Category Archives: school

How do we select the right 11 year-olds for the right schools? Can assessment be tutor proof?

A new Prime Minister and a new education policy. Not content with merely continuing the long established journey towards the privatisation of ‘state’ schools by stealth (i.e. academisation), Theresa May is keen on the idea of reintroducing grammar schools.

This is not a post about whether selection by ability is a good thing or not, though that may come in a future post. Instead I want to ponder how we decide which children will go to the grammar schools and which ones will not.

Selective schools, both state and private, already exist of course. These schools have to have a means to identify which pupils to take and which pupils not to take. The traditional method of selection is through a one-off 11-plus exam. Proponents of grammar schools argue, publicly at least, that grammar schools often a better chance of academic achievement for bright children from poorer/ disadvantaged backgrounds. However grammar schools always were, and still are, disproportionately filled with middle class children. Alongside the many advantages of coming from a better-off/ more advantaged home, there is a whole industry around tutoring/training to pass the grammar school entry exam. My eldest son is now in year 6 and if we lived in a grammar school area I would now be throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at him to ensure that he gets into a grammar school-- after all, bringing back grammar schools for the ‘brightest’ (say 25%) children also means bringing back secondary modern schools for the other 75%. I went to a comprehensive school but know a lot of people who talk about ‘passing’ or ‘failing’ the 11+. The so-called ‘failure’ seems to have had a lifetime affect on the post-war generation.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. The twittersphere has been abuzz about the need to ensure that the ‘tests’ (I use the word here to cover any sort assessment) are tutor-proof. In, other words is it possible to design an assessment that will reliably discriminate between ‘able’ and ‘less able’ which does not discriminate on the grounds of previous experience, background or performance? Is there a means of assessment to prevent a less-able child getting into grammar school because she has had private tutoring to help her pass the test at the expense of bright of an able child who does not enjoy these advantages? This takes into the even more dangerous territory of ‘innate’ intelligence that can be separated from previous experience and from teaching and learning. Is there a test that can separate the disadvantaged child who may not have performed well in primary school and may not have ‘engaged in education’, but would benefit from a grammar school education from a pupil who does well because she works hard and has a supportive (or pushy) home environment?

To be totally reliable such a test would need to be:

1. Impossible to game through studying or the practice of learning and teaching. (Despite what proponents of IQ type tests say, like any test, the more you practice the better you get at them). The tutor-proof assessment goes against the whole point of assessment which is to evaluate whether learning has taken place. Assessment might be able to predict future learning achievements, but only on the basis of past learning.

2. Be culture/ value free. The tests would need to ensure that children were not disadvantaged by going to the wrong school, growing up in the wrong type of household or with parents from a different culture to the prevailing local culture. For the most part cultural bias can be taken into account, but not eliminated completely. Cultural bias can many forms and assessment can reward knowledge of both so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The belief that cultural bias can be eliminated completely is more dangerous than cultural bias itself.

3. Not rely on luck. There is a subtext in the grammar schools debate that grammar schools are/ will be good schools and other schools not so good. If in attempting to eliminate the above questions we end up with an assessment which is only slightly more reliable than a coin toss, a dice throw or a game of snakes and ladders then the whole point of selective schools in undermined.

4. Transparent and fair. If those taking the test do not know how marks are allocated or exactly what is being assessed then the assessment is neither transparent or fair. Once teachers/ tutors/ parents know what kind of questions are asked on a test they can learn how to do better on the exam and this lead to testing to the test.

I’ll write in more detail my thoughts about selection at age 11 in a later post, though you’ve probably guessed I’m not very keen on the idea.

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Taxpayers' cash should not be used to fund faith schools, say voters (But what did the survey really ask?)

headline

Taxpayers' cash should not be used to fund faith schools, say voters. Labour wants talks on teaching of religion as poll shows 58% of the public urge abolition or axing of state funds

The above headline in The Guardian intrigued me so I thought I would take a look at the actual questions asked. The survey was carried out by a company called Opinium on behalf of The Observer. On Twitter I tried to find out what questions were actually asked; interesting Richard Adams, Education Editor at the Guardian did not know, but said he would do some digging. I eventually found a pdf of the survey results on Opinium’s website.

In the interests of full disclosure I am a Christian with two children, one of whom is pre-school and the other attends a non-faith primary school. I did not attend a faith school myself. I’m not that interested in faith schools per se, but headlines such as the above invariably lead to debates about the relationships between religion and society that I feel duty bound to take an interest in.

The reason I’ve written this post is that I am very interested in questionnaire design. Questionnaire design is harder than most people think, but one would have thought a company which does surveys in its day to day work would be quite good at designing questionnaires. This one is so lousy I can only think it was politically motivated. It fact it is so bad I’m not entirely clear what the political motivation might have been.

Let’s start from the very beginning and take a look at Question 1. Respondents are asked to choose the opinion which is most like their own—note carefully -- not their opinion but the one that “best describes” their view of faith schools.
There are only three possible opinions plus a ‘Don’t know/ No opinion’ option.

The three available opinions are:

1. I have no objection to faith schools existing and being funded by the state
2. I have no objection to faith schools existing but they should not be funded by the state (i.e. private schools may be faith schools but not state schools)
3. Faith schools should be banned entirely

The best describes bit might be some sort of attempt to meaningfully take into account some of the nuances involved in such arguments but how views such as the following, which I suspect are widespread, fit into these three options.

