Monday, 9 January 2012

I blame the free market for exam board cheats

A-levels exam
The furore over exam board practices is a symptom of a deeper malaise. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

For secondary school teachers like me, training sessions run by the exam boards are invaluable. And I've attended plenty of meetings where there have been strong hints about upcoming questions, similar to those exposed by the Telegraph this week. I've never heard an examiner being so open about the sorts of topics that the exam would cover, though: I blame the free market system for this behaviour. Exam boards are very anxious to keep their customers satisfied, and perhaps they think it only fair to give a little extra. After all, those attending are paying good money – often hundreds of pounds – to go to a short talk.

In the majority of cases, though, your school stumps the cash for you to go because, even if you don't get a copy of the forthcoming exam paper, these meetings give you a vital insight into how to improve your pupils' grades; something your career, your pay packet and your school's future depend upon. The main function of these seminars is simply to translate exam board jargon, often so bewildering in official documents, into friendly English.

The scales have fallen from my eyes in a few of these meetings. For example, a few years back I taught an A-level English language course and my students had been getting consistently poor results in one unit; I'd read and re-read the bumpf – the mark schemes, the examiners' reports – but it hadn't helped. Then I attended a meeting and was told a few key things, among which was the importance of fostering genuinely personalised responses among my pupils; and the examiner explained how to do this. I changed the way I taught and was rewarded with considerably better results.

This anecdote is significant in the light of the furore caused by the Telegraph's undercover reporting. On the whole, exam boards are not telling teachers exam questions so that pupils can be spoon-fed the answers, but quite the opposite. They are reassuring teachers that the questions are predictable, in order to try to persuade them that students will get the best marks if they come up with their own ideas rather than producing copy-cat generic answers to what are essentially generic questions.

This "cloning" is happening because all GCSEs and A-levels are now marked by measuring the degree to which pupils meet the relevant assessment objectives (AOs); these are essentially the key subject skills. Exam questions are shaped by the AOs; this means the questions are rarely surprising. For example, in my own subjects, English and media, I feel confident about the types of questions that will be asked in the exams, even if I can't be sure of the exact wording.

An examiner could therefore point teachers in the right direction – perhaps misinterpreted by the Telegraph as telling teachers the questions – without feeling that he or she was saying anything new; most teachers would have guessed what questions were going to come up anyway.

Exam boards have put a renewed focus upon "personal response" (somewhat ironic considering their questions are anything but). This is a noble aim but I'm not sure the current regime of exams is delivering the originality of thought that we all want. Exhaustive academic research into this area was conducted by the Assessment Reform Group in schools. Its report, Fit for purpose? seriously questions the validity, reliability and cost-effectiveness of our national assessment system, finding it to have a negative impact upon the quality of teaching in classrooms, pupil motivation and "genuine" standards. While I don't agree with everything the group says, I think its powerful, evidence-based arguments have never been taken seriously enough by the powers that be. Let's hope this latest debacle leads on to a more serious debate about the role of exams in our schools.

Michael Gove faces legal action as rebel primary battles his academy plan

Michael Gove, the education secretary, is facing legal action by the primary school whose supporters he branded as "ideologues" last week for fighting his plans to turn it into an academy. Lawyers for the governing body of Downhills primary in Haringey, north London, have escalated the row by accusing Gove of illegally trying to force the school to become independent of its local authority and be taken over by a sponsor.

The Tory cabinet minister has been given less than two weeks to respond to a "statement of claim" against him or face a judicial review over his conduct, which parents at the school say has been unfair and politically motivated.

If the school is successful, it could not only protect Downhills from becoming an academy but stall the government's drive to push schoolsinto independence from their local authorities by making ministers rethink their methods.

The development is the latest twist in an extraordinary dispute that washighlighted by the education secretary in a speech last week.

Gove wants to force Downhills, which inspectors last year put under notice to improve its performance, to accept that it will become an academy by the end of this month or face the dissolution of its governing body.

The move is part of a government drive to turn 200 underperformingprimary schools into academies, funded by the state but run by sponsors which are often private companies, trusts, charities or religious organisations.

However, Gove has been frustrated by parents and governors at some schools, including those at Downhills, who have rebelled against the changes. Last week the minister described campaigners at the school fighting his academies programme as "ideologues" who were putting "doctrine ahead of pupils' interests" by preventing him from tackling failure. However, parents and governors at Downhills believe they have a strong case against the government. They say drastic steps have been taken to lift standards and a monitoring visit by inspectors last September found a "clear trend of improvement".

The school's headteacher, Leslie Church, told the Observer that Downhills was due for an Ofsted inspection within the next four months and it was premature of Gove to force it to act now. "At the moment the school has a notice to improve and we are awaiting an inspection which will either take us out of notice to improve or, if the worst comes to the worst, we would be put in special measures.

"What we are asking the secretary of state to do is wait until we have had that inspection. Clearly our results have improved and we would hope to continue with that improving picture. We have sent a letter of claim, it is eight pages long, which sets out why it is an unreasonable intervention at this stage."

Roger Sahota, a governor, said: "We are saying that the secretary of state has acted unlawfully by forcing Downhills to become an academy and that action is premature in advance of the next Ofsted inspection. It is quite clear that the attainment records are improving and what they are doing is ideologically or politically motivated."

It is understood that a number of other primary schools are consulting lawyers over Gove's attempts to force them into academy status and campaigners say the minister is determined to do away with local authority control.

Church said: "I am neither for nor against academies. I think it is right for communities to decide what school they have. Therefore if the drive to change all schools to academy status is something the government wishes to pursue, that is something that should be put before the electorate as a manifesto.

