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Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


GCSE and A-level results: it’s not just the grades that matter

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 August 2017

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Why GCSE and A Level subject choices matter. shutterstock

Jake Anders, UCL and Catherine Dilnot, Oxford Brookes University. 
A-level results will soon be out, with more than 300,000 students eagerly waiting to find out if they’ve made the grade. Then come GCSE results, with even more students keen to find out how they’ve done.
Whether students are heading to university, into an apprenticeship or straight into employment, chances are they will all be wishing and hoping and dreaming and praying of a set of grades that will reflect their level of academic accomplishment.
For would-be university applicants, there is often a requirement that students take a particular set of subjects at A-level – and achieve a certain grade – to be in with a chance of getting a place on a degree course. To study medicine, for example it’s often required that (more…)

Subject to change: here we go EBacc again

Blog Editor, IOE Digital4 November 2015

Chris Husbands.
The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has begun to flesh out plans to make the English Baccalaureate – English, Mathematics, Science, History or Geography and languages – all but compulsory for 14-16 year olds in England.
The idea that all pupils should study a common curriculum throughout compulsory schooling is hardly new. The concept of a ‘comprehensive curriculum for the comprehensive school’ underpinned David Hargreaves’s widely read and influential 1985 book The Challenge for the Comprehensive School – it was subtitled ‘culture, curriculum and community’. In 1988, Kenneth Baker’s National Curriculum embedded a national curriculum from ages five through 16 in statute. I was a secondary school history teacher at the time and remember turning out to earnest conferences of history and geography teachers who were – in most cases – relieved that government had achieved what our would-be eloquent arguments had not: to convince deputy heads responsible for option systems to make our subjects (more…)

Twenty-seven years on from the national curriculum

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 June 2015

Chris Husbands.

Will the 2015 drive for curriculum entitlement succeed where 1988 and the national curriculum did not?

We’ve been here before. A government re-elected; impatient to press on with education reform; concerned about the way schools respond to change; determined to implement radical curriculum and assessment change.

This time it is the proposal that the EBacc become a requirement for all 16-year-olds. In 1988 it was the then novel national curriculum. It was to be a requirement for all pupils from 5 through to 16, embedding academic subjects as the building blocks for curriculum planning. (more…)

The Ebacc effect pushes pupils into more academic subjects – that's a good thing

Blog Editor, IOE Digital1 August 2014

Tina Isaacs 

Teenagers across England are waiting nervously for their GCSE, AS and A Level results. Now new figures have shown more of them are choosing to take more “academic” subjects, such as the humanities, languages and sciences, until the end of school – an effect attributed to the new English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) of five core subjects introduced in 2010 by Michael Gove, the former secretary of state for education.
The Joint Council for Qualification has published an analysis of the subjects UK teenagers chose to take at A level and AS level in 2014. Its analysis points to some dramatic changes both for GCSE qualifications taken by 16-year-olds in 2013 and AS level qualifications taken by 17-year-olds in 2014.
GCSE entries for geography, history, French, German and Spanish all increased markedly from 2012 to 2013 – up 19.2%, 16.7%, 9.4%, 15.5% and 25.8% respectively. AS entries in geography, history and Spanish – all Ebacc subjects – increased significantly between 2013 and 2014, as the graph shows. AS science entries increased as well, albeit less dramatically.


The EBacc effect

These increases are chalked up to the first signs of the “EBacc effect”. This is the fallout from the policy to include a measure on school league tables showing the proportion of 16-year-old students at each school who achieved good grades (A star to C) across five core subjects. These subjects are English, mathematics, science, a language other than English and history or geography.
The EBacc effect is real, and to my mind, mostly a good thing. Since its inception, state schools have been entering more and more students onto these GCSEs. In 2013, government figures showed 35% of state school students were entered on programmes that could lead to an EBacc up from 23% in 2012 (in independent schools the figures are much higher). Of those students, 23% achieved the EBacc goal in 2013, up from 16% in 2012. Language entries, which had decreased sharply since 2004, increased to 48% of students.
This “Ebacc effect” has now been shown to continue on to AS Level, because students are likely to continue with these subjects they did at GCSE. Given the uptick in parallel AS subject choice, more students will fit the profile that selective universities are looking for: students who choose “facilitating” subjects, which largely parallel EBacc subjects.
This means that more and more students are enrolled on courses that will give them the most flexibility in choosing their futures, taking subjects that have both the breadth and depth to prepare students to progress in further or higher education, for work, for family life and for social and civic participation.

Driven by pressure on schools

So why have I qualified my enthusiasm? It’s because these increases are largely due to the perceived (and, starting in 2016, real) accountability pressures schools perceive themselves to be under, rather than a fundamental philosophical shift towards providing all of our students with the curriculum provision they deserve.
Because schools are accountable for their students’ performance on qualifications, the notion of a broad and balanced education (to use a somewhat hackneyed phrase) only seems to apply to higher achievers. In England, there seems to be a policy consensus that lower achievers need a skills-based rather than a subject or knowledge-based curriculum.
The underlying assumption, unfortunately shared across the political spectrum, seems to be that up to 50% of children have a “style of learning” that is simply not compatible with the academic grind of GCSEs and A levels. Consequently – in the conventional wisdom – such students need more applied or vocational qualifications.
But if there’s a worthwhile set of knowledge, skills and understandings enshrined in EBacc subjects, then shouldn’t all students be pursuing them? Michael Young at the Institute of Education has pointed out that until quite recently, government policy on education systematically marginalised knowledge. He argues instead for a curriculum for all that is built around substantive content but is based on the understanding of important concepts and universal values that all students should be treated equally and “not just members of different social classes, different ethnic groups or as boys or girls”.

