Being honoured

I was honoured to attend the 2017 Graduation ceremony for University of East London’s Sir John Cass School of Education and Communities on 1st November 2017. The ceremony granted UEL degrees in Early Childhood Studies, Education Studies, Social Work , Special Education and Youth and Community Work  to over 500 graduates, many of whom were former NewVIc students and some who were parents of NewVIc students. It was a real privilege to share this day with them and to see so many of our alumni complete the next phase of their education and get one step closer to achieving  their goal to work in education – the best job in the world!

I was accepting a UEL honorary doctorate and was particularly excited to be receiving it in the same year as democracy and accountability campaigner Gina Miller and the actor and disability advocate Sally Phillips.

What I said in my acceptance speech:

I need to start by saying that I’m not really that keen on honours. In fact, I didn’t attend my own graduation in 1982. At that time, I thought it was very un-cool. But after attending graduation ceremonies for some of my own children and hosting many awards evenings as a college principal over the years, I think I’ve come to value the symbolic importance of these occasions. And on this occasion, I am deeply honoured to accept this honorary doctorate.

I’m honoured for at least two reasons: first, because of where it’s coming from and second, because of what it’s for.

Firstly, it’s coming from a great East London institution. A university deeply rooted in its community which reflects and celebrates that community while also having national and global impact. A university which aims to put its human, intellectual and cultural resources at the service of the people of our diverse and cosmopolitan city and helps them to achieve wonderful things. A university which has worked in partnership with our college throughout its 25-year history; providing outstanding governors for our corporation, sponsoring our sports teams and helping to mentor our students and develop their skills in challenging hate speech, managing money and undertaking research projects amongst many other things.

So I am very proud of our association with the University of East London and very excited about the new East London Skills and Employment Federation which we are both part of.

Secondly, I think this is a recognition of the work we do and have been doing at NewVIc for 25 years: stretching, challenging, broadening horizons, raising participation, achievement and progression for 16-19 year olds in East London. A full-spectrum college which is designed to offer the full range of courses and refuses to be defined by others as either academic or vocational, either specialist or selective. I see this as a celebration of our democratic and egalitarian vision of the comprehensive college which wants to share the benefits of education as widely as possible.

I think that UEL and NewVIc share the same values and beliefs. One way of putting this is that we want to educate with purpose. At a time when we could easily become more ignorant, more fearful, more selfish more self-absorbed, we need places which build knowledge, skill, understanding, community and wisdom. So I am delighted to be able to honour our shared values and our shared purpose; to develop active, critical, inquisitive citizens rather than passive, silent, acquisitive consumers – people who do rather than simply being done to and who do what they do with a real care and respect for others. We need all our educational institutions to be ‘wisdom’s workshops’ with a common mission to share and prepare, to train and transmit, to renew and re-invent our world and make it fit for human flourishing.

This  is important work and I want to congratulate everyone here who has made a commitment to work in education.

To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, being an educator requires us to ‘love the world enough’ to take responsibility for it. I guess that means that there’s a lot of love in this place today!

You’ll forgive me for closing with something many of you will already have heard me say, because it’s what I say to all our leavers at ceremonies like this:

As you stand on the threshold of the next phase of your life and look back as well as forward –  be proud. Be proud of all you have achieved, be proud of you family, your culture, your language, your beliefs and all your achievements. You are someone and you’ve achieved something. But don’t stop there. Look forward and make sure you become what you are capable of becoming, which is so much more.

It has been a great honour to share this celebration with you. Thank you.

See also: 

NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university (October 2017)

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Investing in East London’s future (December 2014)

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NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university.

The NewVIc class of 2017.

Our class of 2017 was a diverse and ambitious cohort, full of great young people preparing to make a positive contribution by acquiring a range of professional skills and qualifications:

661 students progressed to higher education with an 89% progression rate across all applicants; A-level and vocational. This is well above the national average.

96 students progressed to Russell Group universities – a new record for our college, representing 15% of all students progressing.

Where did they all go?

