Archive for the ‘GCSE Standards’ Category

Grammar Schools:Their formula for success revealed!

October 2, 2016


Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s article on Grammar Schools. I feel I am slowly becoming able to articulate what I think about this.

An article in The Guardian today has clarified things further:

Latymer grammar school asks parents to make up financial shortfall

The gist of the story is that Latymer School, a Grammar School with 96% A*-C pass rate at A-level, has asked its parents for more money. The Guardian quotes the school as saying:

“We are now appealing to all parents and carers of current students to support the school either by making a new or increasing an existing voluntary regular donation. Typically the amount you would pledge would be £30-£50 per month (£360-600 per annum) over the period your child attends Latymer. This averages out at between £1.89 and £3.15 per school day and is considerably less than the average fees of an independent school.”

It seems like a perfectly reasonable request. I think Tiffin School asked – but did not require – something similar.

The contribution amounts to roughly £50,000 per school year (i.e. about £350,000 per year across all seven school years). But not all schools have parents who could afford such a contribution.

And isn’t the point of state schools that parents don’t have to pay directly?

Latymer has been able to keep going in the last couple of years despite cuts to their budget because of the Latymer Foundation, which clearly has substantial funds available.

In a  June 2015 letter to parents available on the school web site, the trustees write:

 To balance the budgets over the next two years, the Foundation will underwrite the school deficits for 2015/16 and 2016/17 for potentially in excess of £1million. The funding will help buffer the impact of the significant drop in funding and increased costs for the next 18 months.

Over half of this sum relates to one-off capital and non-recurring revenue expenditure. However, the school will need to use this window of time to plan for and adjust to the, as yet unknown, longer term forecast of revenue and capital funding streams being made available by central government.

The Latymer Foundation wishes to express its thanks to the large number of parents who have been donating to the Standards Fund over many years and whose continuing contributions make this funding support possible.

So it seems that there are two elements to the success of Latymer, and by inference, other successful Grammar Schools. We can summarise this simply:

Money + Selection = Success


I arrived at the money connection at the end of the previous article where I pointed out that private schools cost approximately twice as much as state schools.

But what about the role of selection?

Grammar schools select children who – at the relevant age – can display a particular kind of mental agility. Typically – as Latymer’s appeal suggests – this also selects parents with an ability to contribute financially to the school.

But did anyone else notice Ed’s radical suggestion in the discussion of last week’s article? He proposed selection by behaviour rather than ability.

He suggested that schools selected the 95% of children who – given the right culture – are capable of benefiting from an academic education.

An alternative statement would be that we identify the 5% of children who disrupt every class they are in, and do something – I have no idea what – to engage them in a way which doesn’t disrupt the education of the majority.


In the end, its about the money

The education of the majority of people is a critical cultural endeavour. Our culture is our collective treasure.

We need more than an elite capable of understanding the technology our our brave new world. We do need that elite – but we need a culture in which their enhanced skills make sense.

But this costs money.

And when we see how expensive it is in the private sector – supposedly the most efficient provider of services – is it any surprise that the state sector struggles on half that level of funding? Maybe the formula is even simpler:

Money + Selection = Success

[October 2nd 2016: Weight this morning 74.0 kg: Anxiety: Medium]

Grammar Schools

September 24, 2016


Sammy's Science House. My son was given tasks to complete at school aged 11 that he had completed aged 2 (two) using this software. I think that represents a lack of ambition and a problem with the culture at the School.

Sammy’s Science House. My son was given tasks to complete at school aged 11 that he had completed aged 2 (two) using this software. I think that represents a lack of ambition and a problem with the culture at the School.

I have been wondering what I think about Grammar Schools. However, I am trapped in a perspective vortex.

I attended a Grammar School myself in the 1970s, and benefited from the education I received. And this could explain why I am inclined to be sympathetic towards Grammar Schools in general. Also my children have benefited from attending a Grammar School, but more details about this below.

