Some thoughts about ‘GCSE myths’

As someone who was a Head of Department when GCSE was first introduced I was really interested to read Cath Jadhav’s recent ‘mythbusting  blog’. Because the blog led me to question my own memories of that exciting period I decided to do some research.

The first ‘myth’ the blog deals with is “GCSEs used to be criterion referenced.”

We could argue about semantics but I am not sure that calling this a myth is entirely accurate. I fully understand what Ofqual says in that requiring every candidate to fully meet every single grade criterion would be setting the bar very high indeed.  Although an element of professional judgement is required this is what a BBC report from that time stated:

Under the old O Level and CSE system, grades were awarded primarily according to statistical rules which measured each candidate’s performance relatively against those of competing candidates.

The introduction of the GCSE meant that, for the first time, grades would be allocated with reference to absolute standards of knowledge, understanding and skill.

The then Secretary of State Sir Keith Joseph is quoted in the same article as saying:

“It (GCSE) will be more intelligible to users………also more intelligible and therefore more useful for employers.

When GCSEs were first introduced this represented a massive step change for teachers. For the first time we had explicit descriptions of the knowledge and skills we needed to teach. We knew that, if they could demonstrate their mastery of these in accordance with the grade criteria that they would be awarded that grade.


So whilst I broadly agree with the argument in the blog that GCSE’s are a ‘best fit’ qualification and that they are not fully criterion referenced this feels a long way away from what we currently have. I doubt whether Sir Keith’s comment about employers and users would apply to the new GCSEs. I also worry about the apparent disconnect described in the Ofqual blog between the grade descriptors and grades awarded. Doesn’t that call into question their value and indeed the claim that these new GCSEs are more rigorous that previous ones?

The second myth is “My school can’t improve because of Ofqual’s approach.”

Well of course schools can improve. Judging by the classroom practice I am seeing in the schools I visit I suspect that many are doing so much more than any published results show. However, I am not sure that this is actually the ‘myth’ in existence.  What I do know concerns people is that the system as a whole cannot be seen to improve if broadly the same proportion of students are achieving each grade each year due to the statistical process known as ‘comparable outcomes’. I accept that awarding bodies can make a case for varying their results but as Ofsted has recently stated ‘none of us yet know what a new grade will look like in terms of pupils’ work’. In the 1980s and 90s we certainly did know and could therefore prepare students confidently for these examinations. That confidence has been seriously undermined at the moment giving teachers immense cause for concern.

The third myth “There is a cap on the number of students that can be awarded each grade.”is therefore not all that far from the truth. True there is some flexibility in that cap but it is a fairly strong guide. The proportion of grades is based on the prior attainment of the cohort but the problem with this is that nobody knows whether those Key Stage Two assessments will be reliable predictors of performance especially as they change from year to year. Will assessments in English and Maths tell us reliably how well we can expect a student to perform five years later in History or Modern Languages? And what will carry more weight – the grade descriptors or the prior attainment matrix? How will be compare two candidates for a job who attained the same grades in different yers?

As I said in a previous blog I fear that GCSE is currently a very sick patient.  There is a pressing need for some honest communication with the public about what these examinations do and do not mean. If we are to have trusted and meaningful qualifications for 16 year olds surely we need to know what each grade means in terms of pupils’ learning?

I am pleased that Ofqual is inviting discussion about these issues. It has an incredibly difficult job to do working within the constraints of government policies which is did not design.  What we now need is an informed and professional debate about the best way forward for the young people we serve.

Keep your foot on the accelerator but switch off the headlights

Early in my teaching career I was appointed to a middle leadership role in a school in which neither I nor any of my colleagues had sight of any data regarding pupil outcomes. We were totally reliant on our own assessment systems. Though I would like to think that mine were strong I cannot say that I had a good idea of how pupils were doing in other subjects or what might have been appropriate aspirations. I am certain that there was significant underachievement in the school and possibly in my department for that reason.

Thankfully the world changed with the increasingly forensic use of data. By the 1990s school leaders’ offices were adorned with spreadsheets of pupils’ latest assessments and forecast grades enabling schools to support and challenge those pupils who were underperforming and address any shortcomings in the teaching. This was powerful and most certainly a major factor in the improvements in results which could not simply be dismissed as grade inflation.

All of this has been massively undermined by the hi-jacking of assessment in the interests of hyper-accountability. It is reassuring to see quite a backlash in many schools which are trying to seize back control of assessment in the classroom as an integral part of the learning process. The high order skills of assessment have been neglected in initial teacher training and continuing professional development for too long. We need teachers to own and master this expertise.

But there is a big spanner in the works which Sean Harford has highlighted in an excellent  blog building on a recent one by Cath Jadhav of Ofqual which he quotes.

He summarises the problem as follows:

‘While we know that the national profile of results will be stable, none of us yet knows what a new grade will ‘look like’ in terms of pupils’ work…’  He continues   ‘So trying to work out how pupils will fare, in terms of predicted grades, is even more problematic than when qualifications are well established – and it is a very imprecise science even then. In short, it’s a mug’s game at times of change in qualifications, and should be avoided.’

He has also helpfully instructed Ofsted inspectors not to expect schools to produce predictions but instead to look out ‘how schools have assessed pupils’ progress and what they are doing to support them to better achievement’. So far so good. That makes absolute sense and the best thing schools can do is focus sharply on students understanding and mastery of the knowledge and skills in that subject.

But I wonder whether the full implications of this have really been understood. Actually I don’t. I know they have not. Read that incredible and absolutely true statement again:

‘none of us yet knows what a new grade will ‘look like’ in terms of pupils’ work’

What then do these qualifications actually mean and what does that mean in terms of all of the government policies which relate to accountability?

