Friday, 19 August 2011

Time for fixed boundaries

No - this isn't an article about the riots. But yes, I am going to go a little Tory-traditionalist on you and take the Telegraph point of view. I want the abolition of grade inflation at A-level and GCSE by the imposition of fixed boundaries of percentages of students for every grade. First set a fixed quality boundary for "minimum standard" and call below that U. Then take all the results above that and rank them. Top 5%: A*. Next 15%: A. And then in tranches of 20% each, the 4 remaining grades (B-E) below that. Here's why.

When you run a 100m, you do not get gold for a fixed time or a personal best. You get it for beating the others. When you get a job, you beat someone else to it. When you win an award, the others shortlisted have ended a grade lower than you. When you sell your goods, that customer bought them instead of a competing company's offer. This is competition and it is good, as long as it is fair (and as long as, alongside this, we make strenuous efforts at real social justice and social mobility, disproportionately supporting the disadvantaged to give them chance to compete fairly) and should exist in education. By this token, when you get GCSEs or A-levels, you are doing so in direct competition with others in your peer group. There do not need to be "objective" standards for grades: I'm no statistician, but when millions of students take these exams every year, at the same schools and taught by the same teachers as the year before, there really cannot be any meaningful variance that would mean wildly differing quality from one year to the next. The sheer volume of the system means an A* one year - being in the top 5% - will mean, to within a hair's-breadth-of-dammit, exactly the same standard of student as last year. Change in standards over time will be very long-term and gradual.

I am a supporter of students. I value and want to celebrate their achievements. But I do find myself having to apologetically point out to them that my A grades are actually a lot more elite than theirs. They look a bit confused when I explain "there was no A* in my day." I ask them how many times they use the letter "A*" in normal writing and they get it: it's an imposed nonsense to cover up the gradual landslip in grades. How has this happened?

It's partly artificially political - no government wants to be seen to preside over "falling standards" - but there is a myth of fixed political interference which is a nonsense. Rather it is a matter of the skill of the teaching profession: to really understand grade inflation, don't mock teachers but recognise just how much teaching has improved. Over a quarter of a century, we've moved to a strict competitive focus on these letter grades. Teachers have always been committed, innovative and motivated and they still are: it's just their focus has moved - we have lost some of the breadth, pastoral concerns and extra-curricularity to focus almost exclusively on academic outcomes, predictably thereby raising the quality of academic work; we have used IT and followed research on good learning better than ever in the last decade; and teachers are working harder than ever before (and making students do so as a result.) Can we really be surprised at quality of student attainment improving? Although I gently mock my students that my A grades are worth more than theirs, in a straight comparison of our work, they're not: I looked back recently at my GCSE English essays which got me A, and they'd only get a B now. This is a subtle point, in contradiction both to the (genuine) problem about "basic skills" (a D/E grade problem for a small percentage), to the more general politicised nonsense usually printed in the media about "what students don't know / can't do" and really needs to be made explicit: genuinely, standards have gone up -and YET, grades mean less. My own GCSE work was (on a straightforward qualitative comparison) weaker than that of my current students but I was, in percentage terms, higher up my cohort. I deserve the A that many of them - despite their better work - do not. Now that sounds unfair - but here's why it's not.

I can't say how well I'd have done in this day and age as a student. I rather suspect word-processors and Wikipedia would have saved me the "longhand copying of neat fourth drafts" that still, just about, marked my GCSEs; whether Call of Duty would have ruined my focus as it does for so many current students, I don't know. The point is you can't compare different generations against one another - and there is no value to doing so. Of course technology and the world moves on; of course resources change and develop; but for all these students as they go through life, the one thing they will be permanently in the company of is their peer cohort - and they'll be in competition with them. The 100m sprint to the university-entrance finishing line is a crystal-clear instanciation of this, but they will realistically be fighting for success against these same peers throughout most of their (early) working life. An NQT starting now is not that closely in competition for any post I apply for - we're a different proposition, with different costs. And by my level of experience it's my references and achievements in post, and no longer really my academic results, that have come to matter - the results bridge that gap-before-your-thirties before you have an in-depth career record to point to. So it is irrelevant if my students' work is better than mine on a like-for-like comparison basis: they never were and won't ever be in competition with me on the basis of these grades (though later, on the basis of workplace efficiency, they might be.) These grades will only ever be a competitve marker against their peers, and so it against those peers that they should be set in fixed bands. You don't promote seven sides from the Championship to the Premiership and only demote two because "this year Championship sides looked like they were playing better football than ever before" - that may be true, but the numbers in each division, in each band, are rightly fixed.

This call for fixed banding of grades is becoming increasingly dominant and hurrah for the Telegraph for taking the lead on this: they polled on it the other day, but also witness these two excellent articles from them this week: Dr Richard Cunningham's (who seems to agree with me about increasing effort and quality by teachers and students - and I agree with him that what we don't need is more universities, promoting yet more meaningless grade inflation) and the explicit call from Richard Cairns, with which I am siding, for fixed boundaries. These are both strong articles, but there are two mistakes here - firstly the Telegraph has two academics from independent schools write them, rather than seeking a centrist or leftist to support the call - is this just PR-posturing from the private sector? Or do they think there's no hope of achieving this change? Surely, Telegraph, if you genuinely want this happening, you need to build some consensus across the aisle? Well - here I am offering centre-leftist support. Come and talk to mainstream teachers - you'd be surprised how many of us agree.

