is to be the case during these reforms it is essential for the short-term fix to be removed at the right moment to avoid the very grade inflation the reforms apparently seek to address.

Moving to assessment, accurate marking and grading depend on clear standards being set, and these standards in turn need to be based on information about how candidates of varying abilities have performed in the past. Such historic comparisons can be accurately made for longstanding qualifications where there are lots of prior data on student attainment. They are less easy for new or reformed exams. Less data can lead to more volatile grading as markers and their team leaders apply new schemes and standards for the first time. We can expect a greater number of seemingly odd performances and disputes about grading as a result.

So the next few years of examination turbulence will not be easy for students, schools and exam boards as the reformed exam system beds in. Nor will they be easy for universities and employers struggling to make sense of the results achieved, both in themselves andrelative to the grades that have gone before. To make matters worse, as these changes will be phased in on a subject-by-subject basis between 2017 and 2019, there are likely to be differences in grading between reformed and yet to be reformed GCSE subjects to contend with too.

Quite scary? Seemingly not scary enough to get Mr Gove to think again. Ministers have set the course, and it seems schools will just need to get on with it. Independent schools will rise to the challenge, and with their high staffing ratios, more planning time and financial strength they are better equipped to participate in comprehensive staff training and provide the additional student support structures to make the best of the difficult transition years.

Independent schools also have another advantage – their very independence. There are no ministerial restrictions on the qualifications that independent schools can select for their students. If Mr Gove’s reforms work wonders for A levels independent schools can adopt them; if they do not we can go with the Pre U, IB, or International A level – all very well-respected and stable alternatives.

Even without the exam system turbulence this choice has strong benefits. As in most things in life, one size rarely fits all, and different subjects and different pupils have varying assessment and learning needs. No one qualification or approach to learning and assessment is best for all students in all subjects. So for example maths is a ‘building block’ subject well-suited to modular assessment, whereas in music and modern foreign languages a linear approach helps students build skill gradually over time. In addition, coursework is not something to be avoided in all subjects – indeed in some disciplines like geography, coursework in the form of fieldwork is fundamental to good learning.

Here at The Perse, free from government control, we can use our pupil-centred independence to create a varied exam menu. Our Heads of Department, as subject leaders, pick the exam qualification that will best enable students to progress as far as possible while with us. We prioritise critical thinking, rigour and challenge in our selection, thus already offer a mix of A level, Pre-U, International A level, International GCSE and GCSE courses. This variety is not only in the best interest of our students’ intellectual development but, by ensuring that all of our exam eggs are not in the one proverbial basket, also provides us with shelter from some of the current exam reform storm. A good place to be.

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Instant answers and academic reading: technology and sixth form study

Guest blog by Richard Morgan, Head of Sixth Form and classics teacher at The Perse School.

There is increasing concern regarding the amount of time students are spending on gadgets, the implications for study and thus the potential success for our sixth formers.

Every generation will grow up against a backdrop of change. The big difference in recent years is that the speed of that change has accelerated so rapidly. Gadgets now allow users to text, make phone calls, share updates, post pictures and videos, send instant messages and browse the Internet – all from a single device, and one that is generally never out of reach – making it increasingly difficult to escape from the demands of modern technology. A US study has shown that teenagers spend a staggering 31% of their time ‘consuming media’, that is, texting, surfing the internet, listening to music and watching television.

For the most part this brings huge benefits for learning, and we have embraced the possibilities. Homework and lesson content is made available via Schoology, a platform that is second nature to anyone that has ever used Facebook, and Youtube. Departments are tweeting and retweeting the latest news and views in subjects, prompting engagement with topical issues in their disciplines.

A study by the American think-tank Pew Research highlighted that 96% of teachers felt that these digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience”, 79% agreed that these technologies “encourage greater collaboration among students” and 75% felt the internet had a positive impact on students’ research skills, making them more self-sufficient researchers. This is our experience.

However, while we enjoy these considerable gains we risk losing a crucial aspect of scholarship: academic reading. In today’s world of texting, Tweeting and instant messaging, teenagers have become accustomed to the quick output and retrieval of information, which has inevitably filtered through to their attitudes to study. Teenagers’ unprecedented access to technology has left them with the need for ‘fast facts’ (76% of teachers surveyed believed this to be true) and an overreliance on technology to provide those facts. This has arguably conditioned them to find a quick answer through Google: a quick answer to an often more complex question. Solely knowing and reciting the bare facts will not guarantee success at Pre-U and A level, which require significant levels of application – taking the basic principle and applying it to an unfamiliar situation.