Over two thirds of NewVIc progressors go to just 7 universities, all in London.

These ‘top 7’ university destinations now account for 69% of students progressing and this group has remained the same for the last 5 years: Middlesex, Greenwich, East London (UEL), Westminster, Queen Mary University of London, City University and London South Bank.

In terms of numbers, the picture is broadly stable with the biggest increases over 2016 at Middlesex (up 22 students), Queen Mary University of London (up 13 students), Greenwich (up 10 students), and City University (up 10 students).

13% of NewVIc students progressed to universities outside the London area which required them to live away from home. This is down from 14% in 2016 with the highest numbers going to De Montfort (9 students), Coventry (8), Anglia Ruskin (8), Bedfordshire (6) and Kent (5).

The Russell Group list remains dominated by Queen Mary University of London, not surprising as it is the nearest Russell Group university to our college. It accounts for 73% of all NewVIc’s Russell Group places. Other key institutions are University College London (UCL) with 9 students and King’s College London (KCL) with 5, with a good spread of students progressing to 9 other Russell Group universities.  It’s also worth noting that, as usual, a good number of our vocational students also progressed to Russell Group universities, demonstrating that good vocational qualifications are valued by selective universities when they understand them well.

What are they all studying?

As usual, our students are progressing to pretty much the full range of degree courses available, with the most popular degrees being very broadly by title: Accounting (70+), Business (70+), Medical and biomedical (60+), Engineering (50 +), Computing (50+), Law (40+), Education (40+), Psychology (20+), Sport / PE (20+).

Their impressive achievements represent just one year’s worth of our investment in the future of the London economy. In the context of a 25-year record of similar annual progression, the college has contributed to enhancing our economy with tens of thousands of skilled professionals, all of whom are still of working age. That’s enough health workers, teachers, engineers and lawyers to power several London boroughs!

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths: 202 students.

Nursing and Midwifery (22), Paramedical Science (20), Biomedical Science or Radiography (10), Mathematics (9), Pharmacy or Pharmacology (8), Science – including Biology or Chemistry (8), Forensic Science (6), Biochemistry (4), Medicine (3), Neuroscience (2), Opthalmic dispensing (1), Animal management (1).

Electrical / Electronic Engineering (12), Civil Engineering (10), Mechanical Engineering (9), Construction and the Built Environment (9), Aeronautical Engineering (5), Engineering (4), Chemical Engineering (2), Automobile Engineering (1), Biomedical Engineering (1).

Computer Science, Software Engineering / Networking (40), Games Design, technology or development (10), Computer Forensics (5).

Economics, Business, Management and Accounting: 172 students

Accounting or Finance (72), Business or Business Management (59), Business Information Technology / Systems (13), Marketing (10), Economics (9), Human Resources Management (6), Advertising (3).

Humanities and Social Sciences: 84 students

Psychology (22), Sociology or Social Science (17), English (14), History (9), Politics (9), Journalism (7), Geography (2), Arabic (1), Creative writing (1), Philosophy (1), Religious Studies (1).

Law and Criminology: 63 students.

Law (49), Criminology (14).

Education and Social Work: 51 students

Education (37), Early childhood studies (9), Social work or youth work (4), Counselling / Psychotherapy (1).

Visual and Performing Arts: 44 students

Film, TV and media production (12), Architecture (9), Design or product design (7), Music or music technology (6), Fashion or textiles (5), Drama (3), Dance (2).

Sport, Travel, Tourism and Event Management: 34 students

Sport or PE (26), Hospitality, tourism, airline or event management (8)

[11 other degree destinations haven’t been categorised.]

