Campaign for State Education

EXAMS AND MORE EXAMS

ISSUE No 88

IN THIS ISSUE
Examinations and children's well-being; Exams fiasco – a parent's experience; Bogus statistics in the White Paper; Who controls our schools?; Comment

COMMENT

The latest wheeze in the determination of governments since 2010 to take us back to the future is to encourage the setting up of highly selective Sixth Forms in economically disadvantaged areas, with the ostensible purpose of encouraging children from deprived backgrounds to gain entry to prestigious universities.  

One such college is being currently planned for the West Midlands town of Dudley.  It will be sponsored by Eton College, no less, but, unlike its august parent institution, which charges around £45,000 per annum (before “extras” are added), it will be publicly funded. Eton's rôle will be to sprinkle star dust and supply “expertise”.

In encouraging this sort of thing the government is adopting a view of education that likens the process to panning for gold in the streams of California.  By patience and persistence the discerning teacher will occasionally come across a gleaming nugget of academic ability among the sludge and silt of working class children.

The nugget is removed from the sludge and subsequently refined by the kind of expertise acquired from years of teaching the children of the very rich.  

It would be a great irony if the nugget's place at Oxford were acquired at the expense of a pupil from Eton but that is probably not what the government has in mind.



Exams fiasco – a parent's experience

If you have a child /children in Y11 or Y13, they will be in the first cohorts to sit public examinations since 2019. Most of their learning over the past 2 years for these exams has been delivered on-line. It is not the same, and it’s not until your child is assessed through course work and constant exams, that you (and they) realise the limitations of on-line learning.

My son is now in Y13.  He suffered the horrors of Gavin Williamson’s Centre Assessed Grades fiasco for his GCSE results. Thankfully, common sense did prevail, as otherwise, my son would have suffered downgraded results owing to the prior exam history of his school. He received the grades from his teachers that they thought reflected the work he had done, without any adjustment.

Most of his 6th form learning was delivered on-line – staring at a computer in his bedroom and listening to a disembodied voice. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to concentrate when attending on-line sessions that last longer than 2 hours.  I cannot imagine the struggle for teachers and pupils to teach and learn via a computer for 6 hours per day.  And it does impact learning…..I know that from my son’s experience.  

Thankfully, pupils are back in school, but the pressure is now on.  My son feels the pressure and is anxious. His future depends on these exams and how he feels and performs in May and June when he sits his A-level exams.  The stakes are high.

It’s a shame that the Government has not had the courage to seize the opportunity to review and consider alternatives to our “high stakes” exam system.

Examinations and children's well-being

Speaking to an audience in Lichfield Cathedral on April 6th, Mark Russell, CEO of The Children's Society, said that detailed research conducted by the society had led to the conclusion that UK children are now the most unhappy children in Europe.  (These findings concur with those of the OECD in 2018, when UK 15 year olds came 69th out of 72 countries surveyed for life satisfaction).   

He identified two primary causes of this situation: very high rates of poverty, with one third of UK children now living in households which receive less than 60% of median income, and unhappiness at school.  Asked about what worried them most, UK children overwhelmingly identified fear of failure at school as their main source of anxiety and Mark Russell was convinced that the chief source of this fear was the UK system of “high stakes” examinations.

This view is supported by the organisation More than a Score*, whose research shows that 95% of parents believe that SATs have a negative effect on children's well-being and that  97% of primary headteachers believe that SATs should not be happening this year.  The children themselves are slightly more optimistic: only 60% of 10 and 11 year olds admit to being worried about KS2 SATS.   

Most UK children now experience “high stakes” assessments and examinations from the age of 4, when the Baseline Assessment Test is carried out.  

This is followed in Year 1 by the Phonics Screening Test (which has to be re-sat in Year 2 by those children who “fail”) and in Year 2 by Key Stage 1 SATS.  The children get a break in Year 3 but normal service resumes in Year 4 with KS2 SATS and the online Multiplication Tables Check, in which children get 25 seconds to answer questions and any score below 100% is deemed a “fail.”

Secondary school currently offers four years of respite but the government is thoughtfully planning to reinstate the previously discredited KS3 SATS.  Then come two years of preparation for GCSE, an examination designed for the mid-20th century, followed, for the majority, by A-level, an examination modernised in 2000 but quickly restored by Michael Gove to the style and approach of the 1950s, albeit with a more complicated grading system.  

No other education system in Europe subjects children to anything like this barrage of formal external tests and examinations.  In Finland, which is regularly among the best performing countries in international comparisons, children's progress is assessed informally but extremely accurately by teachers whose professionalism is implicitly trusted at all levels of society, including the government.  

Indeed no Finnish children are required to take part in “high stakes” assessments at any stage in their education.  Those who sit the school leaving examination, with a view to going to university, do so as a matter of choice.

The tests and examinations forced upon UK children are not merely unnecessary: they distort the whole educational process, overvaluing factual recall and narrow, convergent thinking at the expense of creativity and originality.  As the educationist George Sampson wrote: “Delight in measured results means a demand for results that can be measured” but that was in 1921.  Plus ça change...

*CASE NEC recently had the pleasure of being addressed by Jill Robinson of More than a Score.  We recommend all readers to take a look at www.morethanascore.org.uk

Bogus statistics in the White Paper

The DfE White Paper claims that more than 7 out of 10 sponsored academies (LA schools forced to adopt academy status following a poor OFSTED judgement) are now rated “good” or “outstanding” compared with around 1 in 10 of the local authority maintained schools they replaced.  Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network (www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk) has analysed the data and finds the DfE's claim to be nonsense, stating that “the data that the DfE relies on for this claim actually reveals a very different picture.”

