Deeper learning or cheaper learning?

Michael Gove’s decision to replace modular A levels with linear qualifications was sold on the basis that it would promote “deeper learning”.  The days of mugging up on narrow units of subject content (modules) and resitting them to gain extra marks would be over.  Challenging exams at the end of a two year linear course would require students to make synaptic links across a wide body of subject knowledge. This would stretch even the brightest students, restoring academic rigour to the A level system.

In most subjects, the reformed linear A levels have a similar level of subject content to the modular A levels they replace, so any ‘deeper learning’ will come from changes to assessment rather than extra content.  ‘Deeper learning’ is not an easy concept to define or measure, and it is likely to be years before we know whether the Gove A level reforms have had their desired effect.

One impact however is starting to become clear.  As schools and colleges publish their sixth form prospectuses for 2016-17, rather than learning more, there are worrying signs that students will learn less.  Under the modular system, the majority studied four AS levels in the lower sixth.  This breadth allowed students to mix subjects and continue a range of academic interests beyond GCSE.  For example, students who had both scientific and creative interests could complement three separate sciences with art, whilst others looking to global opportunities would continue a modern foreign language as a fourth subject.  This variety in their first year of sixth form study stretched students, enabled them to acquire a wider range of skills and knowledge at this high level, and kept career and university options open.  It also raised eventual A level attainment as students dropping a subject between the lower and upper sixth could do so on the basis of actual subject experience at A level – very different to GCSE study – and assessment results.  Students made better, more informed decisions about the subjects on which to concentrate their upper sixth efforts.

Unfortunately a combination of budget cuts (especially in further education) and the unattractiveness of stand-alone reformed AS levels (which do not count towards the final A level grade) are propelling many sixth forms to a three-subject programme of study.  Put simply, there is growing evidence to suggest that the Gove reforms will lead to a 25% reduction in what lower sixth formers learn, and that subjects that were often their  valuable fourth choices, will no longer make it onto their timetable .  Michael Gove’s vision of deeper learning is quickly becoming a reality of reduced learning.  Deeper learning has become cheaper learning, as managers in further education cut the curriculum and reduce the amount of teaching and hence staff costs to balance the books.

The Perse, in common with many independent schools is fortunate to be able to continue offering a four A level subject lower sixth curriculum supplemented by research projects, an enrichment programme and sports options.  Our students will benefit from the breadth of the old modular system multiplied by the depth of the new linear exams.  This represents an excellent sixth form education.  Yet nationally many schools and colleges are finding they are forced to move from four to three subjects and  as a result many sixth formers will find that in one fell swoop a quarter of their curriculum has disappeared. Gove wanted his reforms to give students “the potential to beat the world”. He wanted more content and more challenge for them, so he reformed the system to provide more teaching time and more stretching tests. How is it then possible that they find themselves learning less?


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Improving assessment at A level

The English attach a lot of importance to their public exams.  For students, the results determine university or further education entrance, and access to apprenticeships or jobs; for schools, A level grades are key indicators of school performance; for Head teachers, movements up and down results league tables can make or break careers; and individual teachers are subject to performance reviews based on public exam results.  With so much riding on public exam results it is no wonder the marking and grading processes are kept under such scrutiny by the exams regulator (Ofqual), Heads’ associations, and the media.

Nationally between 1 and 2% of public exam grades are changed on appeal (officially known as a results enquiry).  This seems like a low error rate, but in reality the number of erroneous grades are likely to be higher as not all candidates or schools can afford appeals and in any case only those results that appear too low get appealed….over-marking does not attract complaints!  At The Perse, on average between 15 – 20% of the results we appeal lead to an upgrade.  This is a concerning error rate which hides marked differences between subjects, with relatively few grade changes in maths and the sciences and significantly more in English and the humanities.  Subjective, essay based subjects are more difficult to assess objectively.

These difficulties are compounded by the oft-cited difficulties the exam boards face in securing a pool of sufficiently qualified and experienced examiners to mark papers across all subjects.  Any falling away in the quality of the examiners would obviously have a direct impact on the standard and accuracy of marking.

