Five months and counting – what will the election mean for education?

“we have the best teachers ever – but we burn them out”
“teachers are seriously afraid”
“there’s more openness about extending your house than there is about opening a school”
“schools have learning difficulties; universities have profound and multiple learning difficulties”
“governors are allowed to act with no local accountability”

With less than six months to the General Election, the fourth Reclaiming Education Conference last Saturday focussed on the how to influence the parties in the direction of evidence-based , progressive policies for education. The focus for the day was the 7 point plan drawn up by the conference organisers – they can be found at and at

A series of speakers gave us their priorities – there’s not room here to give a full account of their ideas but the key themes from a set of inspiring presentations were:

Tim Brighouse focussed unashamedly on structures not standards wanting change in local governance, admissions, inspection, exams and pay and conditions. He held up the example of Scotland as a system “with more hope and less fear”.

Laura McInerney highlighted the lack of transparency – the DfE consistently refuses to provide information about academies and free schools that any local authority would routinely provide. She called for a coherent approach to place planning, admissions and a recognition that the government is doing too much too fast.

Navin Kikabhi gave a devastating critique of how the system treats disabled children and the many ways in which the mainstream system denies access to such children. He argued for the dismantling of the segregated system and identified universities as sometimes the worst offenders.

Richard Hatcher argued for the need to restore local governance of education – not just local accountability but a local vision for what the community needs. He identified the Local Education Panels proposed in the Blunkett report as a positive proposal but urged too that there needs to be active participation at a more local level through such initiatives as Children’s Zones.

Mary Bousted urged delegates to get out of their comfort zone and “find friends in unusual places”. It’s important to start from what children and families want and need and the ATL manifesto seeks to do this. Like others she called for the radical reform of Ofsted and for “collaborative not compliant workplaces.”

There was a strong feeling in the conference that education seems to be taking a back seat in the developing election campaign. An analysis of what the different parties are currently saying showed a range from “back to the 50’s” with UKIP, more privatisation and fragmentation with the Tories and only a fairly modest set of counter proposals from Labour.

There was a lot of support in the room for all the ideas put forward by the speakers. The final stage of the day was to challenge everyone there to identify what they could do to raise the profile of education in the election and to get the parties, especially Labour, to adopt more ambitious policies.

Delegates recorded their personal commitments. These included:
work to set up a local Education Forum
• Set up a petition through 38 degrees
• Use freedom of information to get information
• Get local parties to support the 7 key policies
• Lobby prospective candidates
• Learn to tweet
• Support the NUT “Stand up for Education” campaign
• Demand better coverage of education from the BBC
• And much, much more….

The conference was promoted by the
Alliance for Inclusive Education,
Campaign for State Education
Comprehensive Future
Forum Journal
Information for School and College Governors
Socialist Educational Association

Selina Todd – the myth of the grammar schools and why it still haunts us

The myth of the grammar school has an extraordinary grip on the education narrative in England. There was a time in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when grass root revolts in favour of comprehensives seemed to be turning the tide. But it hasn’t gone away and there is still a powerful lobby demanding the protection and extension of selection.

Caroline Benn was one of the foremost campaigners for the ending of selection. It was fitting therefore that, in the year after Tony Benn’s death, Selina Todd took on and demolished the myth in her Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture promoted by the SEA.

To begin with she reminded us that, in the 1940’s, the majority of the workforce it was believed needed only to be trained for routine working class jobs – in Ellen Wilkinson’s words “coal has to be mined and fields have to be ploughed”. This was an education system designed around the needs of the economy not one intended to develop the talents of the whole population.

Then as now, educational selection was about class. More than half of middle class children got to grammar school but less than one fifth of working class children did so. And once a few working class children got to grammar school, they had to face a conflict between family and community and school which led to many failing to achieve what they could have done.

Grammar schools were rarely sited in working class areas. They expected families to afford innumerable extras. They demanded pupils confined themselves to school led sports and activities and cut themselves off from their communities. Some actively rebelled, more sank into the bottom streams and left early and a few – like Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton – rejected their background with all the trauma that that could lead to.

Meanwhile there was a great unmet demand for better education from the rejected in the secondary moderns. These schools were starved of resources and offered very narrow opportunities – with the leaving age at 15, many offered no access to qualifications. The demand for something better was documented by HMI at the time and in the Crowther Report. The result was a demand for comprehensive education in Labour and Tory areas alike, often as a result of public demand which demanded action from nervous politicians.