"Outstanding schools are being encouraged into academy status, schools at the bottom end are being forced to become academies, so that leaves schools in the middle, and basically my understanding is that the financial viability of local authorities is left in the balance. Is the motivation to take all schools out of local authority control? I just don't know."

Janet Lalleysmith, whose four-year-old daughter attends Downhills, said she was not aware of any support among parents for academy status. "Gove is not addressing the reality that parents are defending the school. There is nothing magical about being an academy.

"What is needed is intelligent thought about each particular school. Instead we have slash and burn, completely against the 'big society' and localism ideals."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Haringey's primary schools are the worst performing in inner London. This year, results went backwards - dropping below both the national and London average in English and maths. Similar local authorities in London, such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, outperform them. It is vital that improvements are made quickly, which is why we are looking at academy sponsorship to turn around failing schools. We cannot simply stand by and let schools fail their pupils year after year."

• This article was amended on 8 January 2012. We added a comment from the Department for Education in the last paragraph.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Guardian : Mike Baker

National College Annual Conference in Birmingham, Britain - Jun 2010
MIchael Gove is driving through change in schools, despite his rhetoric on autonomy.

The Easter school holidays are a landmark – and I am not thinking about the build-up to the royal wedding. At their annual conferences, the teacher unions will get their first chance since the general election to voice collective opposition to the coalition government's policies.

But while they are busy condemning the spread of academies and free schools, headteachers and governors will be using the holiday period to ponder whether to join the growing rush towards academy status.

By the time schools return from the holidays, the first anniversary of the coalition government will be virtually upon us. And, make no mistake, for all the talk about boosting school autonomy and ending central interference, it is becoming clear that this government is driving extensive change in the school system.

Twenty years ago, on becoming education secretary Kenneth Clarke complained that "half the levers are missing". He felt unable to affect what happened in thousands of individual schools. Today the levers are all there, and Michael Gove is pulling them like an enthusiastic railway controller.

In particular, he is using the two most powerful levers: finance and accountability targets. Let's begin with finance. The biggest change to the school system right now is the conversion to academy status.

Last month, a poll conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders showed that almost half of secondary schools had either converted or were actively considering doing so. A further 34% of school leaders were undecided, and only 19% remained defiantly against the change.

And what was driving all these schools to consider becoming academies? Of those considering change, 72% said they believed it would help them financially. Only 24% were motivated by dissatisfaction with their local authority.

Headteachers I speak to are quite clear that academy status offers a financial cushion to soften the hard landing that is coming with the April budgets.

Soon, a tipping point will be reached and even the most reluctant will feel unable to resist the tide. Once several large secondary schools have converted, taking their share of central budgets, a local authority will be unable to support those schools that remain.

This is the fear of many primary heads. They do not want to convert, but see an inevitability to it. Anticipating this, some councils even suggested that their schools should convert en masse.

I predict that by the next general election most schools will have become academies. This will be the coalition government's big legacy, far more significant than the relative sideshow of free schools.

BBC : British bulldog 'vanishing from schools'

Teachers fear traditional playground games like British bulldog and conkers are disappearing from many of England's schools, a survey suggests.

More than a quarter (29%) of the 653 school staff surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said chasing game British bulldog had been banned from their school.

Some 14% said pupils were banned from playing conkers and 9% said leapfrog.

Most (57%) said they felt schools were becoming increasingly risk averse.

The research was published at the ATL teaching union's annual conference in Liverpool on Tuesday.

And overall 15% of teachers, lecturers, support staff and school leaders said that fewer playground games and sports activities were played at their school than three years ago.

'Broken bones'

The key reasons for the decline were fewer staff on hand to supervise activities, reduced funding and concerns over pupil safety.

One secondary school teacher said the game, bulldog, was banned at her school "because of the number of broken bones it generates!"

And a primary school teacher said: "Apparently the main problem with conkers is that nut allergy sufferers are increasingly allergic to them."

Teachers were also questioned about changes in attitude towards risk. Some 57% of staff said there was a growing trend towards risk aversion in schools.

And of the 383 staff who thought schools were more risk adverse, 90% said it constrained activities both in and out of school.

Some 84% think it limits the curriculum, while 83% believe risk aversion puts a brake on pupils' preparation for life.

A deputy head teacher at a primary school in Cleveland said: "All staff recognise the need to keep children safe, but not all recognise that children still need to take measured risks to develop real life skills."

A teacher at the Froebel Small School in East Sussex said it tried to help children learn to be safe.

"Children are allowed to explore their physical limits and learn to negotiate physical tasks at their own pace. Staff have clear guidelines and children have clear boundaries," the teacher added.

Another secondary school teacher, from Wales, said: "Pupils need to learn their own limitations, which they can't do if they don't encounter risk."

And there continues to be fears that school trips could end in teachers or schools being sued, should something go wrong.

'Mud and love'

The majority of staff think school trips and activities are very important, with 92% of those surveyed saying they enhanced learning and support the curriculum.

Some schools already have a relaxed attitude towards risk. A teacher at a primary school in England told how its children go on weekly nature walks and end up being taught how to make a campfire and cook on it.

"We also spend the day in the woods around a fire pretending to be Anglo-Saxons. Mud and love is our motto. I think we are unique!"

ATL general secretary, Mary Bousted, said: "Teachers, lecturers, support staff and school leaders all recognise that children need to be safe, however, without encountering risk it is difficult for them to learn their own limitations."

Is this true? What do you find?

Tell us what you think...