John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
Conservative governments are never short of critics of their education policies, and in my youth I was one of them. I did not see the 11+ as fair. I approved of grammar schools, and did not see those I attended as privileged – teaching outside the examination years was certainly not – but some people who should have passed did not, and the pass mark was higher for girls than for boys. I still don’t see the 11+ as fair, but the reasons have changed – the IQ section has become a separate curriculum, taught only to those whose parents can afford private tuition, and so not available to those who rely on state schools for their education. It is a racket.
Ofqual is not fair, and neither is the pelting Gavin Williamson has received over the past two years’ examination results. He was right to cancel last year’s perverse algorithm, albeit at the last minute, but he is now criticised for using the very system of moderated teachers’ assessments that our opponents were clamouring for. Overall, the grades are too high, particularly at A level, but there is no real alternative. The culprit is not the Secretary of State, but COVID.
Still, Williamson could have avoided much of the criticism by insisting that teachers be paid for doing the examination boards’ work, and particularly for double-marking, which I’ve not previously seen outside university finals. Restoring examinations by setting papers covering the full syllabus, and allowing candidates a wide margin of choice would be the best way forward. It would meet Churchill’s principle that exams should enable people to show what they can do, rather than find out what they can’t, and remove pressure on teachers to inflate grades in their own school.
One of my own students, whom we will call Emily, is 18. When we met, shortly before her GCSEs in 2019, she had predicted grades of 3-4 in most subjects. Weekly individual sessions, with well-organised support from a parent and good French teaching in school, moved this to 4-5. Emily learns more slowly than some, but has very good understanding once an idea is clear in her mind, and a strong instinct for helping others. Excellent work by her sixth form college secured starred distinctions in all three units of her Health and Social Care Extended Diploma (BTech Level 3). She has had two offers of apprenticeships as an assistant in early years and special educational needs, and has accepted one. She decided, in my view wisely, that university – debt, with no better employment prospects – was not the route for her.
Emily’s BTech course was exactly what she and the country needed, placing her well to fill the growing need for trained British care staff, and giving her the confidence to grow into a leadership position. Whether an A or T level, would have done as much is doubtful. So it would be a pity if the rumour of BTech’s impending abolition were true. This course is close to the German model of work-related education and training. If others are not, they should be reformed or scrapped. But here, as everywhere else, one size does not fit all. Putting work-related courses in academic dress fools no-one, and has done damage, notably in Labour’s project 2000 for nursing.
Ofqual itself needs to get rid of the algorithmic straitjacket that has dogged it since its inception. The approach was defended by the Royal Statistical Society last week on the grounds that the problem was with the quality of the algorithm, but its key weakness is to use statistics as a substitute for judgement. All school subjects are not alike, and the attempt to bash them all into a single framework to make sense of the LibDems’ Progress 8 system has failed.
Some subjects, usually those that are not based primarily on literacy or maths, are an easy touch, and others, particularly languages and physics, are not. This is unfair to those taking languages, and has made German an endangered species in state schools. By all means offer GCSE photography – it helped another of my pupils get a job as an estate agent – but don’t pretend that it makes comparable demands to physics or Mandarin. Scrap Progress 8, base exams on what can reasonably be expected of 16 and 18-year-olds, then mark them on that basis, and we might begin to see some progress towards fairness.