At the heart of the grammar school myth is the notion that they were a pathway for the “bright” working class child into middle class professions. Implicit in this is that talent is limited and that we need to rescue the talented few because if we don’t they be dragged back by the inadequacies of the majority. This is a very convenient myth for the few who made it through 11+ and grammar school. It says that they deserved their success because they are people of superior ability – most people just aren’t up to it!

Of course the reason some working class kids moved into the middle class is because the labour market was changing – the need for junior managers, technicians, teachers, nurses and so on was growing rapidly in the third quarter of the century. But the really prestigious professions remained overwhelmingly the preserve of the established middle and upper classes – as indeed they do today.

The ambition of the comprehensive movement was to educate every child not just for work but for citizenship and for a full life. It rejected the idea that there is a fixed pool of talent and that the job of schools is to sort people into the right order.

Selina Todd’s analysis of the grammar school myth resonated with the packed committee room in the House of Commons because the battle is far from won. Selection remains a reality in many parts of England. UKIP promises a grammar school in every town and Theresa May signals her support for what would be the first new grammar school in many years in her Maidenhead constituency. And of course covert selection is rampant through much of the country often but not always under the banner of religion.

The evidence is clear that comprehensives opened many doors that had been shut before. Instead of being held back by comprehensives, many more children achieved exam success and, helped by the huge expansion of higher education, proved themselves able to succeed at university. We know that selective Kent gets poorer results than comparable comprehensive counties. The international evidence from OECD is equally clear that selection damages achievement.

But still we agonise over our lack of social mobility. There is less of it now because the pool of middle class jobs is not growing as it was in the 60’s and 70’s and the privileged remain very good at keeping them for their own children.

But more fundamentally focussing on social mobility is asking the wrong question. It is assuming that the kind of inequality we have now is inevitable and the only question is who gets the prizes. But as Ed Miliband said just today “This country is too unequal. And we need to change it.”

After the lecture, John Cryer MP, chair of the SEA parliamentary group made the same point with huge passion – the issue remains class. Class determined in large measure who got to grammar schools and it still does where that system remains. But as the number of children living in poverty grows, the inequality between classes continues to constrain the opportunities open to very many children even in comprehensive schools.

An audio version of Selina Todd’s lecture is available at

Her arguments are developed further in her book The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010

Neither the National Audit Office nor the DfE really understand School Improvement

The National Audit Office has once more concluded that the government’s approach to improving inadequate schools is a complete muddle. The DfE doesn’t know what is actually happening inside academy chains, local authorities and schools. Responsibilities are confused and there is no evidence that its interventions actually have any effect. It concludes:

“The Department for Education has not demonstrated the effectiveness of the different interventions it and others make in underperforming maintained schools and academies, despite investing at least £382 million annually, according to the National Audit Office.

The NAO finds that the DfE and others, such as the Education Funding Agency and local authorities, have not tackled underperformance consistently. The spending watchdog, therefore, cannot conclude that the oversight system for maintained schools and academies is achieving value for money.”

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone with real experience of school improvement work. Essentially it is the case that all the assumptions on which current practice is based are fundamentally broken. So:

• It is assumed that Ofsted judgements accurately identify inadequate schools. Whereas we know that inspections are hugely inconsistent and that schools working with less able or deprived children are much more likely to be graded inadequate or requiring improvement.

• Using floor standards as a measure is equally flawed. It too will mainly identify schools working with challenging cohorts or schools affected by selective systems.

• It is assumed that formal intervention is how you do school improvement – warning notices, changing governors and heads and conversion to academies. What NAO found is that 48% of inadequate schools receiving this kind of formal intervention improved while 59% of inadequate schools that did not have this kind of intervention had also improved by their next inspection.

As a model for change management, this approach would be laughed out of court in almost any other walk of life, with the possible exception of football management. Yet the reaction by government is just more of the same. 8 regional commissioners will be responsible for standards in 3000 odd schools each. From on high they will decree changes in governance, management, policies and pedagogy in schools about whose circumstances they will know nothing. Then they will wheel in a few super-teachers who will tell all the rest how it’s done. And of course they’ll be long gone before anyone knows whether there’s been any effect.

So what can make a difference? What good local authorities – and to be fair also good academy chains – know is that:

• You need to start with respect. No one is trying to do a bad job. Like pupils, teachers will improve if encouraged and supported. They won’t improve if constantly criticised and threatened.

