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Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


We must rethink league tables in light of the Covid crisis

Blog Editor, IOE Digital10 July 2020

John Jerrim and Loic Menzies.

Unions and head teachers have said it would be unfair to compare schools’ performance next year, given the uneven impact of lockdown. They are right. There is clear evidence that there have been considerable disparities in education under Covid and that disadvantaged pupils have been systematically disadvantaged. However, whilst next year’s results will be more volatile and uncertain than ever, year-to-year variation unfairly distorts school performance measures every year, not just when covid strikes.

Fortunately, there is a simple way of reducing the distorting effects of…

Read the rest of this article at schoolsweek.co.uk 

Education and the tyranny of numbers

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 November 2014

Stephen J Ball 
We are now, as Jenny Ozga aptly puts it, ‘governed by numbers’. Numbers in different aspects of our lives rate, compare and allocate us to categories. Numbers define our worth, measure our effectiveness, and in a myriad of other ways work to inform or construct what we are today. We are subject to numbers and numbered subjects. We also subject ourselves to numbers –  numerous apps are now available to monitor ourselves in real time in numerical terms – the mappiness app measures when we are happy. As the website explains: ‘The hedonimeters on the right display mappiness users’ happiness in real-time, compared against the all-time average’. From these data we can create a file, a case-history, make ourselves into an object of gaze and subject for improvement.
This is a relatively new form of governing which nonetheless has a long history. The word ‘statistics’, the representation of the social in numerical form, means literally, from its German origins, state numbers – the systematic collection of demographic and economic data by states. In the 19th century the state established its relation to and monitored ‘the population’ using numbers likes censuses (who, how many and where) and epidemiological records (Death Certificates – who died of what where). These were critical tools in the (more…)

GCSE results: vocational subjects are on the up

Blog Editor, IOE Digital21 August 2014

Tina Isaacs

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Despite a number of dire warnings, overall GCSE results have not been very volatile. Across the country, the number of students getting A* to C grades has increased slightly, by 0.7% points. On the basis of past performance, students who would have received an A or a C grade in 2013, should have received that A or C this year too. But there are some marked subject differences, as well as developments in the number of teenagers taking vocational and computing subjects.
We have already had a relatively boring set of A level results this summer. On the whole, A Level grades were similar to last year’s, with some minor fluctuations, most notably in an increase of students who got A* grade.
Please don’t misunderstand me when I say boring: when it comes to exams, this is a good thing. It reassures us that most students got the grades they deserved. Of course, there will always be exceptions – measurement error in examinations, no matter what the politicians tell us, is inevitable and will always be with us.
For the GCSEs, on a subject-by-subject basis there were notable differences. The A* to C pass rate for English was down 1.9% points, while in mathematics it was up 4.8% points and 6% points in science.


Overall, the number of exam entries was down by over 200,000, from 5.4m in 2013 to 5.2m in 2014, largely due to a 39% drop in the number of entries for Year 10 students. But even these changes are less dramatic than it might seem.

Rise in vocational subjects

Two points I have noted that probably will not get much attention were the increase in the take-up of applied (vocational) GCSEs as well as a dramatic increase in computing and ICT GCSEs, admittedly from a low base.


Business, engineering, health and social care, media studies, hospitality and catering, and leisure and tourism are all on the increase. Some subjects, such as engineering and social care have seen the number of A* to C students increase, while others including leisure and tourism and business studies, have seen a decrease.
As for computing – the number of entries jumped almost fourfold to 16,773 this year. However, there was a slight dip in the numbers of students getting A* to C – down from 68.4% in 2013 to 65.5% this year. Computing now counts as a science, and therefore as one of the subjects in the English Baccalureate, a performance measure of five core subjects now being used in school rankings. The number of ICT entries was also up 40% to 96,811.
Many vocational qualifications are no longer counted as equivalent to GCSEs in this year’s school performance tables, following on from recommendations in Alison Wolf’s 2011 review of vocational qualifications. Those qualifications that are able to be counted now only attract the points-equivalent of one GCSE, when in the past some counted for more. This has discouraged schools from entering students for those qualifications.
But it seems this year’s results show signs that some schools are shifting some of their students into applied GCSEs. This could possibly be in anticipation of counting at least some of the qualification results toward the “best eight” qualifications that will now be the basis of new performance tables, due to be introduced in 2016.