People who ‘failed’ to get in to a Grammar School can also be affected by this perspective vortex. Michael Morpugo speaks loudly of the sense of ‘shame and anxiety’ at failing the entrance exam for Grammar School. However this did not hold him back because his aunts paid for him to attend a private school.

Had there not been a possibility to attend Grammar School, that is presumably where he would have gone in any event! To me this illustrates the fact that what Grammar Schools are for is to give a ‘private school style education’ to people who can benefit from it – without regard for income. In isolation, this is definitely ‘a good thing’.

What questions should we ask?

The real questions which need to be asked and answered are not whether Grammar Schools benefit the children who attend them: they do.

Instead we should ask whether the presence of Grammar Schools in an educational system improves outcomes more generally over a comprehensive system.

Also, we need to ask whether the advantages enjoyed by children who attend Grammar Schools are gained at the expense of educational opportunities which are denied to others.

These questions are difficult to answer, but the answer appears to be that Grammar Schools do not improve the system as a whole.

But there is one final question: Even if Grammar Schools are ‘unfair’, do they embody a valuable culture which might be worth preserving?

What are schools for?

Broadly speaking, schools are the way we pass on our integrated cultural and technical understanding of the world.

We know more and understand more about the world and our experiences than at anytime in history.

And we need people with high levels of education in order to be able to thrive in an increasingly complex and technological world.

So it ought to be a good time to be a teacher, or a student. But somehow it isn’t.

Some problems with Schools

One way to think about schools is to look at the exams students take.

At the high achieving end of the scale, ‘A’ levels are hard. But they could be harder and offer some discrimination between students achieving A* grades.

However, it is at the GCSE level where things are a complete mess, with the exams (and the courses leading to them) being simultaneously, much too easy for a wide range of pupils, but much too hard – and widely irrelevant – for another wide range of pupils.

Grammar schools do potentially address the low standards and lack of ambition at some secondary schools. But this is linked to school culture as well as selection.

My experience as a student

I attended Xaverian College in Manchester in the 1970s, a Catholic Grammar School for Boys. The school culture was weird:

  • Our recommended revision strategy for GCSE ‘O’ level Maths was “to get down our knees and pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • ‘Sex Education’ was taught by a celibate monk.
  • Assaults on students by teachers were just accepted.
  • More recollections here

However all that really mattered was academic performance. So despite the weirdness, I am still genuinely grateful, because the education I received enabled me to go to University and have a career in Physics.

My experience as a parent

Fast forwarding to 2007 and 2009, both my children took an ’11+ exam’ to attend Tiffin School for Boys. Neither were intensively tutored and the older one ‘passed’ and the younger one ‘failed’.

The culture at Tiffin was familiar to me from my own experience, although it was considerably more benign than Xaverian! It suited my older son, and he had a good time there. He achieved good GCSEs and A levels and is now at University. And that’s all I wanted from the school.

I spoke with my younger son last week and he remembered being disappointed after the 11+ results, but actually he had a great time at Teddington School. As a parent I perceived a lack of ambition at the school, but he fell in with a good crowd and achieved better GCSEs than his older brother!

And after achieving good GCSE’s, he then left Teddington and moved into the 6th form at Tiffin School for his A levels and achieved essentially the same A level results as his older brother. We both doubt that he would have achieved such good results had he stayed at Teddington School, or gone to Richmond College, the other state-funded alternative in the area.

Perhaps there is a lesson there: if a route is held open to a more academic education for those starting out on a less academic route, then maybe Grammar schools could end up making sense within a wider comprehensive ‘ecosystem’.

Culture and ambition

Teddington School and Tiffin School differed massively in their ambition. And that is a matter of culture and not directly related to selection.

For example, in his first year at Teddington my son was given ‘science’ tasks that he had completed at home when he was 2 years old. Yes. Two years old.

He was asked to place cartoon panels in order showing the stages of a volcanic eruption. We have a video of him completing the same task in ‘Sammy’s Science House‘ software at the age of two! (The task is 12 minutes and 10 seconds into the YouTube clip below)

It’s not that my son was a genius. Instead it was a measure of the facile and uninspiring teaching that was, literally, suitable for toddlers.

