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Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


What does the TIMSS 2015 international encyclopedia tell us about how our curriculum and assessment compare with other countries'?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital1 December 2017

Tina Isaacs and Christina Swensson.
This is the fourth in a series of blogs that delve below the headline findings from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
This blog focuses on what TIMSS can tell us about other countries’ curriculum and assessment systems. It compares information about England, which appeared in the top 10 of three of the four TIMSS assessments areas in 2015, with that of six other high performing jurisdictions – Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Singapore and Taiwan. All of these comparator countries featured in the top 10 across all (more…)

Rewriting history: what children learn may not match the political script

Blog Editor, IOE Digital25 August 2015

Arthur Chapman and Tina Isaacs
This month the College Board  in the US published revised standards for its Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum for US history courses. For those unfamiliar with the AP programme, it offers university level courses for students in their last years of high school, and those students who succeed on AP examinations are often given university credits. One student, for example, was able to skip an entire year of ‘freshman English’ because of her AP English results. So, it’s an important part of the American school curriculum offer.
What changed in AP US history and why? Certain statements on colonisation and its effects on Native Americans, slavery, the Progressive movement and the New Deal have been edited, toned down or changed completely and a section on American (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 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.

The new GCSEs: pitfalls and possibilities

Blog Editor, IOE Digital1 November 2013

Tina Isaacs
Ofqual today announced the design details for new GCSEs in English and mathematics for first teaching in 2015. New GCSEs in other core subjects will first be taught in 2016, so will doubtless follow the same patterns. The fate of non-core GCSEs is currently up for grabs. To complement the announcement, the DfE separately confirmed the subject content.
Nothing in the announcement was particularly surprising – all of the ideas had been trailed by Ofqual and the DfE. Those involved in making the changes will be well aware of the potential pitfalls – some of which I outline below – but decided that the new system would be an improvement over the old, which has lately had losses in public confidence.
A new grading scale of 1 – 9. This is meant to avoid confusion between the old standards and the new, higher ones that current policy demands. Ignoring the challenge of explaining to end users (HE and employers, not to mention teachers and students) how the new grades compare to the old, the challenge of actually setting new standards must be causing some consternation both in Ofqual and in the awarding bodies. Mr Gove has stated that the new GCSEs must be made more demanding, especially at the equivalents of grades C and A/A*, but has left it to Ofqual to decide how to do so. Comparable outcomes, used currently to set standards, must be off the table, since the Government has expressly demanded that outcomes not be comparable. By raising standards will fewer students achieve the highest grades?
Tiering in mathematics but not in English.  The mathematics community will be happy with this one, although the method of tiering has not been announced, and capping issues may remain. It will be interesting, though, to see how the English community reacts. English is graded by the quality of outcomes rather than by more demanding content, although even here there are “get arounds”. For example are Hard Times or A Christmas Carol (both 19th century novels that the new subject criteria mandate) more demanding than Ulysses? The standards challenge in untiered subjects resides in changes to mark schemes and an adjustment of marker judgement; reliability – especially inter-marker reliability – will be a thorny issue here.   In untiered English both the reading lists and the wording of the questions set could be affected – will they be accessible to current foundation level students or will those students’ needs be ignored because of the need to increase difficulty?
A linear structure, with end of course assessment. This is doubtless a good thing, not because there aren’t subjects that lend themselves well to modular structures, such as mathematics and science, but because of the endless examining that modularisation can cause for students who may be taking 10 or 11 GCSEs (so some 40-odd assessments).
100% external assessment.  Again, the mathematics community will by and large be content, since this is in place now. For English it’s another story. Communication in English is one area where many believe internal assessment is necessary; the compromise position is that speaking and listening will be reported out separately and not affect grades. The impact is unpredictable but is likely to lower students’ overall achievement since most do very well on this element. Given how much coursework contributed to the English debacle of 2012 it is unsurprising that the Ofqual consultation recommended 100% external assessment. While that, coupled with linear assessment, resolves many of the summer of 2012’s problems, if there is no coursework demanding extended writing, an argument could be made that the construct of English is not being adequately assessed.
And now for something completely different.  In his blog of last week Professor John White suggested that we scrap GCSEs entirely, now that everyone needs to be either in education or training until age 18, and replace them with records of achievement. I’m quite sympathetic to his proposal – although slightly dubious of records of achievement, having lived through the burgundy binders last time around.  My alternative proposal, if we really need a progress measure at age 16, is to develop key stage 4 tests in English and mathematics (and perhaps science) as a complement to teacher assessment in those and all other subjects, reported out on a yearly basis (which is statutory anyway). This would give us a handle on how students are doing in key subjects, while freeing up a great deal of time, energy and money. It might even break the two-plus-two lock-step of GCSEs and A levels that holds back some students who might achieve a good standard at 17, but who struggle to do so at 16.  It could, of course, also have unintended consequences that would have to be deeply thought through, such as teaching to the test (which of course already happens now).  It might mean that some students get considerably more English and mathematics teaching, at the expense of other subjects, which some might consider a good thing.  And issues such as multiple purposes would have to be worked through.  The temptation would be to use the tests both for accountability and progression purposes, i.e. to judge school performance as well as to act as qualifying examinations for A level work, even if only the former were intended. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but believe that the question of whether this might be a change for the better is worth asking.

