The case against AS

24 hours after A level results were released to pupils, so the dust begins to settle.  Maths overtakes English as the most popular A level (re-tweeted with glee by Liz Truss), A* is up, A is down, overall passes down for the first time since 1982, many girls did a lot of jumping, someone got 11 A levels at A*/A and said their time-management was poor.  There are probably some twins who got identical results, and an 8 year old who got an A level in Computer Science, but these stories must have passed me by, at least for one year.

The legacy of Gove is being celebrated by some and damned by others.  Entries for facilitating subjects (for the uninitiated, this means hard) are up at AS, A grades are down for the A level, a record number of students are likely to go to university.  But in fact, the changes are statistically pretty minor, and that is to be expected, because the only real change this year was that pupils were not able to take/re-take their AS levels in January.  They still had the opportunity to re-take AS modules at the end of their Upper Sixth, but they didn’t have the opportunity to take some AS modules four times, which was the case previously.  The true legacy of Gove may well be noticed in a year or two’s time, when the first cohort of pupils on linear courses receive their grades in 2016.

I don’t care for modularity.  I don’t think the introduction of AS has offered breadth.  I don’t think the AS enables pupils to decide which subjects they wish to take to full A level.  I don’t think exams at the end of the Lower Sixth help to focus or to motivate.  I don’t think AS exams enable pupils to bank marks with the long term goal of higher overall grades.  I think it is patronising to suggest that pupils cannot cope with linear courses and that the material needs to be boxed up bite-sized for them.  Tristram Hunt’s popular political statement to re-introduce AS (if elected) is anti-educational and a retrograde step.  In any case, Gove never ‘banned’ AS grades, he simply de-coupled them from A levels, following consultation with universities.

I experienced linear courses when I studied in the Sixth Form, and when I first become a teacher I taught linear A levels.  I taught though the introduction of modular courses in 2000, and the new re-vamped modular A levels in 2008.  I have taught the linear Cambridge Pre-U for the last 3 years.  I have taught in four different Schools.  I do not state a preference for linearity and then seek to justify; it is evidence that bring me to this point.  I do not think this is an exact science, and there are certainly some pupils for whom a modular approach is best.  Some subjects are perhaps more modular than others, and some do not suffer so much by the compartmentalisation of knowledge.  However, in a utilitarian world, linearity wins for me.

To make a case against AS, here’s a de-bunking of the commonly quoted reasons for keeping them:

Pupils need to bank marks

Pupils in their GCSE year are well capable of learning two or three years’ worth of material for terminal examinations.  In ten subjects.  Quite why they have become unable to cope with three (or four) subjects over two years is beyond me.  It is precisely those pupils who do not need to bank marks (the top academics) who end up doing so, and those pupils who should be banking the marks that end up sitting linear A levels anyway, given their need to re-take everything.

No pupil will be more linguistically developed at the end of the Lower Sixth, compared with that same pupil a year later.  No pupil will have a more advanced problem-solving ability.  Complex ideas need time to bed in, pupils need time to mature and adapt.  Starting a School at 13 means that each pupil will have around 150 weeks of build-up to their GCSEs.  Starting in the Sixth Form leaves you with just over 20 to get the AS syllabus completed.

The ‘bad day’

The likelihood of such a ‘bad day’ is directly proportional to how well prepared you are for an examination.  The likelihood of said bad day can be nigh on eliminated by being very well prepared indeed.  All Pre-U linear courses involve four assessment modules, one of which is usually a coursework assignment.  Even accepting the fact that a pupil might mess up one of the questions (or even a whole paper), there are still three further chances (one different days) to atone.

Pupils are focussed/motivated by the AS exams

This is a fairly lazy argument, offered by the sort of teacher who attempts to gain the attention of pupils by stating that the current topic is ‘popular with the examiners’.  ‘This is a question that often comes up’ might be used as a way to raise Lower Sixth Formers from their slumbers.  But these pupils should be motivated by the subject material, after all they have rejected over half their GCSE subjects to study your course in the Sixth Form.  I want my pupils to be interested in the work for its own sake, to build up knowledge, to gain an interest (and facility) in solving problems.  I don’t want them to feel that everything is building up to this examination, occurring just 25 School weeks after they started the course in the first place.