Similarly, at Tiffin School, the Music Department was, and is, outstanding, and the scale and ambition of their endeavours is breathtaking. I didn’t like everything they did, but my son was given a musical education that was truly precious.

Another aspect of the culture change struck my son immediately: at Tiffin School children did not (in general) talk in lessons, and at Teddington, they did.

So many aspects of school culture which make a difference are not related to selection. But for a variety of reasons these valuable cultural traits thrive in Grammar schools. I would hesitate to destroy anything so precious as a culture of respect for academic goals.

Final Thoughts.

I have ignored many complicating factors: Religion: Gender: Class and Discipline come to mind.

I have ignored them because they all seem to me to be secondary to the basic task asked of schools: to pass on to its future owners, the wonderful inheritance of our culture, in all its varied forms.

Ultimately, the current Grammar school proposals may help a few children. And divisive as the move is, I wish them good luck. But the proposals are really irrelevant to most children.

We need a way of developing the culture of schools so that they become inspiring and wonderful places to learn.

And I can only imagine that happening if they are inspiring and wonderful places to teach.

I think we need subject teachers with better subject knowledge and more time to teach creatively. And that almost certainly means spending more money on schools.

  • The amount of money we spend per state school pupil is difficult to estimate definitively, but it appears to be between about £4000 and £8000 per pupil per year.
  • The BBC report that average day school fees in the private sector are around twice this level. (~£13,000 per pupil per year).

So if education were a purchasable commodity, private school students would be getting about twice as much of it.

And more education is something I would definitely vote for, and be happy to pay taxes for.

[September 24th 2016: Weight this morning 72.3 kg: Anxiety: Medium]


GCSEs, A levels, and degrees: Another Perspective

August 28, 2014

My friend Bernard Naylor commented on the last article and his comments seemed insightful and considered. So I thought they deserved re-broadcasting away from the ‘invisible’ comments section.

Bernard wrote:

The best thing to do with GCSEs is to abolish them as the school-leaving age is being raised to eighteen. The education of our children, and the children themselves, suffer from too much external examination and assessment. (Schools should of course be conducting assessments internally as an ongoing duty – as no doubt they mostly are.) Other countries, with more successful education systems manage without this incessant micro-management from a government department.

I think this is a fair point, and amplifies this recent Guardian article. Given the current mess, it is hard to argue against this, but I am still unconvinced.

If the abolition of GCSEs were coupled with a proper recognition that both academic and vocational training were important then I can imagine benefits at both ends of the academic ability range.

But this is a difficult balance to achieve and has been screwed up before. And until a clear alternative (???) is proposed that addresses current failures, I would prefer to stick with the status quo.

Why? Because one of the major problems with educational policy has been that it has not remained the same for more than a couple of years at a time – and this endless change is  in itself demoralising and counter-productive.

On no account should the government be setting syllabuses. It is a recipe for political interference with education. It may just about be OK in Physics, but in English Literature and History (for example), the recently departed Secretary of State has been having a pernicious effect, with (among other faults) too much harking back to what was OK when he was at school, donkeys years ago.

There should be independent statutorily established bodies with responsibility to determine overall course content and educational objectives – and professional teachers should be trusted much more at the detailed level. The function of the inspectorate should be one of monitoring and mentoring, It’s just a short time since Ofsted decided that ‘Satisfactory’ actually meant – well – unsatisfactory! Every school has room for improvement. Giving any school a judgment that doesn’t imply that is simply wrong. We can all get better!

And I entirely agree with you about the lunacy of having ‘competition’ in the examination system.

I think that is what I meant to say. My key point is that there should be only one body setting exams.

Publishers should compete to publish good books and other learning resources.