In class, students increasingly ask – ‘do we need this for the exam?’ They want the raw basics that they see as functional, but they miss the vital point that those basics need a context. For example, in a study of the Greco-Persian Wars, the set text the exam board have selected launches into the Battle of Marathon. For the purposes of the exam, only the section from that point forward would appear on a paper. However, if there is no understanding of the fact that the Persians launched a disastrous invasion two years earlier, how can the context of the battle possibly be understood?

Engaging with entirely new concepts or reading a section of text ahead of classroom discussion demands absolute focus, often for a significant period of time. If there is the scope to have it, then a tech-free zone – a version of the “Quiet Coach” – can create the right environment for academic reading.

Academic reading must never be a chore. We all must encourage students to find the joy in reading widely. It concerns me that in the statistical analysis of how teenagers spend time, reading a book does not even feature. Reading is a skill that demands concentration, imagination, interpretation and sometimes tenacity. The value of academic reading cannot be emphasised enough: universities are interested by students that are interesting. To become academically interesting, reading is crucial.

The most exciting and inspiring moments of sixth form teaching will often be sparked by an insight that is from a book or an article a student has been reading beyond the classroom. There are reading lists, there are suggestions, but above all there needs to be a will to read and a determination to read, and this is where a bit of peace and quiet, a sanctuary from the distractions of technology, becomes important, particularly at home where the majority of this reading will take place. Sometimes the instant answer is not the answer.


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A timeless education for life

Today we marked our Founder’s Day. This annual event presents us with a valuable moment in our busy school calendar to pause and reflect on our history.

In an institution where the day-to-day focus is to all intents and purposes on the future, it is easy to take our history for granted. The Perse has moved several times, and as I walk around the Upper campus, on Hills Road since the 60s, there are no cobbled courtyards to signal our four hundred year old foundations.

My meetings with other SAGE members, the group of leading world schools to which The Perse belongs, provide a good wake-up call. There was genuine admiration when I explained to fellow heads that we would be celebrating our 400th birthday in the academic year 2015-16. The general response was that the test of time is a rigorous one that few institutions pass. The SAGE heads have a point – a quick analysis of longevity reveals that, excluding Oxbridge colleges, many of today’s leading companies and institutions have, by Perse terms, relatively short histories. The pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline began life in 1908, whilst a year later British Petroleum (now BP) was founded. The Korean multinational Samsung first traded in 1938; Starbucks opened its first coffee shop in 1971; and Microsoft came into being in 1975 with Apple following a year later in 1976. Some of the companies most used by teenagers today have even shorter histories – Google started in 1998, Jack Wills in 1999 and Facebook in 2004.

We live in a world characterised by pockets of history and tradition surrounded by a sea of modernity and change. In Cambridge the pockets of history are a little larger, whereas in SAGE schools in Singapore, the United States and Australia 100 years of existence is a major achievement.

Pride is an uncomfortable word for many British people, and pride in your school is something that other countries often do much better than us. The SAGE heads remind me that our history merits proper pride, in the School itself and in the individuals who have made it great.

Our history does in fact shape the educational present more than might be evident at first glance. Pupils often equate education with exams, and government ministers frequently make the same mistake. It is an understandable error – pupils are very focused on achieving the grades to meet their university offers. Ministers struggling to quantify education so they can judge the performance of schools and teachers reduce the educational journey to a series of baseline and value added measures all linked to key stage tests and public exams. This approach to measuring education is very narrow and could easily lead to ministers knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

In contrast The Perse has generations of alumni who can reflect on the education they received with the benefit of hindsight. By talking to alumni about their adult lives it is possible to gauge the true value of a Perse education above and beyond grades achieved and degrees awarded. This perspective is important. Time and again Old Perseans tell me that long after they forgot what they had learned for public exams, other qualities of a Perse education underpinned their successful careers. These timeless skills and attributes include the ability to communicate clearly and concisely both orally and in writing; intellectual curiosity; confidence constructing and deconstructing arguments; an eye for detail but also an understanding of the bigger picture; the ability to work effectively as a part of team; resilience and resourcefulness; creativity; calmness under pressure….the list could go on. In short, an education for life.