The GCSE debacle: what, if anything, went wrong?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital4 September 2012

 Tina Isaacs
Reading the headlines about the current GCSE furore brought me back to the heady days of September 2002 and the last major examination crisis. Teachers reported marking discrepancies in certain A level coursework modules and complained to awarding bodies and the media. The BBC news headline on 15 September 2002 stated: “Inquiry into exam fixing claims… the exams watchdog is investigating persistent complaints from head teachers that this year’s A-level results were ‘fixed’ to stop grades ballooning”. 
The story ran in the media for weeks and resulted in the Tomlinson inquiry where modules in 31 A- level subjects were re-graded. Grade boundaries changed in 18 units out of a possible 1,200, resulting in just under 2,000 students getting higher AS and A level grades. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s chairman was dismissed and the Secretary of State resigned.
This time around the crisis is more focused. Grade boundaries for GCSE English modules were changed between the January and June series, with the worst offender seemingly AQA’s English Language controlled assessment (coursework) module. Teachers marked their students’ coursework for June bearing in mind what the all important C/D grade boundary had been in January. But more marks were necessary to gain a grade C in June than in January.  Teachers were unsurprisingly upset that students who they believed would gain a comfortable C ended up with Ds.
Once again the press leapt in. For example, the Manchester Evening News reported that “Teachers say pupils have had their futures ruined after exam bosses ‘moved the goalposts’ on a crucial exam”.  The BBC ran a story under the headline “”.  Gove admits GCSE pupils treated unfairlyIt looks as though there will be an inquiry along the lines of Tomlinson’s 2002 report, possibly spearheaded by the House of Commons education select committee.
If so, I hope that it makes sure it fully understands the complexity of the issues. 2012 was the first year of the new English specification (syllabus) – actually three new specifications: English (a combination of language and literature), English language, and English literature.  There was also a new element in the specifications — Functional English. The English and English Language qualifications are tiered and foundation tier students’  grades are capped at grade C. Ofqual has introduced the notion of comparable outcomes, meaning that all things being equal, cohorts (but not necessarily individuals) with the same prior performance data should get the same outcomes in 2012 as in 2011. All of this means that setting standards in new qualifications is more demanding than maintaining standards in existing ones. 
For the January modules, the awarding bodies had less robust statistical information than they would in a mature qualification. In addition, proportionately few students’ work was graded, so awarders had less cohort information than usual.  Ofqual found that AQA’s January marking had been lenient, that is, some students who got C grades should have got D grades. Its report states that the June grades, derived from a much larger group of students, fairly represented achievement, taking into account students’ prior performance (mainly from key stage 2 tests) and awarders’ judgements. 
I’ve seen press reports claiming that  anywhere between 10,000 and 133,906 students who should have got a grade C in June received a grade D. That’s a huge discrepancy. I wish I could weigh in with my own well researched figures, but the Ofqual report was a bit light on statistics to make any definitive statements. Perhaps this is because the report was, rightly, written quickly or that Ofqual wanted to make its findings accessible to the general public. Given that a grade C in English is crucial to many young people’s futures, I wish that there had been a technical annex or two to help understand what, if anything, went wrong.