Is Boyhood the first ever prospective longitudinal film? Does it have any messages for those working on cohort studies?
Last Saturday evening I went to see ‘Boyhood’-Richard Linklater’s unconventional and critically-acclaimed movie filmed over a twelve year period from 2002 to 2013. The planning and commitment that this film must have required is impressive. As a result we can watch Mason Jr. growing up before our eyes. At the beginning of the film he is a six year old staring up at the clouds and struggling to please his elementary school teacher; two and a half hours later we see him on his first day at college. Simultaneously, we see his older sister develop from a girl to a young woman, and his Mum and Dad grow older (and a little wiser).
Intriguingly the film reminds us that real life does not always have a clear…
Despite a number of dire warnings, overall GCSE results have not been very volatile. Across the country, the number of students getting A* to C grades has increased slightly, by 0.7% points. On the basis of past performance, students who would have received an A or a C grade in 2013, should have received that A or C this year too. But there are some marked subject differences, as well as developments in the number of teenagers taking vocational and computing subjects.
We have already had a relatively boring set of A level results this summer. On the whole, A Level grades were similar to last year’s, with some minor fluctuations, most notably in an increase of students who got A* grade.
Please don’t misunderstand me when I say boring: when it comes to exams, this is a good thing. It reassures us that most students got the grades they deserved. Of course, there will always be exceptions – measurement error in examinations, no matter what the politicians tell us, is inevitable and will always be with us.
For the GCSEs, on a subject-by-subject basis there were notable differences. The A* to C pass rate for English was down 1.9% points, while in mathematics it was up 4.8% points and 6% points in science.
Overall, the number of exam entries was down by over 200,000, from 5.4m in 2013 to 5.2m in 2014, largely due to a 39% drop in the number of entries for Year 10 students. But even these changes are less dramatic than it might seem.
Rise in vocational subjects
Two points I have noted that probably will not get much attention were the increase in the take-up of applied (vocational) GCSEs as well as a dramatic increase in computing and ICT GCSEs, admittedly from a low base.
Business, engineering, health and social care, media studies, hospitality and catering, and leisure and tourism are all on the increase. Some subjects, such as engineering and social care have seen the number of A* to C students increase, while others including leisure and tourism and business studies, have seen a decrease.
As for computing – the number of entries jumped almost fourfold to 16,773 this year. However, there was a slight dip in the numbers of students getting A* to C – down from 68.4% in 2013 to 65.5% this year. Computing now counts as a science, and therefore as one of the subjects in the English Baccalureate, a performance measure of five core subjects now being used in school rankings. The number of ICT entries was also up 40% to 96,811.
Many vocational qualifications are no longer counted as equivalent to GCSEs in this year’s school performance tables, following on from recommendations in Alison Wolf’s 2011 review of vocational qualifications. Those qualifications that are able to be counted now only attract the points-equivalent of one GCSE, when in the past some counted for more. This has discouraged schools from entering students for those qualifications.
But it seems this year’s results show signs that some schools are shifting some of their students into applied GCSEs. This could possibly be in anticipation of counting at least some of the qualification results toward the “best eight” qualifications that will now be the basis of new performance tables, due to be introduced in 2016.
Impact of decline in early entry
Students in England will have taken all of their examinations at the end of their two-year GCSE course because of the government’s insistence on linear qualifications.
For English GCSEs, speaking and listening is now graded separately and does not count in the overall results. Many students in the past have done better in this teacher-marked element than in reading and writing – just think about how verbally articulate most teenagers are and you can see why. English is now 60% externally assessed through examination papers whereas last year it was 40%.
And changes to the way performance tables are structured now mean that only a student’s first attempt at an examination is counted toward the school’s results. Many schools have ceased to enter 15-year-old Year 10 students early for the examinations, resulting in 300,000 fewer early entries this year.
Those schools that made little use of early entry and resits will on the whole have stable or perhaps even better results than last year. For those that made wide use of these practices, the picture could be mixed. Multiple re-sits can just help those students on the border between grade C and grade D to get the higher grade – boosting school results. But taking a qualification at age 16 rather than 15 could mean that students do better because they’ve studied longer and are more mature, pushing results up.