Reflecting on the lives and careers of our alumni, and in particular the achievements of those who are now deceased, helps us consider the legacy that we ourselves will leave behind for the coming generations. Four hundred years ago academic, physician and philanthropist Dr Perse left a legacy to change lives through education. Today’s students share the earliest Perse scholars’ chance to improve their own and others’ lives, and the duty to make the most of that opportunity. The Perse must continue to be a force for good, be that in the local community or the field of education more broadly.

Four hundred years of history affords a perspective on what is important in education. It also assists us in perfecting the educational process. The attrition of time smooths the rough edges of school; cumulative experience informs improvements. Educational fads come and go but our understanding of what makes an excellent teacher and an outstanding lesson are shaped by years of experience.

Of course, there is a flip side. An over-reliance on experience can lead to arrogance and staleness, so it must be tempered with a commitment to continuous improvement and open reflection. In this way we develop the wisdom that yields considered improvements born out of thorough research and thoughtful discussion – real advancement.

Finally, surviving and thriving for 400 years creates a sense of institutional self-confidence. The Perse has seen off the English civil war, bubonic plague, various financial crises, multiple educational reforms, and some direct hits by the Luftwaffe. Our ability to cope with the trials and tribulations of time is proven, and this should give us confidence as we tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century. Our long track record of success should also give us the confidence to stand up in educational debates and articulate our belief in an independent, academically selective education, with an emphasis on all round development and strong pastoral care. The Perse has been in the educational business far longer than the Department of Education, its ministers, the various educational think tanks, and university education departments. We have stood the test of time – and that may be the greatest test of all.




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The route to excellence

Sometimes newspaper stories start in one place before literally and metaphorically ending in another. Last week’s Sunday Times ran a front page story reporting that: “research by the government’s university funding body into 132,000 students over three years found state school pupils were up to 8% more likely to get a 2:1 or first-class degree than their private school counterparts with the same A level results”. This, according to the article, was “a powerful boost” for universities “to discriminate in favour of state school applicants”.

The busy reader may never have made it to page 2 where a key fact lay. Buried deep in the text of the article was the acknowledgement that “among students achieving A*s and As there was no statistical difference in degree attainment according to school type”. This finding is of key importance in a debate about widening access to top universities.

That the research from which the Sunday Times quotes had not been published at the time of the article was rather unhelpful for any educator or indeed parent wanting to verify the rigour of the conclusions drawn by the newspaper. According to the article, any difference in the university performance of state and independent schools is most marked at the ‘BBC’ grade level. Pupils with these grades are unlikely to meet the entry criteria for top universities who are usually looking for ‘ABB’ or better – in line with the government’s definition of a ‘high achiever’. At that grade level school type does not seem to affect undergraduate performance, and therefore there is no statistical case for top universities to begin discriminating on the basis of school background.

Even if such a case existed, discrimination by school type would be a very crude measure and a somewhat retrograde step. Academics who know the demands of their subject and the context of individual applicants need to be free to make admissions decisions on meritocratic rather than quota grounds. Issues such as health, additional tutoring and parental support can all influence achievement, and admissions tutors must be free to continue to weigh up all factors to enable them to determine each candidate’s potential in the context of their achievements thus far.

In focussing on the pros and cons of discrimination in university entry we risk trying to tackle the cause by addressing the symptoms. If at university some state school pupils with ‘BBC’ grades outperform their privately educated counterparts with the same grades because they have underachieved at A level, then should we not consider and address the reasons for the earlier underperformance? Perhaps the problem and solution rest not with university admissions, but with the insufficient funding provided to state schools.

We must not think that by fixing university admissions we can solve years of educational under-attainment. Cash strapped, staff short universities cannot make up in three or four years for deficiencies in fifteen years of primary and secondary schooling. Students from independent schools still outperform those from the state sector at university; 65% of independent school students achieve a 1st or 2:1 compared to 53% of state school students. As those who pay independent school fees know, it takes years of investment to achieve educational excellence.

The debate needs to move on from tinkering with university entrance to increasing educational standards for all. Michael Gove is to be congratulated for raising educational aspirations, but if these aspirations are to become reality education spending will need to rise significantly.

In a world economy where high level skills and knowledge are essential for economic prosperity, it is vital that we improve Britain’s educational performance or we face a future of accelerated decline. As such, politicians must focus on the big picture of increasing educational investment rather than the detail of university admissions. Finding more money for schools is not easy in the current economic climate, and politicians will need to be brave in looking at answers that combine both public and private money.

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