Top 30 universities for the NewVIc class of 2017:

University students %
Middlesex 80 12.1
Greenwich 76 11.5
East London 72 10.9
Westminster 71 10.7
Queen Mary University of London 70 10.6
City University 47 7.1
London South Bank 39 5.9
Goldsmiths 20 3.0
Kingston 15 2.3
Hertfordshire 14 2.1
De Montfort 9 1.4
University College London 9 1.4
Brunel 8 1.2
Coventry 8 1.2
London Metropolitan 7 1.1
Bedforshire 6 1.0
Kent 5 0.8
King’s College London 5 0.8
College of Law 5 0.8
West London 5 0.8
Roehampton 4 0.6
St. George’s, University of London 4 0.6
Birkbeck 3 0.5
Bournemouth 3 0.5
Brighton 3 0.5
Central Lancashire 3 0.5
Leicester 3 0.5
Northampton 3 0.5
Portsmouth 3 0.5
Ravensbourne 3 0.5

 Russell group progression for the NewVIc class of 2017:

University students
Queen Mary University of London 70
University College London (UCL) 9
King’s College London (KCL) 5
Birmingham 2
Leeds 2
Southampton 2
Bristol 1
Cambridge 1
Exeter 1
Imperial College 1
London School of Economics 1
Sheffield 1

See also:

NewVIc results 2017 (August 2017)

The NewVIc class of 2016 (August 2017)

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Reducing London’s disadvantage gap (January 2016)

Let’s celebrate vocational success (January 2016)

University progression for the NewVIc class of 2015 (December 2015)

NewVIc breaks all its university progression records (September 2015)

Russell group numbers soar in Newham (August 2015)

From free school meals to university (April 2015)

Where do all our A level students go? (January 2015)

Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure (January 2015)

Investing in East London’s future (2014 university progression) (December 2014)

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L’innovation pedagogique

Je suis chef d’établissement d’un Sixth Form College polyvalent du Centre-Est de Londres, c’est-à-dire un lycée pour les étudiants de première et de terminale qui préparent l’université. Nous offrons des programmes généraux, professionnels et des classes de rattrapage. Ça fait 16 ans que je suis principal, dont 10 à NewVIc.  Avant tout je suis enseignant ; professeur de Sciences et passionné de l’éducation.

Quelle est l’innovation pédagogique qui vous a le plus marquée dans votre carrière ?

J’enseigne depuis 1982, j’ai donc vécu une période de transformation extraordinaire des technologies pédagogiques. Au début ; manuels scolaires, duplicateurs, réseaux professionnels locaux. Maintenant ; accès illimité aux connaissances, aux moyens de communication personnalisés et aux réseaux professionnels mondiaux.  Nos cerveaux et nos préoccupations ont peu changé mais nous disposons aujourd’hui d’outils immensément plus puissants pour la recherche, la création et le partage de notre matériel pédagogique. L’informatique, l’internet et les médias sociaux nous permettent d’étendre at d’approfondir les possibilités de l’apprentissage humain et du dialogue pédagogique. Donc tout semble avoir changé dans les moyens et les méthodes, mais fondamentalement rien n’a changé. Les éléments de base et notre travail de transmission culturelle et sociale perdurent. Néanmoins, il faut s’adapter et augmenter nos capacités critiques, de recherche et de discernement pour profiter des nouvelles technologies.

Quelles sont les difficultés des professeurs innovants en Grande Bretagne et comment les surmonter ?

L’éducation en Angleterre se différencie des autres systèmes nationaux du Royaume Uni. Depuis plusieurs années, l’Angleterre poursuit un programme de marchandisation de l’éducation publique qui se caractérise par une forte concurrence entre établissements autonomes, De plus en plus, le système public est remplacé par des réseaux d’établissements semi-privés qui ne répondent plus aux collectivités d’une façon démocratique. En même temps, nous subissons un système d’inspection sévère qui punit les établissements qui ont des résultats au-dessous de la moyenne.

L’innovation pédagogique se vit donc dans ce contexte super-concurrentiel dans un environnement ou on préfère ne pas trop expérimenter ou prendre de risques. Le partage entre concurrents est découragé et le rôle de l’enseignant professionnel se définit en fonction du succès de l’établissement vis-à-vis des autres.

Quelle est la place de l’innovation dans la politique éducative Britannique ?