Just a final point about universities’ calibration of examination marking, which of course I watched quite closely, from a detached standpoint, for about a quarter of a century. If anything above 70% is a first, and anything below 30% is a fail, that means that 60% of the calibration scale (i.e. above 70 and under 30) has no meaning. Calibration being one of your strong points, can you possibly justify that? I never heard a reasonable defence of it from any of my teacher colleagues!

Let me try to defend it. At the top of the scale there were occasionally students – less than one a year at University College London – whose average mark was above 90%. Such students were truly exceptional.

Although these ‘90%-students’ shared a degree classification with ”70%-students’ – the range of the scale allowed their exceptional abilities to be noted – and I promise you, their abilities were noticed!

At the bottom of the scale, one simply needs to pick a level represents ‘this student hasn’t got a clue’. Picking 30% – or 35% at UCL if I remember correctly – is arbitrary. Arguably it should be higher.

And talking of ‘academia’, one thing that impressed me during my academic career was the care taken in Exam Board meetings. I don’t think students had a clue that every single student’s mark and performance was considered – often at great length.

And the key question asked was whether the mark made ‘sense’. In other words, the Exam Board used the exam results as an aid to judgement – and not a substitute for it. It was very rare for the board to change marks – that would in general be unfair. But where fairness demanded it, we did it.

GCSE and A level exams: parental reflections

August 25, 2014

My two sons have just received the results of their ‘A’ level and GCSE exams. Thank you for asking: both did very well.

My elder son will be off to Bristol University to study Civil Engineering, and the younger son will be moving into the sixth form of a nearby school.

Parentally, I am vicariously proud. But mainly relieved.

Here are my reflections.


GCSEs are a mess. They are both too easy and too hard.

Too easy? Yes  –

  • My son got 100% in 5 exams. He is good, but not perfect!
  • He achieved A* in Music – the only child in his school to do so – but he is still being asked to study additional music theory to be allowed to continue to ‘A’ level music.
  • Similarly, A* in Maths is not sufficient to allow to him to study Further Maths.

In athletic terms it is as if sporting adjudicators simply refused to raise the bar in a high jump to find out just how high athletes could jump.

Too hard? Yes: Anything less than a grade C is counted as a ‘failure’ thus effectively categorising around 30% of students as failures and providing no opportunity to for them to demonstrate their abilities.

By ‘30% of students’ I mean one in three of us – the people who live in England and Wales. Do we really believe they are ‘failures’?

In athletic terms it is as if even the lowest setting of the high jump bar tripped up every third athlete.

Too Easy and Too hard? If we compound this fundamental problem with the way fluctuations in the results are used to attack teachers and schools then we have a recipe for dysfunction.

For the last year the majority of my son’s lessons focussed on passing exams, not on details of the subject under study. This has definitely helped his marks and helped the school, but has done nothing for his enthusiasm for the subjects he has been studying.

From a parental perspective I am just glad to be no longer involved.

‘A’ levels

One important purpose of ‘A’ level courses is to prepare students for University or other further study: they are not usually an end in themselves.

And the purposes of the grading system is to discriminate amongst the students, and in particular to discriminate amongst the most able students.

The problem is that – in Physics at least – the syllabus has been reduced and and there has been around two decades of grade inflation.

As a consequence many universities ask for A* grades. 

However  the grade A* needs ‘almost perfect’ marks – which requires a very particular kind of student and programme of study. In contrast, at University, a course average mark of around 70% is usually sufficient to gain a first class degree.

My thought is that ‘A’ levels are certainly challenging, but they are not challenging enough. And the marking scheme needs to change.


I have said this before, but please forgive me if I say it again: we need to change how we grade exams.

Efforts to ‘maintain standards’ from year to year to year to year are – regrettably – laughable.

Maintaining standards’ in the face of a changing syllabus is impossible and probably meaningless.

My suggestion is this: the grades A*, A and B should reflect only the ranking order of the student.

For example:

  • A* should indicate that a student is in the top (say) 5% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year
  • A should indicate that a student is in the next 10% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year.
  • B should indicate that a student is in the next 10% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year.