Options are cut off

I have no problem with pupils studying four subjects through the Lower Sixth, and then dropping one at the end of the year.  They just don’t have to take an AS in that subject.  I read an article in The Independent yesterday stating that without the AS exam, the pupils will not know which subject is their weakest, and which they should drop.  Surely after 30 weeks of study, any pupil can tell which subject they have struggled with the most/enjoy the least.  You can also still give them an internal exam (which might even be an AS past paper), just in case they couldn’t tell from the 200 lessons, numerous pieces of marked work, reports, feedback etc.  How many university courses require an extra AS, on top of three grades, when that could be made up with an EPQ anyway?  Some require four grades, and an extra AS wouldn’t count towards that anyway.  

I encourage pupils to make positive choices – this is a subject I am good at, this is a subject about which I want to learn more, this is a subject I wish to study for two years.  The presence of AS can lead to a more negative mindset – if you’re asking the question: what if I want to drop it after a year, there’s a good chance you shouldn’t be picking it in the first place.  If there’s a course call Literature in English, it’s best to pick it only if you like reading books.

The pupils have nothing to show for a year’s study

Learning is generally more fun when there’s no exam at the end of it.  If a pupil has studied Art, Economics, English or Physics for a year, they have gained plenty from that year.  The fact that they have no letter on a piece of paper to show for it does not make the year’s learning worthless.  The existance of necessary knowledge (that which appears on a syllabus) and useless knowledge (about which no questions will be asked) is a fallacy.  

AS and A2 papers are completely different

This seems to be a flaw in the chosen syllabus.  If all the easy ideas are crammed into the Lower Sixth, pupils may well gain a false idea of their progress within that subject.  Incorrect information is worse than no information at all.

And if results are still all-important, and trump everything else about the educational experience, it’s worth noting that where we have moved to linear assessment, results have improved.  In every subject.

Do we really need to know this?

Questions form a large part of the educative process.  Teachers ask a lot of questions and are asked many in turn.  Most of the questions are welcomed, but the one in the title never falls into this category.  I have never answered the question with a straight ‘no’ (I tend to employ my best withering stare), but I wonder what the response to this answer would be?  To pack up one’s books and leave?  To tune out until the material becomes more relevant?

What the pupil is really asking is whether they are likely to be directly questioned on this material in an examination.  This implies that all knowledge can be categorised as necessary or unnecessary.  The necessary stuff is to be found on the GCSE or A level syllabus, and the unnecessary stuff, well, that’s simply unnecessary.  Why would you ever want to know anything that you weren’t going to be tested on?

Examinations are important, or at least doing well in examinations is important, but examinations are best seen as a celebration of all knowledge gained up to that point.  The examination syllabus guides the teaching and revision process, and in the run-up to examinations, it becomes an almost biblical document.  But for most of the educative process, we do not find ourselves in the run-up to public examinations, and it is important to realise that not all great literature is to be found in the GCSE English syllabus and one cannot find all that is worth knowing about philosophy and ethics in the GCSE RS syllabus.

Teachers tend to blame the syllabus and to use it as a crutch in roughly equal measure.  If the pupils aren’t finding the work interesting, laying the blame at the door of the syllabus is a standard strategy: ‘we have to get through this, it’s in the syllabus’.  Highlighting work that ‘comes up on the exam all the time’ is another tried and tested method to perk up the reluctant learner.  I do think it’s important for pupils to know why one topic leads on to another and to be aware of how the subject is structured, but this shouldn’t be done simply because section 3.1a of the syllabus leads into section 3.1b.  I wonder how many Lower Sixth lessons go by before exams, coursework, modules and syllabus are mentioned?

A simple philosophy for all Sixth Form teachers is this: you have two years to allow pupils to become the best Physicists/Historians/Hispanists they can be, and at the end of this time, you need to assiduously prepare these pupils for the examinations that will allow them to access the Higher Education institution of their choice.