L’innovation existe, mais elle ne suit pas un plan commun d’investissement ou un programme national. Elle est ressentie de façon très différente dans les établissements différents. Le choix d’innover et comment innover sont surtout les décisions de chefs d’établissement quasiment autonomes. On peut donc trouver des pratiques et des philosophies pédagogiques contrastantes dans des établissements voisins.

Quelle est votre représentation de l’innovation ?

Être enseignant c’est être innovant. Il faut constamment se demander comment mieux faire. Nos plus importantes ressources pour rester innovants sont : nos réflexions personnelles sur nos pratiques, notre volonté d’expérimenter, notre ouverture aux idées nouvelles et notre évaluation honnête qui tient compte du dialogue professionnel avec nos collègues et nos étudiants.

La véritable innovation trouve son origine dans cet esprit d’expérimentation et d’auto-critique rigoureuse. Bien entendu, nous devons tenir compte de nouveaux outils qui peuvent nous rendre la vie plus facile. Souvent un nouvel outil peut lui-même suggérer une nouvelle approche. Mais l’adoption d’un nouvel outil n’est pas en soi innovant.

Pour moi, les innovations pédagogiques les plus importantes seront toujours celles qui nous permettent de mieux répondre aux questions fondamentales : comment faire réfléchir, comment stimuler le désir d’apprendre et de s’épanouir ? Comment approfondir et élargir la compréhension et la maitrise ? Que demandons-nous de nos étudiants ? Quelles activités, quelles taches, quel langage parlé et écrit ? Comment mieux faire pour établir les connaissances et les compétences qui leur permettront de réussir leur apprentissage culturel et citoyen ? On peut être certain que parmi les bonnes réponses il y aura toujours une synthèse du vieux et du neuf.

En conclusion, je pense qu’il faut éviter la ‘neomanie’.  Quand on nous propose de nouvelles méthodes et de nouvelles technologies, donnons-nous le temps de les comprendre et les évaluer et adoptons ce qui a de mieux sans trop être ébloui par leur nouveauté.

Eddie Playfair, principal de Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc), Londres.

Interview publié dans la série Ceux qui Innovent sur le site Ecole Innovante

Voir aussi (en Francais):

Les réfugiés francophones de Londres (2016)

Egalité et solidarité dans une société diverse (2016)

Grammaire de Gramsci et dialectique de Dewey (2015)

Leçons sans paroles : comment la musique nous apprend à vivre (2015)

L’autonomie : pourquoi (2015)

Laïcité, égalité, diversité (2015)

Citoyens multilingues, société multiculturelle (2015)

L’inspection en Angleterre (2014)

Le numérique en questions : une perspective anglaise (2014)

Socrate et le numérique (2014)

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Oxbridge admissions – time for action.

Last week’s news that Oxford and Cambridge universities are failing to diversify and broaden their undergraduate intakes to reflect British society was deeply depressing for anyone who believes in university access and participation as a social good.

The story broke in the same week that we hosted the launch of the Wad-Ham programme at NewVIc with a theatre full of sixth formers from schools across Newham and Tower Hamlets. These were mostly Black and Minority (BME) young people from ‘disadvantaged’ post-codes, likely to achieve straight A’s and A*’s at A-level and keen to consider applying to Oxbridge, although this isn’t an explicit aim of the scheme.

This well-established programme, supported by Wadham College, Oxford, gives our students a taste of university level teaching, writing, discussion, research and analysis and fosters an open mind and a broad outlook. It’s a wonderful opportunity which requires considerable additional commitment from participants and also includes a residential at Oxford. The overall theme of the programme: ‘Civilization and Barbarism’, allows for much interdisciplinary work and couldn’t be more appropriate for the times we live in.