At the individual student and family level ‘wrong’ results can be devastating.  Every year a few A level students will miss their university offers because of erroneous grades.  By the time the grades have been corrected on appeal, their chosen university may have filled all of its places forcing the student concerned to look elsewhere or take an enforced gap year.

So how to reduce the mistakes in the exam system?  I have a simple, practical suggestion – start the A level exams a month earlier.

With new linear A levels there is more teaching time.  This means A level courses can be finished by Easter of the Upper Sixth, and A level exams could occur one month earlier than at present in early May.  This single move would bring many advantages to students, teachers and schools and make the public exam system better:

  1. By moving A levels earlier they could be sat alongside IB and International A levels in one common assessment slot.
  2. Earlier A levels could allow Boards to release ‘provisional’ results in early July (about the time IB results are published).
  3. ‘Provisional’ A level results could be scrutinised by schools and candidates with appeals being lodged during July.  Final post appeal A level results would be issued to students, schools and universities as currently in mid August.  Universities would thus make their admissions decisions on confirmed A level results rather than on grades still subject to change.
  4. As teachers would finish their A level teaching at Easter, they should have time to join the examiner work force and mark A level scripts in school during May and June.  School should be required to provide a certain number of appropriately qualified teachers as examiners and provide a school base for them in which to examine.  The number of teacher examiners provided could be linked to the number of pupils sitting the exams.  Any saving in examiner recruitment costs could be passed on to schools in the form of lower examination charges.  Using A level teachers in this way would create a stable and well qualified and experienced examiner workforce better able to mark accurately.  Marking during the school day should also improve assessment quality as it would replace the current practice of tired teachers marking at ‘silly o’clock’ either before or after the school day.
  5. From an A level student’s perspective revising during Easter (when the weather is poor and the hay fever season yet to begin) has to be better than revising during late May and June.  An earlier end to A levels would also allow students more time between school and university to travel, gain work experience, and earn money.

The move to linear A levels creates an opportunity to revisit the exam timetable.  By bringing exams forward by four weeks the whole process could be significantly improved at no additional cost.  It seems like a ‘no brainer’ to me.


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Farewell to the Upper Sixth

“When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go”. The words of Nanny McPhee, but sentiments that also apply to the Upper Sixth. Today will be a bittersweet occasion in sixth forms across the country as A level students go on examination leave and effectively say farewell to their peers, teachers and schools. If schools and colleges have done their jobs properly there will be much sadness at leaving staff, friends and familiar environments behind, but there should also be a readiness to move on because students have been given the skills and knowledge needed to “fly the school nest”.

My advice to the Class of 2015 – with thanks to Baz Luhrmann:

Wear sunscreen
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth
Believe in yourself
Do one thing every day that challenges you
Eat well
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts
Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours
Don’t waste time on jealousy
The race of life is long and in the end it’s only with yourself
Some days are good and some days are bad
Storms pass and the sun will shine again
Be kind to your knees
Remember in life your successes are part chance
So don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either
Fail and learn from failure
Love your parents; you never know when they will be gone
Be nice to siblings – they are your best link to your past
And the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go
But cherish those who remain
Live in London once but leave before it makes you hard
Live in rural Worcestershire once but leave before it makes you soft
Don’t mess too much with your skin
Or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85
Be careful whose advice you follow
Respect your elders – intellect matters but experience counts
Remember certain inalienable truths
Prices will rise, politicians will philander
And you, too, will get old
And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young
Prices were reasonable, politicians were noble
And children respected their elders
Keep a sense of perspective
Do not read beauty magazines they will only make you feel ugly
Stand up for yourself
But if in doubt say nought
Help others for in doing so you will help yourself
Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults
Air your problems and discuss your worries
Never suffer in silence
Plan for the future but expect to be surprised
Follow your head and your heart
Life is a balancing act
So make sure yours is balanced

….and trust me on the sunscreen.

