Posts Tagged ‘Michael Gove’

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.

A level standards: A national disgrace

April 4, 2012
Scores on the Prior Knowledge Test (PKT) given to all students at the start of their B.Sc degree course at Bristol University physics department. Scores have systematically declined despite the amazing increase in apparent performance at A level

Scores on the Prior Knowledge Test (PKT) given to all students at the start of their B.Sc degree course at Bristol University Physics Department. The test has remained essentially unchanged, but scores have systematically declined despite the amazing increase in apparent performance at A level.

In 1985 around 9% of students obtained ‘A’ grades in their A-level exams. Since then, the percentage has increased every year and in 2010 the result was 27%. Is that because students are working harder and teachers are teaching smarter? Well, I can’t answer that question for every subject, but for physics the answer is an unequivocal ‘No’.

I can say this with certainty because the experience has been mournfully recounted to me by many teachers. And this month the anecdotal evidence was confirmed in an interesting paper by Professor Peter Barham published in Physics Education (download pdf here). Since 1975 the entire student intake to the physics course at Bristol University has taken essentially the same Prior Knowledge Test (PKT). Professor Barham published an analysis of these results and I have summarised one aspect of his analysis in the graph at the head of the page. It shows that scores testing prior knowledge of physics have declined by around 25% and are still falling.

Summarising, our national exam structure is reporting continuous improvement, but in reality students can achieve less and less. As I have commented previously, results such as this represent a national disgrace. This shameful situation is the product of:

Together these elements have combined to drive down educational standards. If this were a sport’s challenge these steps would involve:

  • Lowering the height of a ‘high jump test’ year upon year.
  • Stating that students could jump one metre when in fact they could only jump 25 centimetres, but they could do it 4 times.
  • The high jump inspectors guarantee the average height of the bar, but it is higher in some places and lower in others. The high jump inspectors publish guides explaining where the low points are.

In this case we can see that reports of continuous improvements in ‘high jump’ would be laughable. However, the educational system really matters. It is the way in which we pass on our combined cultural appreciation from generation to generation. And the confidence trick in which our educational establishment has conspired should make us angry.

However things appear to be changing. The modularisation of courses is slowly being undone. For his GCSE exams my second son will have to take all his science exams at the end of the course, a more difficult task than that which faced my first son. Michael Gove has now announced that in future A level ‘content’ will need to ‘involve’ academics at Universities. At this point it is impossible to foresee what this ‘involvement’ actually means, but it is probably a step in the right direction. However only when exam boards become fully independent of publishing companies do we stand a chance of reversing the continuous devaluation of educational qualifications.

School IT

March 14, 2012
Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi computer. The machine costs £20 and is a fully-fledged computer. The user has to 'do' things and 'know' things in order to make it work!

Above all, education should empower children. And yet when it comes to Information Technology, IT, we are in danger of doing the opposite. Training courses such as the European Computer Driver’s Licence course show students how to use Microsoft’s ubiquitous ‘Office’ suite of applications and this is useful. So for example, learning to drive a car is useful: but it’s also not very difficult. And learning to use ‘Office’ applications is similarly, not very difficult.

In contrast, learning Newton’s laws, thermodynamics and materials science is hard, and you won’t actually be able to drive a car at the end of your training. But you will be able to understand, how a car works. And not just that: you might be able to imagine different types of cars, or even aeroplanes or rockets or submarines. Similarly, teaching computer programming will not directly help students to use a word processor. But they will understand how a word processor does what it does, and maybe they will even imagine new ways to use a computer. This is genuine empowerment. On this issue, if on few others, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with Michael Gove.

It is only when students take charge of computers that they become empowered, and I hope the Raspberry Pi computer will enable a resurgence in that. The Raspberry Pi is a fully-fledged but bare-bones computer costing around £20, and when it went on sale recently, it sold out in minutes. It was sold to people who are probably a bit like me. But my hope – and the hope of the Raspberry Pi foundation – is that it will find its way into the hands of children who will be excited by the prospect of making this device do what they want it to. In all probability this means using it to play games!

When my colleagues Gavin and Robin were teenagers the hottest technology available  was the Sinclair Spectrum, and a key attraction was the ability to create and play games! This ability fascinated them, and now – I think as a direct result of this early experience – they incorporate a profound understanding of programming into their skill set. Even now when any of us write software that works, and we control a machine or calculate the answer to a complicated problem, we all smile in appreciation at the technical sweetness of the process. In the case of my own programming achievements, Gavin and Robin smile mainly in sympathy 🙂

Being the age I am – 52 – it was not until I reached University that I met a computer. And I loved it! Using Commodore PET, a WANG, and an Apple II I learned the power of computing to set my imagination free. As an undergraduate  I calculated the orbits of planets in systems which Newton would have found impossible! Learning to program computers empowered and inpsired me.

One could take the view that a fascination with the minutiae of computing is as relevant today as a fascination with the details of a steam engine! ‘Chill out man‘ I hear some of you say, ‘Just consume media on your iPad and be grateful‘. I respectfully disagree. Empowering our children means enabling them to be creators, and not consumers, and computer programming is one the most creative of all activities.

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