Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.
The English Baccalaureate Certificate... and a very selective consultation
The next batch of guinea-pigs in England's ongoing educational experiment have been chosen. Arise, Year 7: you've barely learned your way round secondary school, but on your shoulders weigh hopes that you'll keep it floating above whatever the new floor target is in 2017.
Year 8, 9, and 10, meanwhile, will have to put up with taking exams condemned as not fit for purpose by the current education secretary, and with the worry that if the marking of a particular paper all goes horribly wrong (as it did with GCSE English this year) nobody will be along to bail them out. It's really not a terribly pretty scenario of an exam system in one of the world's most developed nations.
But on the plus side, at least everyone has a bit more time to get the new English Baccalaureate Certificate right than was initially suggested in the summer, with exam boards working up their proposals next year and 18 months for schools to prepare.
The consultation opened as Secretary of State Michael Gove announced the EBC is an interesting one. One of the Education Secretary's advisers was busy on Twitter later in the evening, arguing against the exam's portrayal as a done deal -- but the consultation is looking at details only, some carefully selected.
You'll search in vain for any big picture questions asking what employers or universities actually want from a new exam at this level, or indeed (as suggested by Kenneth Baker, father of the National Curriculum) whether GCSE equivalents are outdated in a era when it's no longer going to be possible to abandon education at 16. The basics are set in stone: what's left to consult upon is largely decorative.
Though it can only be a good thing to improve our education and exam system, and there are many positive ideas in this announcement, the EBC's birth is worryingly politicised. In its short existence it has been leaked, (twice) to the Mail newspapers, and followed up (also twice) by statements in the House made earlier than planned. It cannot be a good thing that the development of such an important exam doesn't enjoy more political consensus about its purpose and design.
It also encompasses some strange contradictions. Early in his speech to the Commons, Mr Gove explained that the "GCSE was conceived - and designed - for a different age and a different world. A time before majority participation in higher education, a world where information technology was in its infancy. When the GCSE was first taught the school leaving age was still 16, state planned economies dominated half the globe and the internet was a work of science fiction."
Fair enough. But one of the questions in the consultation document is whether pupils should be allowed to take calculators into maths exams, or periodic tables into science exams. I'm not entirely sure how that thought squares with the information technology-heavy world which has been created since the days of the GCSE's creation, where approaching half the population has a smartphone in their pocket. Yes, we need people to be able to manipulate numbers and have a working knowledge of the periodic table: but we also want to know that they can use technology and information sources to manipulate, interpret and analyse data. Can we have both, please?
We're also told that employers are concerned about school leavers' skills. While I suspect that has always been the case, I am also curious as to how examining 16-year-olds with a three-hour written exam is going to help with this. Literacy and numeracy are important: but most bosses these days also prize the ability to work in teams, the showing of initiative and other things hard to establish through this route.
The other assertion which has me scratching my head a little is that simply raising the demands of the exam system will somehow ratchet up standards and results. "We need to raise the level of challenge in our Key Stage 4 qualifications to match the best in the world. Raising our expectations of attainment for all students will drive up standards as teaching and learning improve to meet that challenge. High expectations are essential to creating a step change in standards and allowing us to keep pace with our international competitors," says the consultation document.
Or, as a bullish Mr Gove told the House: "Some will argue that more rigorous qualifications in these subjects will inevitably lead to more students failing. But we believe that fatalism is indicative of a dated mind-set; one that believes in fixed abilities that great teaching can do little to change."
Except -- as we've all been reminded by the English GSCE fiasco during the last month, Ofqual pegs exam results at 16 to how the same cohort performed in their SATs at the age of 11. Unless this changes, it will be simply impossible for students to do better, no matter how high the level of challenge rises. This comment about grade inflation, buried away in the consultation document, merely adds insult to injury: "The small reduction in the proportion of A*-C grades awarded in summer 2012 was the first time such a fall has been recorded since the introduction of GCSEs, and does not detract from this overall picture, while the concerns that have been raised about grading have demonstrated how the current modular exam system can be unfair to students, and has further damaged public confidence."
There are great things in the EBC, including the idea of doing away with foundation tier papers and ensuring that exam questions are wide enough that teaching to the test is difficult.
But the elephant in the room is England's extraordinary accountability system. While the plan to franchise each exam subject to a single awarding body (seemingly the one which comes up with the most challenging syllabus) is sensible and long-overdue, a bigger problem is that schools' very survival can depend on exam performance.
"The root cause of these failures in the system – a lessening of demand in GCSEs and the failure of lower grades to provide a foundation for progression – is the interaction of the current school accountability system with England’s competitive examinations market. ...We believe that we need to address the “race to the bottom” at its source, so that schools and Awarding Organisations have no incentive to compete by choosing or providing easy exams, and every student has the opportunity to take a world class qualification that commands the respect of employers, parents, universities and the general public," says the consultation. So a separate consultation on accountability is promised, which is likely to be of more fundamental importance to the English education system than whatever replaces the GCSE.
"The consultation will invite views on how best we can measure performance in these subjects to support all students to achieve the highest standards. It will explore how we can ensure that schools are rewarded for teaching high value qualifications and are able to make decisions about qualifications on the basis of their worth without perverse incentives to boost their apparent standing in school performance tables," it says.
Of all the good bits and pieces in this announcement, this second consultation could be the thing which transforms the system for schools and pupils alike, though it's going to be an extraordinary knotty problem to unravel.
Sadly, success here is far from a foregone conclusion. All the warm words in the world can't disguise the fact that schools in England still aren't trusted to get on with it in the same way as some of their counterparts in "high performing jurisdictions".
And the second is the peculiar possibility that EBC grades may not be uniform across subjects. The consultation says: "All GCSEs are currently required to offer the same grading, from A*-G, with A*-C representing a Level 2 pass. This makes it simple to compare students’ performance in different subjects. Awarding Organisations, however, might wish to propose new and different grading structures that they believe will best deliver the requirements set out above, in the context of each subject being examined. Schools already offer a range of non-GCSE qualifications, assessed using different grading scales."
Quite how you'd fit that into a league table, I'm not sure... but can't wait to find out.