Mr E

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Exam excess

May brings the start of public exams, and my annual GCSE, AS and A level exam regulation rundowns have featured prominently in recent assemblies.  Rather like pre-flight safety announcements, these briefings are important no matter how seasoned the exam-taker (and by the time of A level, many students could be considered ‘frequent fliers’).  I give them under the watchful ‘eye’ of former Perse Head Dr W.H.D. Rouse, whose portrait hangs in the hall gallery.

A century ago Rouse fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful rear guard action to keep public exams out of The Perse.  He maintained that they were ‘quite misleading as a guide to comparative merit’ and reduced learning to ‘mere test preparation’.  Fast forward a hundred years and I’m sure the good doctor would be horrified by the proliferation of public exams that currently dominate the last three years of school and the months of May and June.

The public exam system has four main purposes: it enables pupils to measure their attainment by means of marks and grades; it helps pupils develop by identifying strengths and weaknesses in understanding and ability; it provides a way of measuring teacher and school effectiveness; and, through the results of standardised tests, it allows higher education providers and employers to select applicants on the basis of objective comparative data. The first three purposes can all be achieved by alternative means.

Exam halls with rows of students sitting in silence may prevent cheating, but they are not the best environments for assessing key skills such as teamwork, communication and creativity.  Standard exam questions sat by all candidates allow comparisons to be drawn, but they are blunt measures of pupil understanding, which is better assessed in dynamic, responsive situations where questioning adjusts to the abilities of candidates.  Teacher and school effectiveness are most accurately measured by direct means for example by observing lessons and requesting feedback from pupils and parents. Public exam results where bright and conscientious pupils can mask teacher or school weaknesses are not always a reliable guide.

That just leaves the role for public exams to facilitate access to higher education and employment. Why not require pupils to sit just one set of public exams, and make the results available to them when they most need them? Those heading for university could sit intellectually challenging public exams at 18.  Under this system, students would still follow a broad curriculum to 16, but external assessment could be limited to only English and maths to meet university matriculation and employer requirements.  In other subjects learning could be for learning’s sake rather than to pass prescriptive public exams, resulting in more stimulating programmes of study.

If the time saved by not sitting public exams in Year 11 and the Lower Sixth was re-directed into additional teaching and learning, it would be realistic for the Upper Sixth to sit A levels in February, receive results in March and apply to university in April.  Applying post A level would allow students and tutors to make more informed university selection decisions. Students would also benefit from a long summer between school and university for reading, travel, volunteering, work experience and employment.

Those students not aiming for university could sit more vocational exams designed by teachers and employers – exams which prepared them more effectively for the apprenticeships, traineeships and jobs to which they aspire. Of course students change their minds and develop at different stages of the educational journey.  There would therefore need to be periods of reflection and ways of moving between the different examination streams.

A level reform is a step in the right direction in this regard, as students freed from lower sixth AS level exams can use the time to develop more breadth or depth in their interests. Yet Britain still has one of the most exam heavy education systems in the world.  The GCSE and A level treadmill takes up a lot of curriculum time, pupil and teacher energy and school resources. Reduced to only one exam series, there would be more time and money to invest in the quality of the remaining assessment process.   It would also take some stress out of the teenage years and give students more time for enriching and rewarding extra-curricular activities such as music, sport and drama which are important in providing a balanced and holistic education.

I would not go as far as Doctor Rouse in opposing all public exams. But this is a case where less really could be more.

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Subject saharas – the new postcode lottery?

According to a study by the Open Public Services Network, pupils in some parts of England are unlikely to secure qualifications in subjects that could be vital to their job prospects, such as science and languages, as they find themselves living in a “subject desert”.  They may well discover their opportunities are curtailed, because every school within a neighbourhood has decided not to offer certain key subjects.

Roger Taylor, Chair of OPSN and RSA Fellow explained “These data show that children’s educational opportunities are defined by where they live. We can see that the curriculum taught to children in poorer parts of England is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas.”  The data reveal that children in Knowsley, Merseyside are half as likely to study separate GCSEs in biology, chemistry and physics as children in Buckinghamshire.  While in the London Borough of Kensington, children are four times more likely to study a modern foreign language GCSE than children in Middlesbrough.