• You need to know the school and its circumstances properly. That way you pick up the early signs of decline and you know when there is a fundamental problem and when there is just a short term blip that the school can sort out. And you know whether a school is struggling in hugely challenging circumstances or whether it really isn’t doing what it could and should.

For example, as a Head of School Improvement I was in a position to get continuous feedback from all the agencies dealing with a school – Education Welfare, Psychologists, Human Resources, Finance. We met governors regularly. Councillors would share issues from surgeries. We were in schools regularly looking to see whether things were working on the ground. Identifying problems was not just a matter of crude data or a snapshot inspection.

• Once you really understand the issues, it’s possible to develop an approach to improvement that the school itself shares, is committed to and believes in. This is a lot more complicated that just changing the head or the uniform but it’s much more likely to work.

• Improvement certainly often comes from schools supporting schools. But any system of networking and collaboration needs managing – it doesn’t just happen. Finding the right expertise that will address particular issues is complex and needs a lot of local intelligence.

The DfE’s and indeed the NAO’s focus on formal interventions is simply looking in the wrong place. The data shows that – though the NAO is unwilling to admit it – there is no evidence that formal intervention works. Ministers cling to it because it’s the only thing they can do in a centrally controlled system where so much local capacity has been stripped out. But there is still good practice out there. The NAO needs to ask a different question – what actually does make a difference and how can we replicate it across the country.

For Labour, there is a question to be asked about the proposed Directors of School Standards. Will they be just a local version of current DfE practice – relying on crude data and inspection outcomes and then operating the same simplistic intervention model? Or will they actually embed themselves in their communities, build real links with schools and other services and develop a collaborative approach to school improvement that has a chance of really working?

Our quest for “British Values” remains a hopeless muddle.

The great panic about extremism and the need to promote “British Values” is having some fascinating knock on effects in some unexpected places. One example is a series of unannounced inspections of Jewish secondary schools which have caused considerable comment in both Jewish and national media. Three out of twelve Jewish secondaries were inspected in this way leading to accusations of a concerted campaign against them.

The outcomes of the three inspections were that Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Hackney went from outstanding to good. The Jewish Free School in Brent went from outstanding to “requires improvement”. Beis Yaakov in Salford went from good to inadequate.

The inspection outcomes highlighted some issues that we should all be concerned about. This is most obviously true of Beis Yaakov. Its website states that “The School expects its pupils to have no access to any inappropriate media which means that parents have to ensure that their children do not have access to the internet or any other media not meeting the stringent moral criteria of the Charedi community” It also says that “Staff will NEVER send pupils to public libraries or other resource collections. Its GCSE options are Art, Textiles, History, French, Home Economics and Pitmans secretarial courses. It is of course a girls’ school.

Yesodev Hatorah is of course the school where science exam questions were censored by staff because they dealt with evolution. You may have thought that the exposure of this practice would have brought it to an end. But a year ago, the school wrote to parents saying “we have now come to an agreement with OCR to ensure that the school will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.” In March this year the Principal was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that “It is obvious that we do within the Jewish curriculum teach creationism. It is what we are there for and what we do.”

In the great scheme of things, these are a tiny minority of schools. But it does clearly show that there are schools that feel free to ignore the law and have a very strange understanding of “preparing students for life in modern Britain”.

But arguably even more important is what all this tells us about Ofsted and its hopelessly inconsistent and confused approach. In 2009 Beis Yaakov was a good and rapidly improving school. The report talked of inspirational leadership and found no issues of significance with the curriculum or the care of pupils. This judgement was confirmed in 2012 and the school went on to convert to academy status.

Then came the unannounced inspection of 2014. We now find safeguarding is inadequate, there are major gaps in spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, attendance is low, the curriculum is too narrow, there is little careers guidance and financial records lack transparency. Can this really be the same school?

This report is at least internally consistent and addresses important issues. The report on Yesodev Hatorah manages to completely ignore the issues of censoring exams. It says nothing about whether creationism is taught and ignores the fact that children are forbidden to use the internet – a clear breach of National Curriculum requirements. There is no comment of any kind on PSHE or sex and relationships education.

The report on JFS it would seem to have been prompted by parental complaints and is in most respects more straightforward although the judgment left the school furious. It focused on behaviour issues and was generally positive about preparing for life in modern Britain although it did offer the perhaps not entirely astonishing observation that “older students are better informed about homosexual and transgender bullying than students in Key Stage 3”.