I welcome John White’s plan to make contact with Chinese educators uneasy about their ‘success’ on the PISA League Tables and look forward to his next IOE blog reporting his discussions.
However, the fact that the headmaster of Eton attacks our examination system as archaic – something virtually everyone working in the public sector of education knows all too well – is hardly news. What really would be news would be if Eton decided to stop entering pupils for any public examinations until the system was reformed. Then, especially if a number of the other elite schools followed suit, we might get a Royal Commission with the remit to examine both why such an anti-educational system of examinations had emerged and what might be the alternatives.
No complex modern education system could exist without some form of examination system. Furthermore, it should be as fair as possible as a guide to those who have to select students for either jobs or university places and at the same time provide reliable feedback to teachers and students about their achievements.
The problem is that the relationships between public examinations, the curriculum (which defines the purposes of education), and the professional work of teachers, have become grossly distorted. Instead of examinations guiding teachers and students and providing feedback on the curriculum, they have come to replace the curriculum in deciding what is taught and how, and to be a major control force over teachers’ pedagogy and student learning. Taken to its limits, this turns teachers into technicians and all but the very highest achieving students into exam fodder, those that do not give up.
Unless any debate about our examination system begins with asking how we can shift towards a curriculum-led rather than an examination-led system, critiques, such as that of Eton’s headmaster, whose school sits at the pinnacle of the system he depicts as ‘archaic’, only deflect us from tackling its fundamental problems.
What do farmers attending schools in the African fields have in common with women attending maternity clinics in England? Both groups have played a role in rigorous academic research. They have influenced studies evaluating programmes that were designed to improve their lives.
In the mid-1990s Farmer Field Schools were spreading across Africa. These schools use active, hands-on learning and collaboration to improve agricultural productivity. Their strong participatory ethos makes the field schools very relevant to those involved.
Logic tells us that these schools should make a big difference to the farmers’ yields and to their lives. However, a strong theoretical base, enthusiasm and participatory principles don’t guarantee success. A research study seeking to collect, analyse and synthesise a wide range of evaluations of field schools found their success is largely limited to pilot projects. Furthermore, success is less likely with poorer farmers and women farmers.
It would be helpful to know how Farmer Field Schools compared with other approaches to improving agriculture – but the authors found a dearth of such rigorous impact evaluations. They see a need for studies that track potential changes through the whole course of the project — from the preparatory work of training facilitators and identifying potential participating farmers through to the ideas they discuss, try out and share with their neighbours.
They particularly recommend rigorous evaluations assessing impact in broad terms – not just agricultural productivity, but also empowerment, health and the environment.
Carrying out such evaluations is highly skilled work. In fact, knowing how to commission research that will yield really practical information – that will answer the questions and concerns of the people whose lives it is seeking to benefit – is not straightforward either.
The course will offer opportunities for participants and tutors to all learn from each other, and is designed for:
development professionals who commission and use evaluation studies
academics who plan to work in multi-disciplinary teams on future evaluation studies of development programmes and
postgraduate students who wish to gain a better understanding of the terminology and fundamentals of evaluation methods.
Our vision for the new course is that it will help to achieve effective and appropriate support for better health and wellbeing through training professionals who design social interventions. It will help them to understand, commission, use and interpret evaluation studies, and work with potential beneficiaries such as farmers in Africa or pregnant women in the UK.
Research on anti-smoking support for pregnant women in the UK offers a contrasting example of why rigorous academic evaluation of the impact of social interventions is not enough.
In many high income countries in the 1990s, pregnant women were commonly advised to avoid or give up smoking for the health of their baby. The success of this strategy was assessed by rigorous randomised controlled trials, which reported reduced proportions of women smoking and fewer babies born too soon, too small or sick.
However, these trials took little notice of other criteria considered important by health promotion specialists and pregnant women themselves. What, they wondered, were the effects of encouraging women to give up smoking, if smoking helped them cope with the daily pressures of disadvantaged lives? Might asking midwives to counsel women against smoking interfere with supportive midwife-mother relationships?