After this there could be grades in which the fraction of students can change – perhaps they should be called a merit or a pass.

The percentage of students who ‘pass’ would be allowed to change to allow more students to pass should teaching standards change

But the purpose of exams is to assess students. It is (IMHO) invidious to use exams for the additional purpose of judging schools and teachers.

It may be reasonable to use a school’s or teacher’s exam results as an aid to judgement of a school or teacher – but hateful to use the results as a substitute for judgement

Our schools are full of hard working and inspiring teachers who are continuously being worn down by perennial threats. We should be supporting and not threatening these precious souls.

The Scandal

The scandal is that the government has outsourced the entire exam system to a number of bodies entirely controlled by multinational publishing companies.

By controlling the syllabus and exams the publishers create a ‘market’ for their text books in which no other company can compete. This is very profitable, but not obviously in the interest of the students.

IMHO the government should write the syllabus for exams and a single independent body should write the exams. We do not need ‘competition’ between publisher-owned exam boards.

Publishers should then compete with each other, without insider knowledge, to create the best text books that teach the subject – and not how to pass ‘their’ exams.

This would drive down the cost of both exams and text books and end the current ‘almost corrupt‘ system

Personally I can’t wait to have nothing more to do with the system.

Farewell to Schooledemia

July 4, 2014
The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester.

The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester., my own alma mater.

[Advice for readers for whom English is not their first language: “Schooledemia” is not a real word.]

It is now one week since my eldest son took his last public exam, and with ‘proms’ and parties concluded, his school days are now over.

He seems fairly nonchalant – off for a week’s holiday with his friends – but I am still stunned.

I am not surprised – obviously – because I have known this day was coming. But I am shocked: was that it?

Part of what has confused me is that I can recall vividly specific days in his academic life:

  • Looking in on him in the playground at infant school;
  • Seeing him off on his first day at Secondary School;

These days seem like they were yesterday.

And my youngest son has also completed his GCSE’s – another milestone.

So having been critical of these exams in the past, I just thought I would make a note about my parental experience of these exams.


My overwhelming impression of GCSE’s is that while my son has learned a lot, exam standards are much too low.

This has resulted in pervasive ‘gaming’ of the exams – with schools coaching students to answer questions in specific ways in order to match the examiner’s ritualised concept of a correct answer.

This is not to say that students don’t work hard, or that teachers don’t teach well. But in the subjects that I care about most – Maths and Physics – the knowledge of teachers in state schools is (in general) abysmal. And students know it.

This causes teachers to focus on ‘getting marks in the exam‘. And if ever an approach were design to kill inspiration or curiosity – this is it.

I can’t offer any solutions, but that is what I see.

‘A’ levels

My impression of ‘A’ levels in Maths, Physics and German is that they are really quite difficult. But I think again that they are still not difficult enough.

In order to get in to prestigious universities, students need to achieve almost perfect exam scores, and – as someone who has always been very far from perfect – I distrust perfectionists.

The purpose of exams

The purpose of exams is to discriminate against pupils who demonstrate less ability to pass exams.

Their purpose is to select the academically brightest in the same way that the purpose of a high jump is to select the people who can jump the highest – its an artificial test – but so are all tests. And tests are only meaningful if people fail.

I have all kinds of suggestions for particular things that could be done to enable this process to take place while retaining fairness, but in fact my interest in the whole process is waning.

In honesty I feel only relief that my own children’s interaction with the educational system is nearing its end. And sympathy for the teachers who have to put up with the apparently endless series of ‘improvements’ that never seem to fundamentally change the reality on the ground.






Some things to look forward to…

March 1, 2014
Swansea lagoon visitors centre

Swansea lagoon visitors centre. Picture from BBC News.

‘News’ is frequently an abbreviation for ‘Bad News’. There seems to be no end of stories about ‘things’ getting worse.

And so it is something of relief to hear of people providing solutions to our problems. Here are few things which have recently inspired me with hope.

  • Meeting some teachers today.
  • The Swansea Lagoon Project in Swansea.
  • The Solana and Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power projects in the western USA.