Set these inspections alongside the anecdotal feedback from those in mainly Muslim schools in Birmingham and elsewhere and we start to get a pattern. On the one hand there is a clear history of Ofsted comprehensively failing in the past to notice issues that most people would feel have no place in a state funded school. On the other there is also a pattern of insensitive and inconsistent attempts to interpret the instruction to inspect British values – sometimes still missing issues but on other occasions seeking evidence in clumsy and inappropriate ways and taking an absurdly literal approach to the guidance. An example of this is the catholic school in Bury St Edmunds condemned as requiring improvement because “younger pupils show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation”. At least in this case Ofsted had the sense to withdraw the report after it has been published.

Overall, we remain in a muddle about what we expect from schools in our diverse society. But we are also in a muddle because we have an inspection service that is hopelessly inconsistent, swayed by the political winds and too big and cumbersome to be managed effectively.

Who has the ear of Tristram Hunt?

Sheila Dore, Chair of SEA writes:

This article was first published on

In his speech to Labour Party conference, Tristram Hunt outlined a minimal education policy. None of the great questions raised by Michael Gove’s reign over education were addressed. He had an excellent opportunity to fill the post-Gove void and persuade academics, teachers, teaching assistants, trade unionists, parents and everyone concerned for education not only to vote Labour but also to persuade others to do the same. The 10 minute speech received lukewarm applause in contrast to the warm reception given to other Shadow Cabinet speakers. As John Crace wrote in the Guardian:

“The shadow education secretary’s most obvious ambition was to get out of the hall as fast as possible and no one was minded to thwart it.”

Tristram Hunt said ‘only a Labour government will ensure our schools are not privatised for profit’. This does not mean they will not be privatised i.e. removed from any degree of Local authority oversight and given to unelected Directors of School Standards and private academy chains. Besides, as Martin Johnson and Warwick Mansell have shown, a great deal of covert privatisation of education has gone on already and continues apace.

In her address to conference, Angela Eagle, Chair of the National Policy Forum, warmly commended the thoroughly democratic process of policy making, represented by the Policy Commissions, culminating in the three days of discussion and debate in Milton Keynes. She was confident that the final results of the Forum reflected the views of Party members and affiliated organisations. I attended the NPF and I share that confidence.

Ed Miliband told Conference that a Labour government would “devolve power to local government, bringing power closer to people right across England”. In the fringe meetings Tristram Hunt delivered a few comments about ‘world class teachers’ and ‘the forgotten 50%’ only to go on to reject any suggestion that Local authorities should have an enhanced role in managing, commissioning and overseeing schools, despite the NPF’s agreement that “Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their areas ….. Labour believes in strong local oversight of schools’ and ‘Local Authorities have a key part to play in delivering high quality education …’. No mention of any of this from Tristram Hunt.

When asked about how Labour would resolve the problems caused by top-slicing of the education services grant to support academies leaving Local authorities with insufficient funds to provide services to vulnerable children in great need Tristram Hunt did not seem to understand the question and protested loudly that he would hear no criticism of sponsored academies.

Tristram Hunt seemed most at home at a small fringe meeting run by the Policy Exchange think tank, the title of which was “Parent-led academies, Directors of School Standards and collaboration for all. What should Labour promise on schools in 2015?” The speakers were Tristram, John Blake of ‘Labour Teachers’ (not affiliated to the Labour Party), Chris Keates, General Secretary NASUWT, Laura McInerney from ‘Academies Week’ and Jonathan Simons, Head of Education, Policy Exchange (David Cameron’s favourite think tank).

Jonathan Simons argued for the academisation of all primary schools and John Blake concurred claiming that two schools in his area had benefited from such a change. Tristram Hunt rehearsed his familiar lines about ‘world class teachers’. He spoke of the success of the ‘London Challenge’ and how Labour will roll out similar schemes across the country. He went on to declare Labour’s support for ‘Parent-led Academies’: ‘free schools’ in all but name. When asked what the difference was between the two he didn’t seem to know. He also showed no concern when he was asked if this would enable middle class parents with sharp elbows to use public money for their own children.

The Parent-led academies proposal did not appear in the NPF document. It is opposed by all the major teaching unions, as well as respected educational academics. The meeting was predicated on the assumption that the audience were ignorant of the facts. The success of the London Challenge did not depend on academies but on Local Authority maintained schools working together, as the Ofsted report on the London Challenge states, ‘30% of London’s 377 Local Authority-controlled secondary schools were judged to be outstanding, reflecting the positive impact of the London Challenge. Of the 34 academies in London that have been inspected 8 (or 24%) were outstanding’.