Take performance management for example. Headteachers are being held to account all over the country for their examination results and so are teachers. If we don’t know what a grade means how can that be done and how on earth will we know whether teaching, learning or, for that matter our education system as a whole is improving?

Take performance tables and the criteria for coasting schools. Are schools going to be labelled (maybe not by Ofsted) and more headteachers to lose their jobs because they have been affected by the ‘volatility’ to which Sean refers?

And what about employers and providers of further and higher education? Will these grades be of any meaningful use to them? Do they understand this? I fear that many do not and I know that many parents are equally unaware.

Most of the schools I am visiting are highly cautious about predictions and trying their very best to base them on strong classroom assessment practice but they cannot simply ignore them. If qualifications are to open the door to better life chances for young people teachers and school leaders have a duty to aim as high as possible for them. How are they supposed to do that if they don’t know what the grades mean?

Sean makes the rather odd comment that ‘it is impossible to do so (predict) with any accuracy until after the tests and examinations have been taken’. I always thought that predicting was a future facing activity rather than a retrospective one. If qualifications are to be no more than an accountability measure then I fear that GCSE might have been infected with a disease that could be terminal.

Sean’s advice feels a bit like suggesting we switch off our headlights on a dark night while keeping our foot on the accelerator and hoping that we won’t have a car crash. I am fearful.

The Future of Teacher Professionalism: A College of Teaching for All or the Minority?

At the excellent Summit organised recently by the Headteachers’ Round Table I was delighted to be asked to speak about this topic and highlight the barriers that needed to be overcome. Here is an account of the main points I made:


From the very outset I have been a strong supporter of the creation of a professional body and was delighted to learn of the appointment of Alison Peacock as their Chief Executive ably supported by a well-qualified set of trustees drawn from a field of serving professionals.


There are many reasons why I think the creation of this body is so important but here are some:


  • Our profession needs a voice. At present there is a cacophony largely dominated by those who shout loudest. Whilst there are many reasonable and representative voices many are neither.
  • Sadly our wonderful vocation too often has a terrible press fuelled by a habit loved by media, some policymakers and sadly some of our own colleagues of airing our dirty washing in public rather than engaging in constructive discussion about how we can improve further in the full and honest recognition that there will always be more to do.
  • Our profession needs to seize hold of the agenda and use its experience and expertise to drive forward out education system and not be dependent on government.
  • We need to re- and upskill our profession.
  • We need a long term memory as opposed to one which forgets what has been achieved to date every time we have a change of Secretary of State or Government. Take ‘character’ for example which has disappeared off the face of the earth following Nicky Morgan’s departure.
  • We need to value experience and draw on this to shape policy.
  • We need clear career routes, succession plans etc.
  • We need to set standards which are professional ones, separate from accountability to government.
  • We need to modernise professional development.
  • We need policy and practice which is evidence based. Too much has been based on opinion.
  • Our profession needs to adapt to a changing world. You know what they way about doing
  • what you always did……..


But there are significant barriers to such an ambitious vision which we need to overcome. Here are eight:


  1. The College might be seen as a threat by some organisations who have a legitimate representative voice. The way to overcome this is via dialogue. The College must be inclusive and must not try to do what is the legitimate role of others. I do not believe that it needs to be a threat.
  2. We have a deeply divided profession at present. This is partly geographical with so much of policy driven and informed by London and partly by the very polarised debates that sometimes take place. There are also many interest groups who need to contribute to discussion but not dominate the outcomes. The College must be a broad church which listens to, engages with and respects all informed points of view.
  3. The College must be seen as neutral and independent of government. This is a big sensitivity with current levels of funding. Of course it is to be welcomed that the government has helped the College to be established but it must step back and let go of professional issues such as national standards,  National College etc. The College might have to decline offers of ‘help’ and will certainly need to avoid bidding for government ‘pots’ which always, understandably, have strings attached. By demonstrating integrity and impact the College must earn the trust of governments and remove the need for them so intervene but it will need to be robust when education is used as a political football. Governments in return must listen to the College as a respected independent stakeholder.
  4. The cost of membership is the elephant in the room. It would simply be the wrong time to aim for compulsory membership when teachers have experienced pay cuts for a number of years and payment from school budgets would be unrealistic at this time. Ultimately the College will need to be self-sustaining but the step towards achieving that is by making is so valuable for the profession that they want to be a part of it. This will need a carefully thought out strategy.
  5. Many people still remember the GTCE. It will be essential to convince people that the world has moved on.
  6. The College must avoid the risk of mission creep and resist it strongly. It needs to start small with a clear focus on a sharp and clearly defined mission.
  7. Nevertheless there is a risk of disenfranchising the other committed professionals who work in schools. The College must be seen as inclusive to all of those.
  8. There is a risk that people will not appreciate the advantages of joining. In everything I have heard nobody underestimates this and we must all work together to promote the benefits.


At the end of the day we have everything to gain:

 If we get this right we can create a professionalism which goes beyond the electoral cycle, goes beyond self-interest, and raises the status of profession to where it should be.

Our aims must be to achieve intrinsic motivation, ownership, autonomy and independence underpinned by clear, principled professional standards.

Within that clear focus I hope that the College will lead the development of:

  1. A clear professional career structure with routes for development and learning through teaching,  leadership  and specialist strands
  2. A professional development structure and entitlement starting with initial teacher education and going through every stage of teachers’ careers.
  3. An authoritative, independent voice about professional issues based on experience, professional knowledge and academic evidence.

All of this is an opportunity far too valuable to miss. I wish Alison and the trustees every success.