Teachers: Today, Saturday March 1st, I got up early and drove to Birmingham to give a talk to a group of eight physics teachers at a training day.

They were a friendly and positive bunch – but what inspired me was not their subject knowledge (which was actually excellent) but their looks. To my 54 year-old male eyes these people didn’t look like what I expected physics teachers to look like.

From this gender-balanced group there was short and tall, thin and chubby, and a range of ethnicities. They were united only in an interest in Physics and in teaching it well.

As I reflected on the long drive home, it seemed as though these people were part of the solution to a long-standing problem in physics education, and I felt honoured to be able help a little.

The Swansea Lagoon Project (BBC Story) may or not get built, but I loved the design flair in their visitors centre (main picture above), and modesty of the project.

This is not the Severn barrage which would block the entire Severn estuary and which would be able to supply 5% of UK electricity demand to the detriment of nobody but a few wading birds.

This is a much more modest lagoon off the coast of Swansea which would not even harm the birds! Its lower cost makes it much more likely to actually get built, and the technology is scalable – multiple projects could be developed one by one – something which also makes it much more investment friendly.

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Two solar thermal projects in the US have recently begun operating.

  • The Ivanpah plant consists of an astonishing 170,000 parabolic mirrors each of which tracks the Sun to focus light onto a furnace at the top of gigantic tower. This heats steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity.
  • The Solana plant in Arizona is similar, but distinctly different. One difference is that it uses cheaper parabolic troughs to heat a synthetic oil which runs along a tube at their focus. But this plant can also generate electricity after dark! This astonishing engineering ‘trick’ involves storing the thermal energy in gigantic vats of molten salt. The heat can then be used to generate electricity after the Sun has gone down, allowing the generation of electricity at its time of peak demand.

These plants have been heavily subsidised. But they show that this technology is practical and I am sure the next generation of plants will be cheaper to build and operate.

However the LA times reports today that solar thermal plants are already obsolete – even as they open! – because the falling cost of silicon photovoltaic plants is making them uneconomic. That may be true – but photovoltaics definitely don’t work in the dark!

The future is not obvious. But when I see the diversity of people teaching physics and wanting to do it better. And when I see the range of emerging options for sustainable energy generation I feel able to hope that even if I don’t recognise it immediately, the future will arrive all by itself – and that it will not be all bad.

GCSE and A level results: Three steps to make things better

August 22, 2013
Graph from the BBC showing the increasing GCSE passes. No one thinks this rise is due to increasing educational standards and no one thinks this years fall is due to a fall in standards.

Graph from the BBC showing the increasing GCSE passes. No one thinks this rise is due to increasing educational standards and no one thinks this years fall is due to a fall in standards.

As my own children approach the year in which they will sit GCSE and A level exams, the annual brouhaha  over exam results feels a bit more personal. And my anger over the betrayal of students and the governments abnegation of responsibility in this field grows more intense.

“It wasn’t like this when I were a lad ..”. No really: it wasn’t. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the results were always the same: for example the top 7.5% (I think that was the number) received an A, the next n% received a B and so on. This approach served to discriminate amongst the candidates. But it didn’t register whether students knew more or less than in previous years.

Then exams were changed in many ways simultaneously. Syllabuses were reduced, continuous assessment introduced, exam boards became wholly-owned by book publishers, and ‘absolute’ marking became the norm. The result was decades of grade inflation and political bickering.

Many educational changes ‘since I were a lad’ have been really positive, and I suspect the general standard of teaching is higher. But I don’t know anyone who thinks that the fact that exam results began to ‘improve’ after 1986  reflects any actual ‘improvement’ in education. In the same way, nobody believes that this year’s small fall in A* to C grades reflects any actual ‘decline’ in educational standards.