Furthermore, Henry Stewart’s research on ‘The Academies Illusion’ for the Local Schools Network states:

“For those schools whose GCSE benchmark was in the 20-40% range in 2011, academies increased by 7.8% and maintained schools by 7.7%. Both are great improvements and the schools deserve to be congratulated. However it makes little difference whether the school was an academy or not.”

This is despite the billions that have been spent on academies, much of it misspent as shown by the recent report by the House of Commons Education Select Committee Report. Stewart shows clearly that academies are not transformative:

The data does not back up this view. Students in sponsored academies are less likely to take the humanities and language GCSEs that Michael Gove was so keen to promote. Many are doing well and have seen significant growth in GCSE results. However, this increase is just as large in similar non-academies where it is less likely to be based on ‘GCSE equivalents’.

The suggestion that the wholesale academisation of the Primary Sector is also necessary is therefore also groundless. Overall there are more ‘good’ or better primary schools (78%) than secondary schools (71%).

Does the appearance on the same platform as Jonathan Simons and John Blake signal a new policy initiative? Tristram Hunt’s utterances were certainly not based on the facts or on Labour Party policy. Is this a new ‘go it alone, with a little help from my friends’ approach from Tristram Hunt? The Labour movement expects and deserves more from a shadow Secretary of State. It is entitled to ask – “Who has the ear of Tristram Hunt?”

Join the Education Policy Debate at SEA Events in November

As we approach the General Election, the policy debate in the education world is getting more lively. Many organisations are seeking to have an impact on the decisions that a new government will take including unions, think tanks and a wide range of pressure groups. SEA and its partner organisations are actively joining in the debate.

After playing a significant part in the formation of Labour policy at July’s Policy Forum, SEA is now promoting two key SEA events during November. We hope that as many people as possible will come and make a contribution to the debate.

They are:

The Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture

On Tuesday 11th November, Dr Selina Todd will give the Caroline Benn memorial lecture which will be followed by an open debate. This is held annually in memory of a past president of SEA and a formidable campaigner for progressive and comprehensive education. Selina Todd’s recent book “The People: The rise and fall of the working class 1910 to 2010” has been compared in significance to E P Thompson’s seminal work on the 19th century working class.

Her theme will be “The Golden Age of the Grammar School – exploding the myth”. For some this may seem more history than a current issue. But as Fiona Millar reminded us in yesterday’s Guardian, 11+ selection takes place still in at least part of a quarter of local authorities. The fallacy that selection supports social mobility is widely promoted and needs to be challenged at every opportunity.

So this event is hugely relevant to our debates today. It is a free event and will be in the House of Commons at 6 pm. Please book your place by e mailing

Reclaiming Education – Priorities for the Next Government

On Saturday 15th November, the Reclaiming Education alliance of which SEA is a part, is putting on its autumn conference on the theme of “Reclaiming Education – priorities for the next government”. The speakers will be Sir Tim Brighouse, Mary Bousted (General Secretary ATL), Laura McInerny (journalist and writer) , Professor Richard Hatcher Birmingham City University and , Dr Nicola Rollock (Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education at Birmingham University) with of course ample opportunity for debate and questioning.

The conference will be in the Birmingham Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB. You can book on line at or contact

The focus will be on the seven priorities for 2015 and beyond that have been developed through the series of conferences and that we’ve held since 2010. They are:

1. The National Curriculum should be what it says- a curriculum for all children in all English schools. As originally promised, it should be a curriculum to which all children are entitled, broadly based, balanced and designed to promote children’s emotional, as well as intellectual, development.

2. No school should be allowed to choose its pupils. Admission to schools should be fairly administered according to well understood rules drawn up by a locally elected education service. Selection tests must end. No child should be branded a failure at 11.

3. Inclusion and equal opportunities need to be at the heart of education provision and discrimination and segregation tackled in all their forms. The needs of every child, including those with SEN and disabilities, should be fully met.

4. All schools should be treated equally and funded according to a common formula which responds to pupils’ needs.

5. All schools within the same area should work together, rather than compete against each other. A locally elected education service should guide, support and monitor schools as well as take decisions on school places.

6. The inspection system, perceived by schools as hostile and threatening, should be replaced by one
which is supportive, as well as rigorous. Standards should be agreed through a national consultation process and inspectors should help schools by developing and sharing successful practice.

7. All those whom we employ to educate our children should have qualified professional status.Continuing professional development should be an entitlement and requirement for all staff. Unqualified staff should be given appropriate training to become qualified.