Impact of decline in early entry

Students in England will have taken all of their examinations at the end of their two-year GCSE course because of the government’s insistence on linear qualifications.
For English GCSEs, speaking and listening is now graded separately and does not count in the overall results. Many students in the past have done better in this teacher-marked element than in reading and writing – just think about how verbally articulate most teenagers are and you can see why. English is now 60% externally assessed through examination papers whereas last year it was 40%.
And changes to the way performance tables are structured now mean that only a student’s first attempt at an examination is counted toward the school’s results. Many schools have ceased to enter 15-year-old Year 10 students early for the examinations, resulting in 300,000 fewer early entries this year.
Those schools that made little use of early entry and resits will on the whole have stable or perhaps even better results than last year. For those that made wide use of these practices, the picture could be mixed. Multiple re-sits can just help those students on the border between grade C and grade D to get the higher grade – boosting school results. But taking a qualification at age 16 rather than 15 could mean that students do better because they’ve studied longer and are more mature, pushing results up.
Read the original article.

The headmaster of Eton may be right but so what?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 August 2014

Michael Young
I welcome John White’s plan to make contact with Chinese educators uneasy about their ‘success’ on the PISA League Tables and look forward to his next IOE blog reporting his discussions.
However, the fact that the headmaster of Eton attacks our examination system as archaic – something virtually everyone working in the public sector of education knows all too well – is hardly news. What really would be news would be if Eton decided to stop entering pupils for any public examinations until the system was reformed. Then, especially if a number of the other elite schools followed suit, we might get a Royal Commission with the remit to examine both why such an anti-educational system of examinations had emerged and what might be the alternatives.
No complex modern education system could exist without some form of examination system. Furthermore, it should be as fair as possible as a guide to those who have to select students for either jobs or university places and at the same time provide reliable feedback to teachers and students about their achievements.
The problem is that the relationships between public examinations, the curriculum (which defines the purposes of education), and the professional work of teachers, have become grossly distorted. Instead of examinations guiding teachers and students and providing feedback on the curriculum, they have come to replace the curriculum in deciding what is taught and how, and to be a major control force over teachers’ pedagogy and student learning. Taken to its limits, this turns teachers into technicians and all but the very highest achieving students into exam fodder, those that do not give up.
Unless any debate about our examination system begins with asking how we can shift towards a curriculum-led rather than an examination-led system, critiques, such as that of Eton’s headmaster, whose school sits at the pinnacle of the system he depicts as ‘archaic’, only deflect us from tackling its fundamental problems.

Eton's headmaster is right: we must break out of exams straitjacket

Blog Editor, IOE Digital6 August 2014

John White
In an article for Radio Times this week, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, has called the examination system ‘archaic’. He sees it as “little changed from Victorian times”, a hindrance to collaborative working and to education for citizenship.
He is right on every count. As is now all too clear, the exam system does little to test deep understanding, blights the secondary school curriculum, causes students great anxiety, perverts the job of teaching, favours those families who can best manipulate school admission arrangements.
In Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes – to be published by IOE Press next month, I ask why it is that despite these patent defects, we still cling to an institution which may have been all the rage in the 1860s but has been under fire in every generation since then.
It is ironic, if no less welcome, that the person at the apex of private education should lead the latest sortie. For it was the privately educated new middle classes of Victorian England who championed examinations over the patronage system of the landed establishment as a surer route for their children to a university place and a comfortable life. Soon joined by the top public schools, Eton included, middle class schools from Repton and Clifton down to local grammar schools made the examination system their own preserve. When elementary school students in the 1890s began to see its advantages for themselves, the shutters came quickly down. After 1904, the elementary schools that catered for over 80% of the age group were deliberately made an exam-free zone. This approach outlasted the end of fee-paying secondary education after 1944, when the new tripartite system excluded secondary moderns from the examination stakes until 1965.
For nearly a century, then, secondary school exams were the prerogative of those who could afford school fees. In the age of official full democracy in which we now live, we take it as read they are for everybody. Some 75% of students now get good GCSEs. The age of equality has arrived.
Or has it? The coming of league tables in 1992 has enabled families to identify local schools – private as well as state – with the best exam pedigrees. The private ones do well here, as even those among the sleepiest thirty years ago have worked hard since then to attract custom by glittering exam results. Better-off people can also maximize their chances of acceptance at a ‘good’ state school by moving into its catchment area, or, if a church school, discovering new talents for choral singing or campanology.
Tony Little is right about this Victorian relic. It has survived so long because it has been able to reshape itself – at least for public gaze – as a taken-for-granted institution of a democratic society, while at the same time trying to satisfy the very natural desire of those who have done well in life not to see their children doing worse.
It is time to jettison it before it takes us into what countries in east and south Asia often call their ‘examination hell’. A Chinese colleague and I have recently set up a small group of ‘International Critics of Examinations’, drawn from eighteen countries and from every continent. We hear reports of thirteen-hour days worked by students, the toll on family life, suicide rates among examinees, endless rote-learning, the frenzy and corruption of the annual Chinese school-leaving examination. We also hear of the ways in which the rich can work the system by moving into good school districts and employing private tutors.
Exams came to Japan and India from the USA and the UK, in the heyday of the West’s own love-affair with the institution in the late nineteenth century. Leading lights in these and similar countries are now looking for more humane alternatives.
Tony Little is right again. As he says, “here is the irony: we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of.”