It seems that the exam results are telling us nothing about educational standards and this is obviously unsatisfactory. And all this has happened during a period in which schools and exam boards have been subject to more inspections than at anytime in history. I won’t go into the causes of this shameful and ‘almost corrupt’ episode, but the answers are simple,

  • Firstly, publishers should not be allowed to own or influence exam boards. ‘Competition’ to produce the easiest exams only drives down standards. Exam boards should set standards and exams, and publishers should produce books that teach the subject in general, not how to pass particular exams in the subject. Ideally there would be only one exam board for each subject.
  • Secondly, grade inflation should be eliminated by making A*, A and B grades correspond to fixed fractions of the candidates. Grade A* would mean the top 5% (say), A the next 10% (say) and B the next 20%. However the C mark should be marked on achievement against a standard rather than against other candidates. This allows improvements in education to be reflected in improved results but keeps the significance of higher marks.
  • Thirdly, governments then need to stop changing the exam system every few years. A politically-balanced commission should consider changes every 20 years with no ability to change the rules in intervening years. It needs that length of time to measure the effect of any changes which have been made.

I could go on, but I won’t. Education is a precious and important activity and the more kerfuffle there is around this topic the more difficult it is to make the learning magic shimmer.  So I will just wish all teachers and students best wishes for the last weeks of the summer holiday and the start of the new term.

Teacher Training

October 1, 2012
Teachers in Leicester gathered for a 'Stimulating Physics' session

Teachers in Leicester gathered for a ‘Stimulating Physics’ session.

This Saturday morning I spoke to nearly 100 teachers at a school in Leicester about how exactly we get to know what the temperature is. This is a subject which I find fascinating, but I don’t honestly expect other people to share my fascination. However, this group were amazingly enthusiastic and I felt really quite humbled meeting them.

The ‘Leader of the Gang’ was Helen Pollard, a woman who radiated competence and kindness. At the end of my talk she addressed the teachers and said that when their colleagues complained in the staff room that some child had taken 25 minutes to measure a temperature, they would be able to say “That’s nothing! I met a man at the weekend who spent five years trying to measure one temperature!”.

My talk wasn’t the main attraction. The rest of the day – part of the Institute of PhysicsStimulating Physics‘ Initiative – involved classes of teachers learning a variety of hands-on experiments that they could then show to students. This is a really admirable attempt to acknowledge that the educational landscape has changed, and to accept that Physics in school is no longer being taught by specialist physicists. Based on the people I met, it is being taught by some physicists, some chemists, some biologists and some ex-tap-dance tutors! But this initiative seemed to focus on the positive aspects of this diversity rather than harking back to an imagined golden age, which definitely did not exist.

My main conclusion was that this was a pretty bright group of people. And I felt heartened. Here they were on a Saturday morning – many having travelled long distances – just keen to learn. As a member of the Institute of Physics I rarely feel proud of what my Institute does. But in this case, I feel honoured to have been able to help a really noble effort. It seemed that this group was re-inventing a physics teaching culture that is diverse, bubbling, and above all, alive.

I attended one of the sessions before heading home and saw people making a cloud chamber out of an upside down-aquarium. Nothing could exemplify the idea of building a new culture better than this. Using basic household items plus a special ingredient (solid carbon dioxide or ‘dry ice’) to reveal the nuclear events taking place all around us. Anyone who could make such a thing must surely feel that they are a member of the cognoscenti.

A cloud-chamber made from an upside-down aquarium.

A cloud-chamber made from an upside-down aquarium.

GCSEs: What does an ‘A’ grade mean?

September 5, 2012
Chart showing the percentage of students taking each subject that achieved an A or A* grade. Click for a larger version. Notice that only 3.1% of students achieved an A* in 'Home Economics' while 5.5% of students achieved an A* in 'Mathematics'. What does that mean?

Chart showing the percentage of students taking a subject at GCSE in 2012 that achieved an A or A* grade. Click for a larger version. Notice that only 3.1% of students achieved an A* in ‘Home Economics’ while 5.5% of students achieved an A* in ‘Mathematics’. What does that mean?

