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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.




The Super-Volatile Secondary Sector

If we had to pick one word to describe secondary exams it would probably be 'volatile'. 

In the face of a marginal rise in A*- C GCSE scores this year, after a couple of years of decline, there is a highly varied pattern amongst individual courses, schools and chains. English scores fell by 2% for example. Some groups previously reporting year on year improvement have seen steep declines, others have sustained progress. It is most challenging when schools we simply know are good, and well led, are now being questioned as a result of these results. 

The cause of volatility is the sheer scale and speed of changes to the examination system - changes to both the scoring of the exams themselves and to the way these scores are aggregated into data for judging the performance of schools. Perhaps the most worrying message is that we are only at the very start of these changes. We face an extended period of volatility.

Changes

There were two obvious changes this year. The first, the exclusion of speaking and listening marks from the main GCSE English grade. The second, the switch from 'best entry' to 'first entry' in the calculation of schools’ league table positions, meaning that in some cases the official results that appear in performance tables do not reflect the actual achievements of some candidates.

In future years we have radical redesign of GCSE programmes of study, away from modular towards linear structures; new specifications; the exclusion of IGCSEs; investigations into marking; the move towards comparable outcomes. Even A levels - an internationally respected examination - are not immune, with the planned decoupling of the AS examination (perhaps to be recoupled by a future government). 

On top of this, we face perhaps the most profound change to calculating secondary school performance with the introduction of the Progress8 measure. This measure removes the effect of the C/D borderline, switches the focus to progress rather than attainment and provides three baskets of subjects for calculating results. The latter puts a premium on the number of eligible subjects studied as well as the average point score - rewarding very different strategies in schools. There will be significant winners and losers. 

Progress

While we're mentioning progress it is also worth noting that the baseline for secondary school progress - the KS2 SATs - is also changing dramatically over the coming years. 

Now, let's be fair: not all of these changes are bad individually. Far from it. I like the Progress8 measure. I prefer a good breadth of academic subjects. We need to ensure that exam grading remains credible. Early entry was not always used appropriately. The concern is the scale and pace of so many changes in such a short period of time. When you change so many things at once it becomes very hard to know what will happen and how the changes will interact.

Is this merely a technical concern? What impact does such volatility and change have on day to day life of schools?

GCSEs are - or should be - two years of focused, determined effort on the part of students and teachers. It is hard to sustain this focus in the face of constant change. The overall pattern will not settle down until 2021 when the first cohort of pupils to have been assessed under the new KS assessment regime will complete their GCSE studies. The constantly shifting pattern of KS2 inputs and outputs in the intervening years makes a mockery of the idea of using this as the foundation for decisions about accountability.

Implications

Exams have wider implications for curriculum organisation, programmes of study, teaching resources and staffing. All these take careful planning and time to change. If you suddenly need to strengthen your languages department and recruit new teachers (at a time of growing recruitment difficulties) that is a major disruption. 

If you are turning around a failing school, you need to build hope in the future and confidence in your leadership. It is hard to build either if you cannot reliably predict your results from one year to the next. 

We expect all our schools to deliver year on year improvements while at the same time making it harder to deliver year on year improvements. Good luck encouraging enough people to become head teachers in that rat-race climate. 

Many of our outstanding leaders are working hard with other schools to share best practice and help them develop. They have rightly been encouraged and lauded for doing so. But it is very hard to do this if you suspect your results are vulnerable or have to defend their sudden decline. Your governing body understandably begins to suggest you spend more time back in your own school. Volatility and system leadership do not go well together. 

Above all, constant change erodes confidence in examinations among parents, employers and the profession itself. We are already seeing this decline in recent surveys by Ofqual, the exams regulator. Exam appeals were up this year to nearly half a million. More than half of head teachers – 53 per cent – said they had less confidence in the qualification compared to last year. Just 6 per cent said they had more. Fears about the lack of stability in the system were highest for GCSEs, where 79 per cent of head teachers said continuous change was a worry.

Solutions

So volatility is not an abstract issue for the statisticians. Even if you translate one set of results into another, it still has a substantive impact on the effectiveness of schools. What can be done?

The obvious answer is quite simple: slow down and plan the changes better; schedule them far enough ahead to give schools time to react. Ofqual should take account of the capacity of schools to implement change as well as the integrity of the examinations themselves. The two are closely linked. Their recent decision to delay first teaching of some mathematics A Levels is a welcome sign in this regard.  A further sensible measure would be to delay the implementation of the Phase 1 GCSE subjects from 2015 until 2016. This would give schools an additional year to plan for change, allow for IGCSE specifications to be revised and go through Ofqual’s accreditation process and avoid the confusion that a mixture of numbered and lettered grades will produce.

But the profession also needs to ask what it can do. One answer is not to react so quickly to changes in league table calculations - to continue to do what is right. Governments wouldn't use crude incentives if they didn't trigger changes in behaviour.

I recognise that this advice is easier to give than to take. Very often jobs and even the future of the school depend on these results. That is why a large group of schools and their representatives, including NAHT, have got together to produce the alternative performance tables - an independent set of measures of exam performance that remain stable and transparent over time. Schools are making a commitment to accountability and improvement, to making their performance public, but with a better, more appropriate set of measures. 

As the profession takes ownership of standards it will crowd out short term political interference - and the volatility that goes with it. 

07 December 2014