The right direction

The EBacc effect may be a pull in the right direction. The new accountability measures for 2016 that feature the best eight GCSE subjects could be a further incentive, but these are still high-stakes measures that will provoke some schools, understandably, to try to game the system. The unintended consequences could be that schools pay less attention than they already do to lower achievers in their efforts to chase their slice of an already cut pie.
For now, I’m reserving judgement because; a) I think the shift to base accountability on the best eight GCSEs is going in the right direction and; b) we don’t really know how schools will change their students’ subject entry patterns. And so many other changes are happening simultaneously.
For both GCSEs and A levels the level of demand has increased, examinations have reverted to being linear rather than modular and the way the GCSEs will be graded has changed. At the moment, we cannot predict if these changes will also have an effect on which subjects schools offer all of their students, not simply the top half.
Tina Isaacs does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Do we need any exams at 16?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 October 2012

John White 
The EBacc controversy sparks a further question. Do we need any public exams at 16? With the school leaving age due to rise to 18 in 2015, why don’t we just have a graduation certificate at that age for everyone?
I can think of several related reasons for an EBacc at 16, but they are all problematic. It gives the curriculum leading up to this age a massive steer in a traditionally academic direction. It is an early identification of students likely to be of university potential. As such, it is attractive to families anxious to secure a professional future for their children. EBacc looks for all the world like a vehicle of selection, a poorly disguised descendant of the 11-plus.
Another dodgy reason for a 16-plus exam has to do with accountability. Results can be classified in league tables, so that we can see how well different schools are faring. But if the latter is our aim, it does not follow that the best means is public testing of students on a mass scale. A good inspection régime, based partly on school self-evaluation, might be part of the answer. In addition, how well a school is doing is a matter of how far it is meeting general educational aims – and these take us far beyond the limited objectives pertaining to testing a few subjects.
Perhaps what we want, though, is a nation-wide picture of how well schools are doing in teaching maths, say, or English. Here again, we would need a good argument for testing individuals en masse, rather than, for instance, revisiting and improving on the sampling techniques used by the Assessment of Performance Unit in the 1970s and 1980s.
Removing 16-plus hurdles would leave secondary schools space to create a more worthwhile experience for all their students. This would mean paying more attention to what their aims should be, then sculpting curricula that better reflected them, rather than making do just with traditional ready-mades.
If getting rid of 16-plus exams were still to leave exam pressures at 18, there would at least be less wasted time, less anxiety, less instrumentalism in learning. It would also turn the spotlight back to what a graduation certificate should look like. The 2004 Tomlinson Report was our last source of illumination on this. Its suggestion of a single diploma to replace GCSE, A levels and vocational qualifications is still our best practical guide ahead.
This will still leave, if not exacerbate, the scramble for university places at 18. This can cause great personal distress, as well as restricting schools’ curricular horizons. Here, too, we need a rethink. The idea that students should ideally go straight on to full-time university studies after leaving school may have made good sense two centuries ago, when many people died young. But with perhaps seventy or more years ahead of them, why the pressure to make them think it’s now or never? Do we need to promote incentives for later, not least part-time, studies?
For more on all this, see my 2010 commentary in The TES 

EBacc to the past

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 September 2012

John White
EBacc is a throwback. It has been compared to O level, but its lineage is older. Its closer cousins are O level’s pre-1951 predecessors, the School Certificate and Matriculation. Unlike O levels, the School Certificate required passes in a range of subjects ­– drawn from the broad areas of English studies, languages, and mathematics/science. For Matriculation, which was a condition of university entrance, a higher level of pass was necessary across a range of School Certificate subjects, including Latin. My own School Certificate plus Matric, awarded in 1949, was based on good marks in English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, History, Geography, Latin, French and German. The absence of science apart, this was EBacc before its time.
The latter’s ancestry goes back to 1838, when London University set its first Matriculation exam. The 1858 revised regulations show an amazing similarity to EBacc’s. As we know, this requires good passes at GCSE (or whatever exam replaces it) in English, mathematics, history or geography, two sciences and an ancient or modern foreign language. The 1858 Matriculation requirements were almost identical, except that both history and geography were compulsory.
The original rationale for the London Matriculation exam was simple. London University (later UCL) was founded in 1826 as a radical alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, providing an intensive, general, four-year, lecture-based course covering nearly every branch of academic knowledge. The authorities had to ensure that acceptable candidates for the University and its affiliates came well-equipped in the rudiments of Latin, Greek, mathematics, natural philosophy and other subjects that they would be studying as undergraduates.
So EBacc’s ancestor had a well-founded rationale. Can the same be said of EBacc itself? I have not come across any. Michael Gove is keen on “a properly rounded academic education” as the basis for becoming author of one’s own life story. But that is a poor argument. The end may well be excellent, but the means are wanting. One needs all sorts of equipment for the autonomous life – personal qualities and practical skills, as well as forms of understanding that go far broader than a traditional academic diet. Why then single out just the latter?
In their recommendations for a framework for a new national curriculum, Gove’s Expert Panel came up with EBacc-favourable recommendations, which I have criticised before. Using the flakiest of epistemological arguments, it demoted Citizenship and Design and Technology as curriculum subjects, and shored up EBacc staples like history, geography and MFL. (Many of its best recommendations were rejected by ministers).
These are the only two arguments for the EBacc curriculum that I know – and pretty feeble they are, too. Have I missed anything?
In this piece, I haven’t tangled with wider objections to EBacc – that we don’t need an exam at 16, for instance, or that it is socially divisive. My focus has been only on its curriculum content.