Imagine there's no GCSEs… It's easy if you try

Blog Editor, IOE Digital25 October 2013

John White
This month’s OECD report has linked the poor literacy and numeracy skills of our 16-24 olds, compared with those in other countries, with a lower level of social mobility. One factor in holding back social mobility has been the way in which the more affluent have used school examinations to entrench their dominance in higher education and in professional jobs.
A way of countering this dominance would be to remove its instruments: school exams themselves. These may have made sense when they first became popular around the 1850s, but do they in 2013?
They made sense then for the rising middle classes who wanted their sons to have interesting careers. Before that, patronage had been the norm. Exams were held to provide a fairer and more objective alternative.
Are they worth retaining now? Social unfairnesses apart, we know what an obstacle they are to a worthwhile education for students in their last years at school. We know about the anxiety they cause, the overwork, the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the training in question-spotting, examiner-bluffing and other morally dubious habits.
What do schools get out of examinations? Universities and employers are the beneficiaries. Schools are their handmaidens, relieving them of work and expense. Apart from kudos for some in the league tables, schools get mainly grief.
Imagine a world without GCSEs and A levels. How much broader and richer education could become! The school could come back to its proper task of creating in every school leaver a passion for learning – rather than hacked-off attitudes among its exam failures and instrumental attitudes to learning among its successes.
Would anything be lost in an exam-free régime? What about selecting candidates for higher or further education and employment?  We need to probe imaginative alternatives. Colleges and employers should take the lead on devising their own filtering devices, as long as these do not disadvantage less privileged applicants. But schools can also play a part.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the growth of records of achievement, or student profiles. These enabled schools to provide ongoing accounts of progress in different areas. They were not tied to the framework of discrete subjects within which examinations tend to be conducted. They recorded progress on non-academic fronts, including practical and out-of-class activities, within the school and outside.
In those days profiling existed alongside conventional examinations. It could now replace them. It could give every school leaver a record of his or her all-round attainments, presentable both to other educational establishments and to employers. Our new digital age has opened wider horizons, with children and parents as well as teachers contributing to web-based records, not only with text but also with still and moving images. This already happens in enlightened schools.
I know all this is anathema to those who will tell us what a subjective, corruption-prone system profiling is. Examinations are so much fairer, so much more accurate in their assessments. This is why colleges and employers trust them – and why they have for over a century provided a ladder for young people from all social classes to reach the top.
We should not accept this. Examining something is submitting it to thorough investigation. Do the minutes an examiner allots, say, to a paper on Europe since 1815 really add up to an examination? Digital cumulative records can give a much fuller picture; and of the student not only as a lone learner, but also as a co-worker – and not only in this area or that, but also as a whole person. And who is to say that there are no ways of coping with teacher bias – or, indeed, other problems around profiling?
The ladder argument raises another point. The more affluent have long accepted examinations as their route to university and professional jobs. They have been happy, at the same time, with some poorer but bright youngsters joining them. The ladder is said to provide equality of opportunity.
But the story says nothing about equipping everyone for a decent life. The ladder for the lucky ones, too, has always been propped up against a smart building with escalators inside to take the affluent up to the upper storeys. Michael Gove’s policy on examinations has upgraded the escalators and made the ladder more rickety.
Examinations are an excellent device for keeping a hierarchical social order more or less intact. If we are more interested in introducing every young person to the delights and rewards of learning, we have to look elsewhere.