1. I have no objection to faith schools existing and being funded by the state as long as they are only Christian/ CofE/ Catholic/ Muslim etc. (delete as appropriate)
2. I have no objection to faith schools existing and being funded by the state as long as they are NOT Christian/ CofE/ Catholic/ Muslim etc. (delete as appropriate)
3. I agree with faith schools but don’t agree with private faith schools because I don’t agree that there should be private schools.
4. I agree with faith schools as long as they don’t take their faith aspect too seriously.
5. I think all schools should be faith schools.
6. I agree with taxpayer funded faith schools as long as it’s not a really weird religion like…

As 1 and 2 above indicate there is really no such thing as a faith school, merely schools which are in one way or another connected to a specific faith, religion or belief system. Faith schools vary of course within faiths —Oasis academies, CoE voluntary aided village primary schools and ‘fundamentalist’ Christian private schools could all be described as Christian faith schools but they are certainly not the same in their ethos.

Question 5: In your view, how serious a risk is there of some predominantly Muslim schools encouraging their pupils to adopt extremist views?

1.Very serious
2.Quite serious
3.Not very serious
4.Not at all serious
5.Don’t know/ no opinion

The only specific religion mentioned in the survey is Islam. I’m not sure how one could answer this question in any meaningful way. This is in the context of the recent ‘Trojan Horse’ controversy of course, the full facts of which have not really emerged. The ‘Trojan Horse’ schools are not faith schools, or Muslim schools, but schools in which most children (and their parents) identify as Muslims. Overall 74% of those questioned thought there was a serious risk (i.e. very serious or quite serious), but what do we mean by extremist views? Extremists, however defined do not need extremist schools to incubate their views and activities. A lot of teachers would probably feel they are being credited as having far more influence on young people than they actually have.

The footer from the pdf of the report.
The footer from the pdf of the report.

A couple of further points: Although the findings are available there is a statement of confidentiality in the footer of each page. This may have been an oversight, or it might be a case that this data was never meant to be made public. I’ll assume the former until I have evidence to the contrary. It is also unclear how the survey was carried out, though it is possible to register with Opinium as a 'survey filler in' and I suspect people who fill in surveys are less likely to be in the ‘No opinion’ camp.

Whatever the truth the 58% figure does not strike me as particularly likely or unlikely—I’m not even sure if this is higher or lower than what I suspect would be the percentage of people disagreeing with schools having a religious ethos or culture. The Observer is evidently trying to influence the Labour Party on the matter of faith schools. I just wish they had designed a better survey.

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Severe grading at GCSE and A-level MFL: Consequences for Higher Education

Issue 1: Severe grading

Research into grading at GCSE and A-level has revealed that Modern Languages are graded more severely than most other subjects. A pupil who takes a GCSE or A-level in a language is, on average, likely to get half a grade lower in their language than they will in their other subjects. For example a pupil who gets a mid to low C in English is likely to get a D in their language GCSE.

Issue 2: Preparedness for university-level study.

When the severe grading issue was discussed at the recent LLAS workshop for Heads of Department, it prompted discussion about another entirely separate issue—the extent to which students are prepared for language studies in higher education. Students are getting good grades at GCSE and A-level, but are not as well prepared as university lecturers would like.

Issue 3: the proportions of students getting higher grades in language GCSE.

Over 70% of students got a GCSE grade C or above in French, German and Spanish in 2012 compared to 58% in mathematics. This would suggest that it is easier to get a higher grade in languages than mathematics. This is fairly straightforward explanation here: the students who take languages GCSE are generally speaking of high academic ability than the cohort as a whole (nearly everyone takes mathematics, irrespective of academic ability). The GCSE data alone does not tell us this, but when we examine all of an individual student’s grades we can see that those who take GCSE languages will, on average, do worse than they will in other subjects.

Consequences for higher education

Some in higher education welcome severe grading—it could be argued that those who succeed at school, despite severe grading are those who will do best in higher education. The reverse argument is that those seeking to recruit school pupils to study languages at university are essentially trying to convince students to study their worst subject (assuming that pupils consider there to be a link between grades and how good they are at the subject). Work by Felix Maringe on university course choice found that employability was an important factor in the choice or subject, but only alongside performance. If potential students believe that they are not as good at subject A as they are at subject B they are less likely to choose it.

Conclusions

The argument about severe grading is entirely based on averages, and, as the statistics joke goes it’s normal to be deviant; some students do consider languages to be their best subject and their grades will support this belief.  Others will be getting more than half a grade lower on languages compared to their other subjects. Grading adjustment could benefit universities enormously in terms of recruitment—if students did as well (or better) in languages than in their other subjects more would consider languages to be their best subjects and choose them in higher education.

Questions about the actual curriculum and standards are actually separate questions entirely. Severe grading is about relative performance, ensuring the highest performing students in languages get the same grades as the highest performing students in other subjects.

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GCSE results: German entries down, French stable, Spanish still growing

French GCSE

Entries down 0.51% from 2011

Male entries up 0.4%

Female entries down 0.51%

% grade C and above down from 72.5% to 71.7%

Spanish GCSE

Entries up 9.76% from 2011

Male entries up 10.27%

Female entries up 9.97%

% grade C and above down from 74.9% to 74.0%

German GCSE

entries down 5.49% from 2011

Male entries down 4.53%

Female entries down 6.33%

% grade C and above down from 75.8% to 75.6%

 

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Pupil attitudes to languages survey now online.

I'm please to report that the findings of our survey of 1000+ school pupils and their teachers is now online. It also contains case studies of the status of languages within selected schools throught the UK.

John Canning, Angela Gallagher-Brett, Fabio Tartarini and Heather McGuinness (2010) Routes into Languages: Report on teacher and pupil attitude surveys (Southampton, Routes into Languages). Available from the Routes website.

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