EBacc: the biggest overhaul of exams since… 2009

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 September 2012

Chris Husbands
The government’s consultation paper on the reform and replacement of GCSEs  is the biggest overhaul for the exam system at 16… since 2009. GCSEs have been extensively tinkered with by governments since they were introduced in 1986. This year’s English GCSEs caused difficulty because they were a very new specification.
For all the talk of radical change, much will remain the same after 2015. We will retain a subject-based assessment, unlike the increasingly popular International Baccalaureate.  More radical voices argue that with almost all young people staying on until 18, the idea of exams at 16 needs questioning. Government has opted to retain them as a key decision point for young people.
Although press coverage before the launch heralded the return of O-levels, there is little in the Government’s consultation document which suggests a serious return to the assessment world of the 1950s. The consultation paper makes no reference to norm referencing – so there appears to be no foundation to the Mail on Sunday’s story that the top grade would be limited to one tenth or one-twentieth of entries.
By and large, O-level examinations were a test of young people’s ability to regurgitate factual information. The consultation paper suggests that government has realised that high standards – and, increasingly, our competitors – are concerned with assessing high level skills in using, deploying and applying knowledge. The consultation paper is also clear that the new examination proposals are focused on the same overall attainment range as GCSEs, with no hint of a divided examination system.  In fact, the government’s proposal to drop ‘tiered papers’ in core academic subjects where they already exist, including English and Mathematics,  will make the exam system less divided –  even if it poses a tough technical challenge for assessment.
The core of the Government’s plan is to firm up its already existing English Baccalaureate. The proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates cover just six subjects – English, Maths, Sciences, Language, History and Geography – which means that questions remain over the assessment regime for other  subjects such as art, music, physical education, and computing. The consultation paper appears to suggest that GCSEs, abandoned for the EBC subjects, will continue for others for at least several years after 2015.  That doesn’t feel sensible, and risks making an already complex assessment regime at 16 more complex, with an EBC framework for part of the curriculum, a GCSE framework for other parts of the curriculum and vocational  provision with at least 25% external assessment elsewhere.
The Secretary of State has made no secret of his affection for terminal written assessment as the main vehicle for assessment, and he is certainly correct that over the many revisions of GCSE the assessment regime has been open to charges that schools and pupils have gamed aspects of it. Coursework assessment has almost entirely disappeared from GCSE in successive waves of change, but there remain some difficult challenges about how far terminal assessment can provide evidence on the full range of knowledge, understanding and skills which employers and higher education look for. 
Over the weekend, researching material for a forthcoming presentation, I found this: 
“School Based Assessments, which typically involve students in activities such as making oral  presentations, developing a portfolio of work, undertaking fieldwork, carrying out an investigation, doing practical laboratory work or completing a design project, help students to acquire important skills, knowledge and work habits that cannot readily be assessed or promoted through paper-and-pencil testing…Not only are they outcomes that are essential to learning within the disciplines, they are also outcomes that are valued by tertiary institutions and by employers.”  
It’s from the Hong Kong Examination Authority consultation in 2009 on extending school-based assessment in public examinations – that is, from one of the world’s best performing education systems.  It is a sharp reminder that other jurisdictions are willing to ask bolder questions about the development of their assessment systems. There is nothing in this document about online or ICT-based assessment – despite the phenomenally rapid developments in e-learning and the capability of online assessment systems. And there are some more naive elements:  the consultation paper raises the prospect of a “statement of achievement” for those who are not entered for the proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates – it’s difficult to see that this could ever command high credibility in the workplace for progression routes.
Everyone accepts that GCSE, which has raised achievement across the middle and upper reaches of the attainment range, now needs reform, as assumptions about education and progression beyond 16 have changed so much since 1986. In 2004, the Tomlinson Report outlined an ambitious, if in retrospect over-engineered, framework for 14-19 assessment and qualifications. The Government’s proposals in 2012 are much more conservative, and more easily recognisable for press and public.  For that reason alone, they may be implementable more easily, but my guess is that this is very far from the last word on assessment reform.  The world is changing much too fast for that.