Curriculum inequalities such as these have long lasting effects.  One of the key reasons talented pupils from less affluent areas do not progress to top universities is because they haven’t studied the right subjects at school and therefore do not meet entry requirements. They find the door was locked long before they arrived to knock at it.

So why are there such geographic variations in subject availability?  The OPSN concludes that it reflects decisions made by schools motivated by league table position. But as a Head and geographer, I fear the cause of these ‘deserts’ may have more to do with the scarcity of resources, in this case teachers.

Every year heads compete for a diminishing number of specialist maths and physics teachers – those with a subject-specific degree.  The pool of this talent is drying up. The Education and Training Foundation calculated that only 10% of maths teachers under 34 have a maths or maths-related degree.  Maths and physics teacher training posts are going unfilled, while graduates in these disciplines are snapped up by other sectors. The Institute of Physics estimates that 1000 new physics teachers are needed each year, but recent data suggest only 600 are being trained and not all will stay in the teaching profession.

It is a seller’s market. With more vacancies than teachers, in some schools positions will inevitably go unfilled. Classes can’t be left untaught, so enter the geographer turned mathematician, the PE teacher turned physicist.  Good classroom skills and a reasonable intellect will get non subject specialists so far, but as the syllabus becomes more complex, ‘generalist’ teachers – through no fault of their own – begin to struggle. Schools have little choice but to look for softer curriculum options, such as teaching ‘dual award’ science rather than separate biology, chemistry and physics.

We must address this issue, but it takes time and money to make deserts bloom.  The current debate about teacher qualifications must move on from the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) alone, or whether nuns and ex-soldiers make good teachers.  We must recognise the real problem and admit the need for both pedagogic training and subject expertise.

The government is making a start in offering golden hellos to teacher training recruits and relaxing immigration requirements for teachers in shortage subjects. These are welcome moves, but alone they will not resolve the deficit.

The education profession is brimming with creativity, and there may well be more inventive solutions to the current problem, given the freedom to think outside the box.  Could classes – in different schools, counties or even continents, but assembled via technology – share a teacher? Could a great teacher take a ‘virtual’ lesson? This might work particularly well for A level classes where maturity and self-discipline are greatest and where specialist teachers are in shortest supply.  In a world where remote interaction is becoming the norm for a range of services, it may be that an excellent virtual lesson is better than an unsatisfactory actual lesson or indeed no lesson at all.

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Enterprising careers advice

This week the ninth Perse Enterprise Conference saw nearly 250 students drawn from 20 schools and colleges gather in the Cambridge Belfry Hotel in Cambourne to learn about entrepreneurship and practice their networking and communication skills.  Keynote speakers included Old Persean William Reeve who founded  LOVEFiLM , Johnny Luk, CEO of the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, Max Grell, co-founder of GivTree – an online platform that uses a chain reaction of donations to raise money for charity and Ed Taylor, an entrepreneur providing marketing solutions to the luxury food and wine industries.

It is essential that students learn about the importance of enterprise to the British economy and the entrepreneurial opportunities open to them.  Careers education in schools has not always received the best press.  Historically it was often a case of school teachers with experience of the classroom but rarely the boardroom conservatively advising pupils to follow well-trodden career paths into “mainstream” occupations and professions.  The emphasis was very much on working for others whether in the state or private sector and securing dependable white or blue collar jobs that might last a lifetime.

The world of work has changed dramatically in the last thirty years.  In the UK, jobs for life are disappearing, the public sector is contracting and more people are working for themselves.  Of the 5.2 million businesses in the UK, 99.3% are classified as small and they in turn employ 47.8% of the UK workforce and generate £3,300 billion of turnover each year.

We need to make young people  aware of the pros and cons of enterprise and entrepreneurship.  There are some students who will always be happier in the structure of a large organisation, but others, some of whom perhaps already find themselves frustrated by the rules of their school or college, will thrive on the freedom and independence of running their own business.