Going back to the concept of necessary and unnecessary knowledge, can it be argued that any knowledge is unnecessary?  After all, even the most trivial fact might help you win some money in a pub quiz.  But it’s far more than that, and I firmly believe that knowledge enhances your life.  Knowledge of the painter El Greco makes a visit to Toledo far richer; driving large distances when in the US is more pleasurable having read works by Kerouac and Steinbeck; knowledge of the Hillsborough disaster makes the recent Liverpool surge to the title far more poignant.  None of this knowledge will ever help you pass an examination, but without them, Toledo is simply a pretty town, a long drive in the US is simply necessary to get from A to B and Hillsborough is just a football stadium in Sheffield.  Knowledge means interest, knowledge means context and (in some cases) knowledge means power.  

Absence of knowledge can never be a good thing; this point I feel is unarguable and some fault must lie with the approach taken by teachers.  ‘Extra’ knowledge, that is knowledge beyond the confines of the syllabus, is too often seen as being the privilege of the academically able, with academic extension something that is laid on for the scholars, the bright and the interested.  Of course this is not true; academic extension is for everyone, though it is inevitable that the nature of that extension will differ from pupil to pupil.  It is fundamentally wrong that any pupil should fail to interact with material that raises them from the bare bones of a subject.  A certain academic liberation exists when learning is done for its own sake.  Improving one’s knowledge is an enjoyable process and in turn this leads to greater enjoyment of the world around us.  We need to get away from the mentality that all learning is simply a means to an end; I often hear pupils stating that they ‘have to read this book as part of preparation for Oxbridge’.  If this is literally true, and it is simply being read for some necessary progression up the academic ladder, is the enjoyment of the book not removed, or at least seriously diminished?

And just to be clear, if any doubt remains: yes, you really do need to know this.    

Happiness in Bangor

It’s half term now, or Long Exeat as we call it, and I’m enjoying the week off doing very little apart from reading books.  I’ve been reading the ‘Weird Tales’ of H P Lovecraft, which are pretty weird in a Victorian Gothic ghosts and ghouls-type way.  I’ve obviously not switched off from School completely though, because I came across an article in last week’s TES which makes Lovecraft seem like the epitome of normality.

The article is by Maths teacher Jonny Griffiths, who teaches at a Sixth Form College in Norfolk.  In it he attempts to explain that whereas we are all frustrated by the low motivation and work ethic of some pupils, the opposite can also be the case, and pupils do exist that are ‘driven’ and ‘obsessed’ and sometimes these can be ‘just as draining’.  He gives the example of one of his pupils called ‘Michael’ (this can’t help reminding me of the Franz Ferdinand song, which is unfortunate given its strong homoerotic message).  Anyway, Michael is an able mathematician, who has done well in his A level modules, but is worried that he has lost some marks along the way that may mean he does not secure the A grade he needs to attend Cambridge.   

Here’s where Jonny steps in, and says: 

‘Michael, apart from you, who cares what you get in your A level?’. [controversial line, needs some back up]

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.
‘I mean, I care, of course,’ I add, swiftly. ‘But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?’ [classic argument fallacy – limit the options, neither of which sound that great to me]
“Michael is too stunned to reply.”

Later of course, the moment that Jonny is right all along dawns on Michael in a cringe-worthy final paragraph.  Michael answers a question in class (wrongly) and is corrected by another member of the class.  He then turns to look at Jonny, a smile breaks out over his face, and then he realises….what?  That he was crap at Maths all along, that he might as well go to Bangor, that he doesn’t really give a shit either way, or maybe Franz Ferdinand were right all along, and that he and Jonny should head down to Disco X right there and then.

The real problem here is that there is a very important and valid point that Jonny is trying to get across, but that it’s been lost in a clumsily-worded article.  The problem is that the current examination system has heaped extra pressure on pupils, pressure that did not exist until about ten years ago when the examinations went modular.

One of the main purposes of examinations (and I do mean examinations, not education) at Sixth Form level is to sort a very large number of pupils into two distinct categories: those that go to university and those that don’t.  Within the former category, the examinations need to assign pupils to universities and courses that are appropriate to their interests, talents and ambitions.  Students at university should be appropriately challenged academically, but it’s wrong for someone to end up on a course that is too demanding for them as to end up on one which is conceptually beneath them.