The percentage of students being awarded A and A* grades at GCSE has fallen for the first time in 25 years. In my opinion this is a good thing, but as the furore over the re-alignment of grades for the English GCSEs makes clear, it heralds several years of pain as exam marking slowly returns to reality.

What these painful events demonstrate is that we need to be clear about what a particular mark signifies. At the moment this is almost impossible to guess.

The chart at the top of the page  shows the percentage of the cohort that take an exam in various subjects that get an A or A*. The Guardian DATA blog has discussed the data and the data itself can be found here (as a Google Docs spreadsheet). It is worth clicking on the figure at the top of the page to enlarge it, but in case you are too busy, let me highlight two of the odd statistics it shows up.

  • Only 3.1% of students achieved an A* in Home Economics while 5.5% of students achieved an A* in Mathematics.

Does that mean that an A* in Home Economics is harder to get than an A* in Mathematics?

  • 95.5% of students achieved an A or A* in Classical Subjects (i.e. Greek or Latin)

Does that mean that Classical Subjects are easy?

In each case the answer is confusing and all that the designations indicate is that for each subject A* is better than A, A is better than B etc.. I trust my readers to appreciate the subtlety of interpretation required to understand the data, But is clear from the spread that there is neither an absolute nor a relative meaning to the designation.

We need to recognise that exams perform two quite distinct functions. The first is to discriminate amongst students, and the second is to determine who has reached an acceptable level of education in a particular topic. The first is easy, and ‘when I was a lad’ was all that was used. The second is harder, and its mis-implementation has lead to rampant grade inflation over the last 25 years.

The solution is to have clear definitions of what the grades mean. Allow me to suggest the following:

  • A*: the top 5% of the cohort taking the exam.
  • A: the next 10% of the cohort
  • B: Good pass:
  • C: Pass

Grades A and A* would be inflation-proof measures that allowed employers and colleges to discriminate amongst the students. Grades B and C would allow employers and colleges to select people that had a good or basic understanding of a subject. This structure combines the two functions of an exam.

This year my eldest son took GCSE exams and he did well. But as his results were announced I was reminded of the personal dramas of each of the half-a-million candidates. The chaos of the current scheme undermines the achievements of many students while failing to highlight areas where as a nation we need to improve. We owe it to ourselves and our children to make the results of the students work mean something that will not change from year to year.

Michael Gove and the Exam Boards

June 24, 2012
Michael Gove

Michael Gove: Not always wrong.

What do you do when someone with whom you basically disagree, says something sensible? Michael Gove has placed me in this situation three times now.

Firstly he abolished the Qualifications and Curriculum development Authority (QCDA).  Secondly he pointed out at that school IT lessons are at best uninspiring. And now he has gone and acknowledged that our system of competitive exam boards has driven down GCSE standards.

You may not have noticed this because he also called for GCSEs to be replaced with ‘O’levels. I sympathise with his motivation – to raise the bar for the most academically able pupils – but I think he is wrong on this. It would be enormously disruptive, enormously divisive, and there is actually nothing inherently wrong with GCSEs.

The problem with GCSEs lies in the ‘almost corrupt‘ link between publishers and their ‘pet’ exam boards. The BBC report Gove’s comments thus:

“We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing-down, by making sure that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are”

Gove is correct that the exam board/publisher conglomerates have driven down standards. These  conglomerates consist of a not-for-profit exam board, and a large publisher who tunes their (very profitable) books to optimise pass rates with their own particular board’s exams. Additionally the scope of the GCSE syllabus has been aggressively reduced.

As a result GCSEs have come almost useless. Despite the obsession with passing the exams, the results have lost their meaning. They do not discriminate amongst the most able students, and the pass level is so abysmally low that a level ‘C’ no longer indicates a significant achievement. This is a national disgrace and Gove is absolutely correct to name it

The BBC also report protestations from Exam Boards. I have no sympathy. They have spent the last two decades driving down standards in this almost corrupt manner, while generating massive profits for their partner publishing companies. I look forward to their abolition. Publishers should publish books, not exams.

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