Schemes like Wad-Ham and its precursor Pem-Brooke are brilliant ways to enrich the sixth form curriculum and they will also help our students make stronger applications to the most selective universities. We should also celebrate the achievements of initiatives such as the Lady Margaret Hall Foundation Year which reaches out to under-represented groups, and the work of colleges such as Mansfield in Oxford, which manages to recruit around 90% of its undergraduates from publicly funded sixth forms and 16% of BME heritage from the UK. We need more of this, it should be mainstream – commonplace. In fact, these successes serve to highlight the overall lack of movement and the complacency of an institutional response which often seeks to shift the blame onto schools or teachers rather than question its own selection methods.

One Oxford university spokesperson said: “Rectifying this is going to be a long journey that requires huge, joined-up effort across society – including from leading universities like Oxford – to address serious inequalities.” This may be true, but it doesn’t absolve the university itself from improving its own gatekeeping processes.

We know that elitism, discrimination and segregation run deep in British society and the damage they do goes well beyond Oxbridge and beyond education itself. Many of us are sceptical about the assumption that that Oxbridge or Russell Group universities must automatically be ‘top’ or ‘best’ simply because they are very selective. Nevertheless, we work tirelessly to try to ensure that our BME, state-educated and working-class students get their fair share of great publicly-funded educational opportunities. Our experience is that for every qualified student who gets a place, there are several more who were just as promising. When they get their chance, they generally do very well. For instance, both NewVIc students who progressed to Oxford university in 2013 graduated in 2017 with First Class degrees.

At a recent Black History Month reception the Prime Minister said: “No one’s ethnicity should stop them from pursuing their dreams. And as a country we cannot afford to squander the talents and ambitions of our young people. If we remove the barriers that remain, the potential for the future will truly be without limit.” Theresa May has also recently launched the Racial Disparity Audit to ‘shine a light on how our public services treat people from different backgrounds’.

Given the widespread support for the objective that ethnic and social diversity should be reflected in access to educational opportunities it’s deeply dispiriting that the very universities which have the greatest problem have yet to address the problem effectively. It’s quite right that the spotlight should be trained on them. The danger for those who fail to respond effectively to the challenge of becoming more representative, and therefore more diverse, is that they risk being marginalised and ultimately less sought after.

In fact, the ‘Oxbridge problem’ could be seen by other more inclusive universities as an opportunity to move into this territory and challenge the ‘Oxbridge / Russell Group equals quality’ hegemony, for instance by developing Liberal Arts degrees and highlighting the intellectual rigour and other aspects of their undergraduate experience such as small group tutorials which Oxbridge trades on, while also positively celebrating the benefits of diversity.

What can be done?

On our side of the admissions process, as ‘suppliers’ of under-represented students, we’re doing everything we can; raising achievement, giving good subject and application advice, preparing students for tests and interviews and grasping every opportunity to engage with Oxbridge colleges. We’ll do more if asked to. But we also need the giant, well-funded Oxbridge institutional tankers to take this really seriously and start to turn things around.

1. Set targets and work to achieve them: Setting hard targets would require the university to go out and ‘talent spot’ more proactively rather than waiting for applicants to roll in. The idea that there is only one ‘best’ way to select the ‘right’ undergraduates needs to be challenged. One could probably fill both Oxford and Cambridge universities with an entirely different cohort of equally well qualified undergraduate applicants without any impact on standards or rigour. If the university as a whole won’t set targets, the individual colleges could; if Mansfield can recruit 90% of its students from publicly-funded sixth forms, other colleges could also aim to reflect the fact that 93% of students are not privately educated and that 18% of UK 18 year olds are of BME heritage. Change could happen in steps, college by college.

2. Offer ‘reserved’ places: A number of places each year could be guaranteed to all sixth forms in proportion to the number of qualified students they have: A similar proposal was originally made by the journalist Peter Wilby and would give sixth form colleges or groups of sixth forms in the state funded sector the opportunity to select the qualified student(s) they judged to be most deserving of a place. Such a system would guarantee geographical spread, give sixth forms a stake in decisions and remove some of the quirkiness and unpredictability of the process by being based on more informed judgements and deeper background knowledge of candidates.