So what’s the problem?

1.  You can do the exams several times

Some papers can be taken four times through the course of the Sixth Form, and only your best mark counts.  Most universities don’t care how many times you had to take the paper to gain the best mark.  

2.  Some subjects are much easier than others

Studies show that there’s about a two-grade difference between the hardest and easiest subjects.  This means that the same pupil (without specific talents in one subject over another) would get two grades higher for, say Film Studies, than they would for Physics.  Even within the same subject, the percentages of A grades are different depending on what exam board you take.  The differences here are smaller, but not negligible.

3.  You can pay for examiners to come in and tell you the answers

4.  Formulaic examinations

I very rarely hear pupils telling me that they don’t understand topics, or that they don’t possess the knowledge to be able to answer questions.  The oft-most cited reason for losing marks is ‘examination technique’, as in ‘I knew everything about that question, but my exam technique let me down’.  Never mind; all we have to do is work through a filing cabinet-full of past papers, and all the examination technique problems will disappear.  Except they won’t; all that will happen is that you will do the same style of question so many times that you’ve developed a rote manner for answering that particular question.  It doesn’t matter that this particular brand of technique will never be required again, so long as they help you gain that A.  These formulaic examinations also reward a particular type of pupil, the automative ‘t-crosser’.  This type of person is useful if you want a large data-entry to be completed accurately, but they aren’t necessarily the kind of creative thinker that’s going to deal with the population/economic/energy crises.

5.  Grade inflation

1980: 8% of A level grades were A.  2011: 8% of A level grades were A*, with around 30% at grade A.  Grade inflation is happening, and it’s not that teachers are getting better or pupils are getting cleverer.  It’s also not that exams are getting easier, which is often seen to be the public’s belief.  It’s simply that much more teaching is focused on how to pass these exams.  This isn’t really what teachers want, but this is what has happened, and it’s understandable why.  By cramming so many grades awarded at the top end, we are struggling to differentiate between pupils, and this is the reason that Jonny’s pupil Michael feels quite so under pressure.  He knows that to get AAA twenty years ago would put him in a real academic elite; nowadays, this isn’t good enough.  He needs A* grades, maybe two of them.  He’s stuck with ‘gymnastics scoring’, where 9.975 is good, and 9.895 is frankly rubbish.

6.  Unfair grading

Every now and again, I mention to non-teaching friends of mine that it’s possible to get 320/400 marks at A level to gain an A*, and to get 379/400 and gain an A.  They think it’s ridiculous and so do I, but it’s the truth.  Bearing in mind that top universities use A* grades in their offers, they’re not even certain of separating out the top pupils by marks any more.   

7.  Extra filtering

Pupils can now be filtered out of top courses on their GCSE grades, and it’s very unlikely that anyone will get an offer from Oxbridge without at least 6A* grades on their CV.  But why does a Maths GCSE matter for a brilliant linguist and why should an aspiring medic be discriminated against for being only quite good at French?  Pupils at different Schools take different numbers of GCSE subjects, and some subjects are harder than others.  Due to the grade inflation point above, universities need extra ways of filtering out pupils.  Looking at GCSE scores makes little more sense than looking at hair colour.

So what’s the solution?

Place more emphasis on problem solving in examinations; take away an over-reliance on past papers; add an abilities test to the end of Sixth Form examinations; scrap GCSEs; allow universities to set their own entrance papers; do away with coursework; don’t allow re-takes; cap the number of A grades that are awarded each year; break the links between chief examiners and School visits; have fewer Sixth Form subjects – not every course needs to have an exam at the end of it to be educational.

And finally, don’t let Jonny Griffiths write an article in the TES again.

Making the Grade

It’s A level results day, and the same lazy hackneyed news stories have been trotted out. I feel guilty for boring you with them, but if anyone has missed any of the following during the course of this day, you must have been living under a rock. Or maybe you were watching Trisha on 5.

