A response to “Prizes for all” and improvement…

Y13 TOKKISTS: read and respond – there’s a presentation in here – see what you can find.

Earlier this month, David Cameron announced that it was time to increase competitiveness in school sports and to get rid of a prize culture in which all participants see it as their right to be rewarded for mediocrity or failure. In recent weeks this sporting metaphor has been broadened and used as a response to the ongoing issues surrounding the marking of GCSE English exams this summer.

In general terms, the Prime Minister seems to be speaking sense – surely there is a need for sport to be competitive at a young age if the Olympians and Paralympians of 2020 are to be identified and honed to perfection. A lack of true competitiveness must tend to reduce the inspiration that drives the truly competitive to compete. Too many children faced with easy reward will settle for a level of attainment and never push themselves to go further. I would love to see sport re-elevated to a serious level in the curriculum alongside the e-bacc and other academic signposts (as long as Art, Music and Drama get equal respect – there is a place for competitive elitism in schools and it is not just in a Maths lesson).

To apply this idea to the GCSE marking issue and use it to justify the shambles of this Summer is disingenuous, however. It is not that, as a teacher, I want all to have prizes, but I do want a level playing field.

Using the recent Games as a metaphor for the exams:

1: Imagine there were no Paralympic Games. All the heroes of recent weeks would be forced to compete against able-bodied athletes in a single competition. In this competition there would be no chance of outright victory for any – except for David Weir who would clean up in the marathon. Of the others, Ellie Simmons, Jonnie Peacock and the rest, there would be the tag of gallant losers and the taint of being curiosities at the main attraction. These remarkable athletes might pursue their careers, but there would be little funding and little real inspiration to for the younger generation here. In the end there would be a second tier of competitions arranged with reduced standards for entry and these would not be treated with a great deal of respect… We might call this model the GCSE.

2: Mr Cameron no doubt sees the plans put forward by Michael Gove for a return to a clear two tier system as the answer – The O level model might be said to mimic the relationship between Olympics and paralympics, except for one thing.

The whole is based on this silly idea that “Prizes for all” must be removed from the system because it implies that too many prize winners are not worthy of their prizes. In the O level model the lower tier competition will still be precisely that – a low tier treated with disdain by many employers and thoroughly divisive within schools.

The issue that the politicians are struggling with is this – how to give the lower tier students a meaningful competition in which they can be proud whilst at the same time ensuring that it is treated with the same respect as the higher tier competition. No one watching the paralympics disparaged some of the incredible achievements witnessed on the grounds that the World Records were slower than those of the able bodied athletes. The differences between competitors were accepted and the wave of excitement was generated by recognition of competitors simply performing in a way that took the breath away. The paralympians were loved and respected in a way that few CSE students (if you can remember back that far) ever were.

And here is the problem that relates to this summer. Grade inflation, it seems is acceptable when Gold medals are awarded, but not when students are sitting exams. Day after day, paralympians shattered records by the dozen, yet no one complained – apart from Oscar Pistorius, who might have a justifiable gripe which will be looked into. Instead, it was held as proof of dedication and resilience from these remarkable young men and women that they were pushing themselves to improve, despite having achieved so much already.

This summer, students found the grade boundaries shifted between January and June, not just for exams, but for Controlled Assessment pieces identical in every way regardless whether they submitted early or late in the year. In some cases, particularly at AQA, it looks as though the D/C boundary was targeted to eradicate this “inflation”. Apparently OFQUAL did raise a concern to the Minister about the worry that genuinely improving students might be hit by this redrawing of the boundaries, but went ahead, nevertheless. We all saw the range of close finishes in the games – Pistorius losing to Oliveira, the GB women in the 4×100 medley and so on. If a similar rule had been applied here, the finish might have been extended by 10 meters and GBR would have extra medals, but everyone would acknowledge this state of affairs as so unfair as to be offensive.

So why is the practice acceptable in marking exams? Boundaries are always tweaked in line with the results and the complexity of papers, but is this necessary? The International Baccalaureate Diploma retains boundaries in exams year on year and has no record of grade inflation in its forty year history. Apparently GCSEs are a breeding ground for inflation – why?

Firstly, the habit of changing the curriculum as each new Minister strives to make his mark must cease. All this does is confuse students, irritate teachers and lead to a system in which grades and marks can not really be compared year on year because the criteria keep changing. This is unhelpful at best.

Then, the accusation of inflation ignores those students who really do try hard. It is a feature of education in this country that teaching is probably improving over time. Certainly, the implications of OFSTED is that weak teaching is unacceptable. Consequently we have to assume that weak teaching is being eradicated, otherwise there is no real justification for OFSTED to exist and keep prowling around our schools. To this, add the vast amount of web sites/blogs/VLEs which support children right up to their exams. These have only really existed in any quantity in the last few years. It would be arrogant to claim that we who blog are directly responsible for the rise in grades, but equally stupid to sneer at improvements when so much support is available to be used by the keen and energetic student.

Instead we should embrace the improvements whilst trying to ensure that standards are maintained – not higher one year and lower the next to suit political needs, but maintained in such a way that an employer or University or FE college knows what a C grade means, because there are clear comparisons year on year.

In short, the treatment of students by OFQUAL is something of a disgrace. No one would have stood for such interference with the development and improvement seen in the athletes – why should we accept it when it affects vulnerable 16 year olds?