3. Reach out into areas of under-representation: The Foundation Year model could be taken into communities around the country as part of a new generation of university settlements. The original settlements created by Oxbridge colleges in the 19th and early 20th century brought students and researchers into inner city areas in sustained ways to understand and address pressing social issues and promote social solidarity. Students could combine sixth form and gap year volunteering serving their community with pre-degree preparation nearer to home, making the transition more gradual. One settlement per Oxbridge college, perhaps in partnership with a local university, could provide good national coverage and start to lay the foundations of a deeper relationship between universities and diverse communities.

4. Incentivize more representative recruitment: The Office of Fair Access (offa) expects universities to develop Access Agreements and can fine those which fail to make sufficient progress. But on the positive front, a simple student premium like the Pupil Premium in schools could act as a positive incentive for universities or constituent colleges to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds or under-represented groups.

Rather than choosing from these approaches, I would suggest doing all 4 immediately – plus any others which look like they might work. This issue is too important to wait. We need Oxbridge to act now.

Photo shows Hugh Munro of Wadham College at the Wad-Ham launch last week at NewVIc.

See also:

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Russell group numbers soar in Newham (August 2015)

Cracking Oxbridge (November 2015)

London’s engines of mobility (October 2015)

Russell group university progression: dispelling the myths (February 2015)

From free school meals to university (April 2015)

The Oxbridge challenge (July 2014)

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Life in the sixth form funding canyon

The chancellor is currently pondering his priorities for the forthcoming autumn statement on public spending and given the critical state of our public services there are plenty of worthy calls on resources.

Without minimising the case for spending more on health, housing, social care and benefits, it’s also worth reminding the chancellor of the pressing case for investing in the education of the country’s 16-19-year olds. In fact, this is a case which the government itself seems to have accepted by agreeing to review the whole 16-19 funding system.

What is our case in summary? The average sixth form rate per learner is 20% below that for 11-16-year olds in schools and 47% below the average university tuition fee. 16-19 education in England finds itself at the bottom of a funding ‘Grand Canyon’ with better funded school education on one side and Higher Education on the other with no rational explanation of why this vital phase of education should be so poorly resourced

The government will claim that it has held the base 16-18 funding rate at a steady £4,000 for several years, implying ‘flat cash’ for sixth forms in schools and colleges. The value of ‘flat cash’ is of course eroded every year by the rate of inflation because a pound buys you progressively less and less.

But from our position at the bottom of this funding canyon, even this basic ‘flat cash’ story doesn’t correspond to our experience. Whilst it is true that the basic rate for 16 and 17-year olds hasn’t been cut since 2013/14, we have in fact lost much funding in cash terms.

In our college, we have seen:

  • £226 cut per student for disadvantage funding between 2016 and 2018. This was a result of the re-basing of the Index of Multiple Disadvantage which took millions of pounds out of areas like Newham despite our borough having one of the highest level of child poverty in the country.
  • £164 cut per student overall caused by the 17.5% funding cut for all 18-year-old students (the ‘aspiration tax’) this amounted to a cut of £850 per 18-year-old for no justifiable reason. This was an impossible cut to pass on to 18-year olds and penalised us for having lots of students who have done the right thing and worked hard to progress from level 1 and 2 to advanced level. This has created a ‘canyon within a canyon’ for colleges which are comprehensive and have high rates of internal progression.

It’s clear therefore that what we have experienced over the last 4 years is far from ‘flat cash’.

We can add to this:

  • £380 reduction per student for unfunded cost increases over the last 4 years. These arise mainly from staff costs increases: national insurance and pension increases and pay rises as well as general inflation.

This means that over the last 4 years we have suffered a real-terms cut of over 13%. in what we can spend per student, compounding the 27% real terms cut colleges experienced between 2009 and 2015. The canyon just keeps getting deeper.

To add insult to injury, the Department for Education chose to underspend its 16-18 budget nationally 3 years in a row totalling £212 per student between 2014 and 2016.

If we compare ourselves to schools, we also know that we have to spend:

  • Roughly £200 per student on VAT from which schools are exempt.