We’ve had:

1. News footage of pupils opening their results. Some whoop, some cry.
2. Discussion on the news about grade inflation, and the fact that A level passes have gone up for the 28th consecutive year. This isn’t news, it’s just something that happens, like the sun coming up, or someone going to the toilet.
3. The ‘scramble’ for university places, a question of how much debt is accrued whilst doing a degree, the fact that graduates earn far more in the course of a career….

It’s almost as if it’s a public holiday for all TV and newspaper journalists, and they can re-print word for word the uninteresting waffle that they paraded out 365 days ago.

So are A levels getting easier? Are kids getting brighter?

Well, here’s some facts. In 1980, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A grade. In 2010, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A*. When I went to Durham University in 1994, my offer was BCD, albeit for a pretty uncompetitive subject. Nowadays we have pupils rejected on AAB.

So more pupils get higher grades, this much is true. This isn’t the pupils fault, and far too much vitriol is chucked their way by the older generation, who had it ‘so much easier’ in their day. No they didn’t; granted, you had to absorb lots of information, which could then be regurgitated onto the answer paper before promtly being forgotten (how many 30-somethings can remember much about covalent bonding?), but in order to ensure that skills of complex communication and problem solving do not disappear from the workplace, papers these days need to test more than just rote learning.

We are preparing our pupils for jobs that do not exist yet. No-one wanted to be a nanotechnologist or web designer 15 years ago, because these jobs did not exist; it’s the same with today’s crop of pupils. They don’t need to carry vast amounts of irrelevant information around in their head. We have google for that. They do need to know how to get by when presented with problems or situations with which they are unfamiliar, and that’s the most important thing.

Another problem faced by pupils today is that it’s so much more difficult to stand out. 30 years ago three A grades marked you out as something very special. Nowadays (and I’m talking pre-A*) there are so many pupils pushed up to this top end that it’s difficult to differentiate, and consequently the upper-middle quality pupils get mixed up with the high quality pupils. Has the A* solved things? Of course not. Is a pupil who scores 90% significantly better than one who scores 85%? We did have a system where many pupils were able to secure their A grades and still have plenty of time for independent research, sport, music, drama etc. We are now rewarding the ‘t’ crossers and ‘i’ dotters, and it’s become more important to write like a markscheme rather than an intelligent human being.

Are pupils becoming significantly more able and intelligent? It would seem unlikely, and certainly not noticeably so in the last 30 years (a limited time period for human evolution). It’s also interesting that they seem to be becoming more intelligent by a similar fraction each year. What is happening is that pupils are competing against greater numbers, in exams which generally fail to differentiate appropriately.

So we’ve confirmed that pupils have it tougher than many of those who criticise. But what about the other side of the argument? The side that justifies the increase in A level performace? This is the argument that it’s actually the quality of teaching that allows for these increases; as teachers get better, so do the pupils they teach. It is fair to say that in recent years there has been a greater interest taken in the philosophy of education in Schools (largely in the state sector), and we are now starting to question how pupils learn rather than simply ‘drilling and skilling’, which is the bit we’ve become good at over the years. It’s a fallacy to say that teachers have lead to this improvement however, and it’s insulting to the pupils too. Many of the same teachers have taught exactly the same way for the past 28 years’ worth of increased results.

How much do results even matter? Does it matter if someone who was capable of getting the grades for Durham actually ends up going to Manchester, or Birmingham? They might meet better friends there, have a nicer house, find a great tutor. In the end, there are so many variables, it’s impossible to tell. I’ve taught many pupils who have achieved AAA in their A levels, and I knew they’d do just fine for themselves. I just wasn’t all that interested in what it was they ended up doing. I’ve also taught some underachieving pupils, who failed to get the grades of which they were capable. For some of them, I really do wonder what they’re up to, and for some, I know it’ll be something impressive. They may not have shone academically at School, but they had something about them that told me they’d be successful. There’s a bit of inner personal quality that can trump pretty much everything you’ve got written on paper. Would the people with the top ten best academic qualifications amongst my colleagues match with the top ten best teachers?

But back to the reporting of this total non-story: thank God for the recession, otherwise it really would have been groundhog day.