Firstly, he points out that, rather than the DfE's claimed 70%, actually only 56% (1,415 out of 2,408) of sponsored academies are now rated “good” or “outstanding” and that sponsored academies also perform far worse than local authorities in achieving school improvement.  Of the 1,583 LA schools forced to become sponsored academies after receiving grades of “requires improvement” or “inadequate” in their previous Ofsted inspections, 65%  subsequently achieved grades of “good” or “outstanding”.  Of the 4,257 similarly graded local authority schools, no less than 93% subsequently achieved “good” or “outstanding” while remaining with their LA.  Even among the worst performing 151 LA schools - those previously rated “inadequate”- 88% subsequently achieved “good” or “outstanding” without becoming academies.

“There is no evidence anywhere in the data to support the DfE's contention that only 10% of local authority schools achieved these improvements. What the DfE’s own data actually shows is that if a school remains in local authority hands it is far more likely to improve than if it becomes an academy.”

The data also shows that converter academies (high performing LA schools that decide to become academies) do not necessarily retain their high status. 177 converter academies rated “good” or “outstanding” as LA schools, subsequently fell away to be rated “inadequate”.   Only two thirds of these subsequently improved enough to regain their previous grades.

This should not be news to the DfE. As far back as 2014 the department found that only 3 of the top 20 multi-academy trusts were above average in terms of value added. In 2015, a report by PWC repeated the same pattern, with only 3 of the top 16 MATs (multi-academy trusts) being above average for value added.  And in 2016 the DfE’s own analysis found that two thirds of secondary multi-academy trusts had value added that was below average with 54% being “significantly below average”.

The DfE boasts that the number of schools rated “good”or “outstanding” has gone from 68% in 2010 to 88% today.  However, it is clear that a large part of that improvement has been achieved by LA maintained schools and that schools which are transferred from LAs to academy trusts are likely to lag behind rather than perform better than previously under the local authority.

It is clear from the data that the best way to improve “failing” schools is to move them back into local authority provision.


Who controls our schools?

The Reclaiming Education alliance recently organised two webinars on this question, with the focus being on the growth since 2010 of the “academy schools” programme.  A full account of both webinars can be found at http://www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk/conferencereport.html but here are some of the highlights.

The first webinar, held on March 16th dealt with the way in which democratic control over education – a public institution – has been lost by handing over public assets to academy trusts.   The event began with presentations from Warwick Mansell, a journalist who specialises in this field, and Meg Hillier, Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.  

Warwick gave a detailed account of the governance structure of the Mellor Educational Trust, a now defunct academy trust set up by former Conservative minister David Mellor.  The governing body of the trust was overwhelmingly made up of governors appointed by the sponsor, with only a tiny minority of governors representing any other interests than those of the sponsor.  This structure gave the sponsor complete control over the decisions of the trust.  

In 2018 Mellor's involvement in a scandal led to the Trust's being wound up and its schools being transferred to the Future Academy Trust controlled by Schools' Minister Lord Nash and his wife, Caroline. Future had already attracted considerable criticism for its unbalanced approach to curriculum: 19 lessons per week in English and Latin but no computing, no R.E. and only two science lessons!  

This kind of governance structure effectively allowed the content of children's education to be determined by the whims of powerful individuals.    

Meg Hillier spoke of the large amounts of public money wasted by the academies programme because of lack of government control and slack accounting practices.  

For example, a MAT is not required to produce accounts for the individual schools which it controls: it is only required to produce accounts for the trust as a whole.  The dangerous implications of this are obvious.  The “free school” programme, a subset of the academies programme based upon ideas imported from Sweden, had been particularly wasteful, with sponsoring groups having been allowed to identify and purchase the freehold of (often unsuitable) premises at inflated prices.  

She also spoke of the practice of academies purchasing goods and services from “related parties”, an abuse that had led to cases of corruption.  Both these abuses had now been stopped but not before a great deal of damage had been done.  In some cases financially incontinent academy trusts had been “propped up” with additional public funding because to wind up these trusts had been seen as likely to cause serious political damage.

The second webinar, held on March 30th, included presentations by Nigel Gann, a former Headteacher who now writes about education, and two local politicians: Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Borough Council, and Anntoinette Bramble, Deputy Mayor of Hackney. Nigel Gann argued that government does not see education as a public good but rather as a public utility.  The difference between the two was that, while the concept of “public good” implies that every member of the society has an entitlement to the best education available, that of “utility” implies a set of transactional goals which determine the way in which resources are distributed.

Georgia Gould and Anntoinette Bramble between them gave an account of Local Authority best practice, which was thriving in their respective boroughs through the Camden Learning project www.camdenlearning.org.uk and, in Hackney, the Diverse Curriculum www.hackneyservicesforschools.co.uk/extranet/hackneys-diverse-curriculum  in spite of swingeing cuts to local government funding since 2010.

Other speakers were Louise Regan a national officer of the NEU and John McDonnell MP, both of whom strongly reinforced the argument that the academies programme is not conducive to the public good.

Missing from what were nevertheless very stimulating occasions was a detailed account of how the obvious faults of academy governance actually affect the learning of children.  

Drawing attention to poor governance structures, financial waste and the potential for corruption may not be effective if parents are not also aware of how much better their children's education might be within a better structure.

Also missing was a realistic political strategy for restoring democratic control over our schools.  As John McDonnell pointed out, local government has lost £100bn of direct grant since 2010 and many councils are simply not in a position to revert to the kind of LA structures that existed before that date, even if there were a government with the necessary political will.

Perhaps future webinars might focus on these issues?