In our area, we also know that one of our main competitors benefits from an additional annual contribution of around £1,200 per student from HSBC bank and another has enjoyed substantial capital and other in-kind support from our local council.

We are therefore backing the “Support our sixth formers” campaign led by our associations; AoC and SFCA, working with other education bodies to make the case for increased investment in England’s sixth formers.  We are calling for an immediate increase of £200 in the funding per learner pending a review of post-16 funding.

This modest investment clearly wouldn’t restore all the cuts we’ve faced in recent years but it would allow for some increase in teaching time. We would aim to provide ‘something for something’ and would want to take a small step towards the broader and richer curriculum our students deserve. Starting from this move towards parity with either school or university funding, we could then engage in a dialogue with government about the kind of entitlement we want for all our 16-19-year olds.

The £200 uplift per student would cost around £244million – a sum which is smaller than the total government underspend on 16-19 funding (£373million over 3 years). Given the colossal sums which the chancellor is working with and the promises already made to universities and schools, here is one relatively low-cost investment which would make a big difference to a sector which, despite everything, continues to transform lives.

See also:

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

Investing in 16-19 education (February 2015)

Post-16 funding: making the wrong choices (April 2014)

Aspiration tax for the many, jackpot for the few (April 2014)

Drop the aspiration tax (January 2014)

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The GCSE retake challenge.

Imagine a year when all our efforts to improve sixth form students’ English and Maths worked for nearly everyone. A year when the English and Maths skills of all those post-16 students who achieved grade 3’s at school improved to at least the standard required to achieve grade 4 in the previous year.

Imagine that year also saw much stronger Year 11 achievement in GCSE English and Maths than the year before. Exam boards would be looking at a potential leap in grade 9-4 pass rates with the achievement ‘Bell curve’ shifting sharply to the right.

In such a year, would we be allowed a moment of joy to celebrate this dramatic national success story; the genuine raising of standards so fervently wished for by everyone?

Probably not.

Why? Because the built-in assumption that each year’s cohort is roughly the same as the last means that results must tend towards ‘comparative outcomes’. So in a very strong year, results are adjusted downwards in a way which has more in common with cohort norm-referencing than criterion referencing.

So, in order to avoid dramatic shocks to the system, real improvement is under-reported and students in different years with exactly the same performance can end up with different grades.

For post-16 retake students, many of whom are working at the margins of a good grade and are more likely to be achieving near the good grade threshold, this means greater uncertainty about outcomes. These students are being required to retake GCSE English or Maths to demonstrate a level of competence – but it turns out that this level is a moving target; a moving target on a cliff edge.

If we are going to set a national threshold standard for English and Maths, it should really be described in terms of what students know and can do. This is the only way we can all be confident that we know when they have actually crossed that threshold. This is far more important than ‘stable’ pass rates from year to year or the politician’s fear of accusations of grade inflation or falling standards every time national achievement rises.

Now imagine a year which saw a big increase or decrease in the proportion of candidates achieving a Distinction in their grade 5 piano exam, or the proportion of candidates passing the driving test. Would this lead to soul-searching by the testing bodies or claims about standards? If they were confident that they were applying and interpreting a clear standard consistently for each candidate, the existence of variations would not in themselves require adjustment or ‘comparative outcomes’ to maintain credibility.

The GCSE retake challenge is a massive preoccupation in many colleges and sixth forms. We all want to develop the literacy and numeracy skills of our students. We all hate the fact that these courses routinely have pass rates below 50% when we expect rates in the 90’s or 80’s for all our other provision. We also hate the uncertainty of the annual grade boundary lottery which disproportionately affects our retakers.

These 2 GCSE’s are now the equivalent of a compulsory driving test. Students need to keep taking them until they achieve a good pass. We are setting a national standard by creating a national target. Those of us who are committed to making the policy work don’t want watered-down or more ‘relevant’ versions. We just want to be confident that the grades awarded will be defined by the skills students have demonstrated and that our students’ efforts to reach the threshold are properly recognised. Even advocates of norm-referencing accept the need for national reference tests to establish whether standards are improving across the system from year to year. In the case of GCSE English and Maths, the argument is that they should themselves be national reference tests.

