Driving up standards,” a rigorously over-used phrase, but summing up how crude and unscientific the government’s approach to school improvement is. Is it built on a notion that improved output results from increased input? On a factory assembly line, perhaps, but in the classroom? If your class does not understand something the first time, you don’t simply say it again louder, you explain it differently.
“Raising the bar” – a similarly hackneyed phrase. The government does not have the monopoly on high expectations, and simply having high expectations is not enough. It is a skilled and continually up-skilled profession which improves outcomes (which is why the Chartered College needs our support).
“Limit the number of students who can achieve the top grade.” Why? To make the most privileged stand out more?
Limit the range of knowledge deemed valuable. Why? Does the world of work require clones?
When, in 2015, someone from DFE told me that 85% of children nationally would be expected to achieve an as yet undetermined standard at age 11, I enquired from which research the figure of 85% was derived. I received the answer, “It sounds challenging”.
Why limit the number of students who can achieve the top grades? To make the most socially advantaged stand out even more, perhaps? It achieves the opposite of improving social mobility.
Consider how secondary teachers are now having to guess at the meaning of a new numerical grading system for GCSEs. Is this to allow grade boundaries to be set in order to achieve a particular quota?
Why are the score boundaries for statutory tests withheld, even after the tests are marked and the grades are in? Even though teachers are involved in discussions leading up to the setting of the score boundaries for a test, ultimately, it is a decision by a government department, the Standards and Testing Agency, which sets them.
Schools should, of course, be held to account, and data has its place to inform strategic decision-making. But how trustworthy and consistent is the data used to hold schools to account, and how open to manipulation?
Who said these words?
“Historically, the floor standard has identified only a small proportion of schools every year which are below that standard – and this year I can reassure you that no more than 1% more schools will be below the floor standard than last year.”
Those who determine pass mark thresholds have the power to make the data tell whichever story they require and to match the current political narrative – rising or falling standards, “grade inflation and dumbing down”, widespread improvements required, “haven’t we done well”, etc.
Adjustments made to pass marks to alter the proportion of students achieving ‘A’ grades (grade deflation/inflation) may be a well known phenomenon, but is it morally justifiable? It results in ‘A’ or ‘9’ having different values for different cohorts. It results in applicants for a job being potentially advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the year in which they sat their exams.
This is the scandal which underpins a brutal and broken examination regime, and one which, I believe we have become normalised to. The current system of statutory tests and public exams is wide open to politically-motivated, grade boundary manipulation.
“Driving up standards?” Sounds tough doesn’t it? But rather than empowering the profession to raise standards, grade boundary manipulation is hindering us from becoming the international beacon of excellence we could be. They call it “rigour”, which seems to translate as “make them learn the prescribed knowledge sooner.” At the expense of what? Curriculum breadth? Workplace skills? Mental Health? In place of deep and broad learning we are being encouraged to provide for a narrow educational diet to satisfy the soundbites and ambitions of self-serving, tough-talking politicians.