A new binary divide will not solve the real challenges

Blog Editor, IOE Digital26 June 2012

 Chris Husbands
The blogosphere is bristling with responses to the Daily Mail’s story about the possible return of O-levels. I began my teaching career in the early 1980s. One of my abiding memories – and bitter frustrations – is that each year, 15-year-olds who had been cajoled, exhorted and motivated to keep going through CSE courses simply left at Easter,  and never  turned up for their exams.  They saw no real point in turning up to complete an examination which they thought of as dead end – with no progression route and little labour market validity. In this respect, at least, they were showing themselves as pretty shrewd labour market economists.
So I was part of a generation of teachers which welcomed the introduction of GCSE in 1986. The Conservative secretary of state for education,  Sir Keith Joseph, was determined that the new examination would be “tougher, because it would demand more of pupils; would be fairer because pupils would be judged by what they could do and not how they compared to someone else; and would be clearer because everyone would know what had been tested.” Sir Keith’s aim was to get 80-90% of pupils up to the level previously thought to be average. As  Caroline Gipps,  at the time a senior member of staff at the Institute of Education, pointed out,  on norm referenced tests such as O-level, there is no point in trying to get every pupil to achieve an above average score, since, by definition, such tests are designed to have half the population scoring above and half below the mean.
By this measure, GCSE has been an enormous success. Performance rose:  41% of pupils scored A-C grades in 1988, but by 2011 the figure was 69%. School staying on rates increased sharply:  they had been 36% in 1979, but rose to 44% in 1988, 73% by 2001 and almost 80% by the end of the decade.  GCSE completed the 1973 work of RoSLA – the Raising of the School Leaving Age from 15 to 16. By and large, GCSE achieved the levering up of performance which Joseph had expected.  
But none of this makes it unproblematic.   One of the challenges was explained as long ago as 1994 by Caroline Gipps. GCSE used criterion-referenced assessment, and so “as the requirements become more abstract and demanding, so the task of defining the performance clearly becomes more complex and unreliable”. Put differently, it becomes more difficult to design assessment criteria which work at both extremes of the performance range. But it is not impossible, and assessment experience here and elsewhere suggests it can be done by ensuring a common core of curriculum entitlement, and a sufficiently varied and stimulating curriculum diet that there are opportunities for all young people at all levels to experience success. 
A second challenge was not foreseen in 1988, and followed the annual publication of examination results focusing on 5 A/A*-C performance from the early 1990s: although  in technical terms a GCSE pass was a grade G or better, league tables reinforced the idea – imported from an old O-level equivalence – that the cusp performance was at Grade C. There were thus incentives for schools to focus their effort on moving marginal performance at grade D up to grade C, and it became no easier to motivate a pupil on track for a grade G to improve by one grade than it had been to motivate the CSE students of the early 1980s.
The difficulty for the nation is that neither of these problems will be solved by introducing a new binary divide into qualifications,  even if,  as the leaked reports of DfE thinking suggest,  the revamped O-level is “targeted” at the top 75% of the attainment range rather than the 60% target group for O-levels and CSE. There are two reasons. The first is that any system which designs in a selective process at the beginning of examination courses has a backwash effect: a divided system at 14 means making selection decisions by 13. The analysis by the Financial Times’s Chris Cook  suggests that this will have a sharply differential effect in different parts of the country. Moreover, with any threshold there will be errors about mis-classifying pupils into the “wrong” route, closing down opportunities and dampening motivation. Ben Levin and Michael Fullan, writing about education system reform, warn that “literacy and numeracy goals must include higher-order skills and connections to other parts of the curriculum, such as science and the arts, to avoid the curriculum… becoming too narrow and disengaging”.  
The second reason is that the most serious performance challenge we face as a nation is to do what our major competitors are doing and to seek to bring all young people up to Level 2 performance by the time they leave compulsory education. Given that the education participation age is rising to 17 and then to 18, the challenge is a curriculum rather than an assessment one:  how do we secure high-quality, labour-market valid outcomes for all young people? That’s a question of curriculum design, educational quality and learner motivation.