Alternative performance tables court controversy

Trevor Fisher writes:

The announcement in August that four leading school organisations were setting up an alternative series of school performance tables largely flew under the radar. The annual controversy over GCSE and A Level results took attention away from an initiative which broke with a twenty year consensus on school accountability. The challenge to the Westminster system by schools running their own league tables was perhaps misunderstood. The organisations involved – ASCL and NAHT, representing the heads, the United Learning Trust plus, PIXL, the school improvement organisation – were clear that this is not an attempt to supplement official government performance tables. It is an attempt to undermine them.

This was stated in the brief for the first set of performance tables, which said “It is intended that, over the next three years, these will become the established, independent means of publishing data that bypasses politicians and government”

Given that performance tables were established by John Major’s Citizen’s Charter to supply accurate information on school performance via the Department for Education (DfE), it is clear that important school leaders believe the government has failed to supply accurate information. Although there is a General Election coming, they also see no chance of problems with the performance tables being remedied by a change of government.

These are not marginal organisations. The National Association of Head Teachers represents most primary head teachers. The Association of School and College Leaders represents most secondary heads. PIXL now claims 800 schools are signed up to its exam improvement programme, while the United Learning Trust claims many schools in both independent and state sectors. Why are they going out on a limb, and why now? Performance tables have been controversial in the past, but less so in 2014 when journalists regularly recycle the tables for the information of local readers. However this is one reason why school leaders think the current tables are misleading.

In setting out their stall, the leaders were explicitly dismissive of the DfE tables Jon Coles, of the United Learning Trust, alleged “Over time, the tables have become less a way of giving parents the information they want and more an arms length policy lever by which successive governments have sought to influence the decisions Heads take”. Russell Hobby, of the NAHT, said “the government’s performance tables have become a sledgehammer to crack the system”, while Sir John Rowling, Chair of PIXL, said “Schools feel pushed and pulled by the complex, no-notice changes to school league tables. This new way of presenting information (shows) the results that students actually achieve without the artificial filters that are based on the politics of the day or hour”.

The deep anger underlying these complaints focus on a perceived attempt to politicise performance tables. Many Heads feel they are controlled by the selective supply of information, though in theory they are autonomous – and can decide what qualifications are best for their students. In practice only a limited range of qualifications are allowed in Performance Tables, by an arbitrary process imposed with little consultation. The crucial floor target of 5 A*-C grades in GCSE or equivalent has long been felt to push schools to prioritise borderline C/D candidates above other students above or below the borderline. The Wolf report which removed many vocational equivalents from performance tables heightened the pressures on heads – the qualifications can be taken by schools, but are not recognised by the new tables, putting heads in a Catch 22 situation.

Feelings came to a head last autumn when Michael Gove announced that resits would be removed from the Performance Tables, only the first sitting of an exam counting. While this addressed a perceived Gaming culture in schools, this effectively stopped many schools entering students early for exams when they were felt to be ready to take them. This summer there was a 40% drop in entries for 15 year old students. Neither the decision, nor its outcome, had serious debate.

There is legitimate concern over ‘Gaming’ of qualifications, particularly the use of vocational equivalents. Alison Wolf’s report that vocational equivalents to GCSE were rarely equivalent and short changed students was widely accepted. She acknowledged, however, the role of floor targets and other government initiatives in turning schools into virtual examination factories and this continues.

But early entry and repeats are not Gaming, though they can be abused. Since the start of the current exam system in 1951, students have been allowed to take exams early. Resits have also been part of the culture. For some students early entry is highly desirable if they are ready to achieve. In mathematics and music in particular, some students are well able to cope and it is wrong to hold them back. However the practice of entering students on mass for early exams is dubious.

Resitting exams is less dubious, and for me resitting was a career saver. When I took my O Levels in 1963, the only exam I failed was German. This was serious as a language pass was vital for university entrance, so my school allowed me to study and resit in the Lower Sixth. I then failed a second time. By this time I was entering the second year of A level study and the Head took my failure as a personal challenge. He laid on one to one tuition, I achieved a pass at the third time of asking, and off I went to university. I owe my career to that decision.

The role of schools and colleges is to achieve results. This should not be at the expense of a broad education. But if it takes extra effort to get the students the grades they need, why should this be penalised? Whatever the prospects of a system of alternative performance tables, there is no doubt Russell Hobby is right – the current system is a sledgehammer to crack the system. Gaming is illegitimate, but the measures in this place are indefensible. It is time to ask what interests the current performance tables serve.


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