It would also be helpful if the ‘stepping stone’ lower level English and Maths qualifications articulated with the content of the GCSE specifications and if students could ‘bank’ their achievement and build on it.

Interestingly, an opposite side-effect of the comparative outcomes problem was demonstrated by the kerfuffle around grade thresholds for some modern language exams this summer. For instance, the 17% of A-level German candidates who were native German-speakers managed to achieve 50% of all the A* grades. Concerned private schools had asked boards to look again at grade boundaries because ‘too many’ native speakers were being entered and achieving well, allegedly ‘making it harder’ for non-native speakers to get good grades. But if the grade criteria were clear and stable, we should surely be celebrating the fact that more students are doing better because some of the cohort bring more skills with them.

While recognizing that exam requirements and content will change over time, we do need to assert the key principle that we want to grade students as objectively and consistently as possible. And because cohorts vary and teaching does make a difference, we need to be prepared to live with variations in results from year to year; upwards as well as downwards.

See also:

Pick your own performance measure (September 2016)

The post-16 retake challenge (September 2015)



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Easing student debt won’t cut it.

Apparently, the prime minister is considering ways to ease the burden of student debt (story here). That sounds like a good idea; she might also take the opportunity to consider how the tuition fee and loan system has changed the university system in this country and whether there’s a case for more fundamental change.

The popularity of Labour’s promise to abolish university tuition fees has clearly rattled the Conservatives. But it would be wrong to think of this as a simple political bribe which can be cancelled out by a counter-bribe. Such spending promises are the bread and butter of electoral politics, but the promise of free education, as part of a National Education Service, is more than just a spending commitment. It is a rejection of marketisation which many people feel has gone too far, with real consequences for quality and equality – in education and in other public services.

If that is the case, simply tweaking the interest rates on student loans won’t cut it. The prime minister is also said to be considering a plan to name and shame universities that fail to improve students’ earning potential. In other words, consumers just need better data about exactly how much their degree will improve their earning power and somehow the system will improve. This is one of those ‘pure’ market prescriptions which sees a public good as a purely financial good whose benefits to the individual can be quantified in value for money terms with no recognition of the wider social benefits or the macroeconomic and labour-market factors which impact on graduate earnings.

Such a move would be absolutely in line with the wider marketisation project. This has several elements, each of which can be specifically promoted by government policy while also taking root in the assumptions and behaviours of organisations and the people within them. In higher and further education, there’s no doubt that marketisation has changed the way people think and behave.

In summary, the steps in moving to a marketized education system include:

  1. Redefining education providers as businesses in competition with each other.
  2. Redefining students as consumers in competition with each other for the most valuable resources.
  3. Redefining educational achievement in financial terms.

Financialization (giving a monetary value to things) and marketisation (creating a market where things are exchanged for money) go hand in hand to drive the process at all levels, from the national to the institutional to the personal. In education, this threatens to reduce everything to essentially financial transactions; from our national priorities to the process of teaching and learning and the teacher-student relationship. At the national level it’s all about the success of UK plc and at the individual level it’s all about getting a better paid job. All social, political and cultural objectives are relegated to second order aims or ‘good intentions’.

This radical reductivism of the social to the financial fails to address the needs of a modern, democratic society trying to tackle any of the global and local challenges which we face. Reducing education, health, the environment, the economy, housing, human relations etc. to the purely economic is a recipe for disaster and economic failure. By forcing us to ignore the complexity of our societies and economies it prevents us from developing the complex policy responses which might actually take us forward.

If the prime minister wants to address concerns about higher education, perhaps she should be asking more fundamental questions about what we want from education in general and university degrees in particular.

See also:

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Education 2022: market or system? (June 2017)

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

University Gold (October 2016)

University for all (September 2016)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

Re-imagining the university (February 2015)

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