The advice real life entrepreneurs can give the next generation is priceless both in terms of its quality and its authority.  At this week’s Perse Enterprise Conference students learned of the importance of a good secondary and higher education to provide the intellectual skills needed for commercial success.  They discovered that many successful entrepreneurs worked for somebody else, usually a high calibre company, where they learned about business before setting up on their own.  The speakers emphasised the importance of cash flow, networking, passion, discipline and self-belief.  They advised delegates to embrace their “inner geek” and develop businesses in areas they knew well and cared deeply about.

Enterprise is essential to the British economy and we need to encourage our entrepreneurs.  The current political debate on the state of public finances is often portrayed as a simple choice between cutting services or increasing taxes. Yet there is another way, with our entrepreneurs helping to grow the British economy and thus public finances.  Entrepreneurship creates jobs and wealth that  benefits UK plc; it also brings a sense of self-fulfilment for entrepreneurs.  It can do a lasting good.  Over 400 years ago a Cambridge medic turned entrepreneur invested in a series of local businesses.  Many of these businesses prospered and Dr Perse grew wealthy with them.  By the time of his death he had amassed a considerable fortune which he used to help the people of Cambridge by paying for road improvements, a clean water supply, the building of alms-houses and the foundation of The Perse School.

Dr Perse was a venture capitalist turned philanthropist and an early example of a tradition that extends to the current day and the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.  It is an example worth following.

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Listening to the lessons of history

I am passionate about the importance of history in the school curriculum.  Humankind has a depressing tendency to make the same mistakes time after time, so it is crucial that children are exposed to history and given the opportunity to literally learn the lessons of the past.

Each year, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we hold a ‘Josef Behrmann’ lecture – named for a former pupil in the School’s Jewish boarding house who survived 14 concentration camps during World War II. This year’s lecture, entitled Is Holocaust Memorial Day important in the 21st Century?, was given by Ruth Barnett, a Kindertransport refugee from Nazi Germany.

Her moving testimony connected Perse pupils to a time when parents and children had to contend with the horrors of genocide.  Ruth explained how her parents had to decide whether to keep their four year old daughter (Ruth) and seven year old son (Martin) in Germany, or send them on a Kindertransport train to foster families in England.  There can be few more difficult decisions than this, but perhaps one was Ruth’s dilemma ten years later when her mother – of whom she had no real memory – arrived in England to collect her from her foster family.  Should she stay or should she go?  Brought up on a diet of wartime propaganda, Ruth was not keen to leave the familiarity of her foster home to return to Germany; ultimately it required a court order for the repatriation to take place.

Ruth openly shared the deeper issues behind her life story.  She reflected on the importance of identity and her own angst about being classified as a “stateless” person.  Was she German, English or Jewish?  Without a clear sense of identity we lack the roots to weather emotional storms and are prey to doubts and insecurity.

She talked of the importance of love, stability and trust in childhood.  As with many things in war-time Britain, these were rationed in Ruth’s case.  Her parents’ decision to send her away, albeit for her own safety, and her move through three foster families, led to a deep suspicion of adults and a defensive mind-set.  It took her years to recover.

Yet Ruth believes she is one of the lucky ones: the ten thousand Kindertransport children who escaped Nazi Germany.  She knows that a million and a half other children were less fortunate and perished in the holocaust.  Ruth has a survivor’s duty to make the most of her life in recognition of those whose time on earth came to a very premature end.

Ruth’s messages for the Perse audience were clear.  We are all different yet equal.  Differences can be discussed and debated but should be respected.  No one group is better than another, and progress occurs when we put aside our differences and work together.  Intolerance of all kinds is wrong; the holocaust was not just an atrocity against the Jews, it was an attack on gypsies, disabled people, homosexuals, political opponents and anybody who threatened the Nazi ideal.

This plea for tolerance, dialogue and understanding remains as relevant and pressing as it was then.  Unfortunately the human race never seems too far from conflict and carnage, and whether in the Ukraine, in the Middle East or here at home, we need to remember the lessons history can teach us about how to build a better future, if we will but listen.

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