The problem for rightists is that they have yoked together an ill-fitting pair of arguments: they have hamstringed the valuable argument for fixing grade boundaries with traditional, prejudicial nonsense about some subjects being worth more than others. This is pointless dogma that stops the genuinely worthwhile traditionalist desire for fixed boundaries (as I'm arguing for here, despite being no educational traditionalist) being debated properly: witness Willetts' article also in the Telegraph, arguing for this kind of formal bias. I rubbished this nonsense in a separate blogpost yesterday but it can be simply dismissed here for brevity: if a subject is an A-level it must be counted the same as all A-levels; if it isn't good enough for that, then stop it being an A-level. Duh. Willetts is bright, but gunning wrongly here: combine fixed boundaries and a slimmer list of A-level options, along with enhanced vocational offerings, and you would have a much better educational system than just confusing matters with "it's-a-qualification-it's-not-a-qualification." Have the courage of your convictions and stop fudging with prejudice. You people are in charge. Make the change. Notice that the Richard Cairns article referred above - sound throughout in all other aspects - also throws in the one-liner about soft subjects with the statement that "We must also shatter the myth that exists in the minds of too many pupils that a Media Studies A-level is in some way equivalent to an A-level in Mathematics." No grounds are provided for this claim, as usual. Cairns is headmaster of the very grand independent school Brighton College. You may wish to quietly note that the school's website lists departments in Dance, Photography and Sports Science. While I agree there is some over-proliferation, this nonsense about "appropriate subjects" is not only the same nonsense people used to talk about English in the 1920s, it's in direct contrast to the subjects these schools themselves run. Less prejudice and hypocrisy, please, and more on the real issue: standardising with fixed grade boundaries.

I can't see why there isn't more decisive action here from the Tories. This is a government of iconoclasts who enjoy wiping the etch-a-sketch historical slate clean with a vengence; but where's their appetite to do so, common-sensically, here? They did it with budgets, school league tables, benefits and more. Their modus operandi has clearly been one of detonation-to-make-a-point, and then fresh rebuilding to their totally new template. I'm not going to get drawn into which of these other revolutionary acts has worked and which has not - but since they have form here, why not do it now for results 2012 (GCSE) and 2013 (A-levels - so those just having achieved AS don't have an odd jump in their results)? Why don't Gove and Willetts co-declare, right now, fixed percentage grade boundaries for those forthcoming exams - fixed in perpetuity at those %s of the cohort each year - no matter what quality of results? ZIP! The instant end of the politicisation of "continual improvement in results"! Trust teachers and schools and students to still compete (what choice, in this economic climate, do they have? - the structure of the game makes them do so, even if they didn't want to - which I also think they do.) Trust the inspection process and the ongoing development of teacher training and professional accountability measures to keep teachers and schools working at the cutting edge of good practice; trust the market (whether in universities or jobs) to then select between the outcome students. The difference, if there even is one, between 2012's B grade and 2013's will be so infinitesimally tiny that reference and interview differences will make it pale into comparison.

Universities want to be able to choose the best clearly, without grade inflation. Employers want the same. Both would welcome fixed grade boundaries. Teachers would be in no way offended, with the change rightly explained to them; and parents and students, whilst they would have to adjust to a one-off step-change adjustment, would understand the purpose and meaning of grades more clearly, and know they were fixed and therefore more credible. Competition between students for those % thresholds would not cease - if anything, not knowing *quite* where the boundary for the next grade up leads most people to over-work to be sure of hitting it. We would have to drop the current nonsense about every student always knowing exactly what grade they are at - or least, be honest about the element of estimation always intrinsically built into that, which would be better. Fixing boundaries would not relax the pressure on teachers or schools - grade inflation is already an irrelevance to them compared to the effect of league tables. Not least of all we would be rid of the Maoist nonsense of continually improving figures belieing ongoing problems in practice. Perhaps a third of schools each would fall back, a third improve each year, (and, to boot, we could then have a meaningful discussion about context and value-added) as opposed to the weird sight every year at present of seven-in-ten improving and perhaps one-in-ten falling back. So what if standards change slightly over time? That's the real world. Apple don't measure themselves against the efficiency practices of the East India Company. Fix grades to tell employers and universities who to take on. Make students realise that competition is raw - it is between them and their peers - it will shape their life - there's no guarantees, and you must apply yourself. Teams don't sit in the dressing room before the Cup Final consulting a grade descriptors table and saying "Oh right, if my tackles are 'robust' we get a draw, but if they're 'robust and expertly-timed' we win." You win if you do better than those you are competing with.

Fix the grade boundaries and we fix the problem with the value of qualifications. And I'm speaking as a centre-leftist.