Concerned practitioners and women who smoked (some who gave up, and some who did not) discussed their theories about the impact of smoking cessation programmes in pregnancy. At that time these theories had not been tested. Drawing attention to this gap in our collective knowledge encouraged a new generation of randomised controlled trials that took into account the social and emotional consequences, not just biomedical measures, of smoking cessation programmes. Subsequent studies showed that concerns about potential harm, such as stressed mothers and damaged family relationships, were largely unfounded. Now national and international guidelines are based on rigorous evaluations designed with women, not just for them.
These two very different examples raise questions in common about theories of change, research methodology, criteria for success, equity and ethics. They also feature not just individual studies, but whole literatures of similar studies which strengthen the evidence underpinning current recommendations. These key characteristics for evaluating complex social interventions require research approaches that cut across traditional academic disciplines, and draw heavily on the policy, practice and personal knowledge of those directly involved.
In an article for Radio Times this week, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, has called the examination system ‘archaic’. He sees it as “little changed from Victorian times”, a hindrance to collaborative working and to education for citizenship.
He is right on every count. As is now all too clear, the exam system does little to test deep understanding, blights the secondary school curriculum, causes students great anxiety, perverts the job of teaching, favours those families who can best manipulate school admission arrangements.
In Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes – to be published by IOE Press next month, I ask why it is that despite these patent defects, we still cling to an institution which may have been all the rage in the 1860s but has been under fire in every generation since then.
It is ironic, if no less welcome, that the person at the apex of private education should lead the latest sortie. For it was the privately educated new middle classes of Victorian England who championed examinations over the patronage system of the landed establishment as a surer route for their children to a university place and a comfortable life. Soon joined by the top public schools, Eton included, middle class schools from Repton and Clifton down to local grammar schools made the examination system their own preserve. When elementary school students in the 1890s began to see its advantages for themselves, the shutters came quickly down. After 1904, the elementary schools that catered for over 80% of the age group were deliberately made an exam-free zone. This approach outlasted the end of fee-paying secondary education after 1944, when the new tripartite system excluded secondary moderns from the examination stakes until 1965.
For nearly a century, then, secondary school exams were the prerogative of those who could afford school fees. In the age of official full democracy in which we now live, we take it as read they are for everybody. Some 75% of students now get good GCSEs. The age of equality has arrived.
Or has it? The coming of league tables in 1992 has enabled families to identify local schools – private as well as state – with the best exam pedigrees. The private ones do well here, as even those among the sleepiest thirty years ago have worked hard since then to attract custom by glittering exam results. Better-off people can also maximize their chances of acceptance at a ‘good’ state school by moving into its catchment area, or, if a church school, discovering new talents for choral singing or campanology.
Tony Little is right about this Victorian relic. It has survived so long because it has been able to reshape itself – at least for public gaze – as a taken-for-granted institution of a democratic society, while at the same time trying to satisfy the very natural desire of those who have done well in life not to see their children doing worse.
It is time to jettison it before it takes us into what countries in east and south Asia often call their ‘examination hell’. A Chinese colleague and I have recently set up a small group of ‘International Critics of Examinations’, drawn from eighteen countries and from every continent. We hear reports of thirteen-hour days worked by students, the toll on family life, suicide rates among examinees, endless rote-learning, the frenzy and corruption of the annual Chinese school-leaving examination. We also hear of the ways in which the rich can work the system by moving into good school districts and employing private tutors.
Exams came to Japan and India from the USA and the UK, in the heyday of the West’s own love-affair with the institution in the late nineteenth century. Leading lights in these and similar countries are now looking for more humane alternatives.
Tony Little is right again. As he says, “here is the irony: we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of.”
Teenagers across England are waiting nervously for their GCSE, AS and A Level results. Now new figures have shown more of them are choosing to take more “academic” subjects, such as the humanities, languages and sciences, until the end of school – an effect attributed to the new English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) of five core subjects introduced in 2010 by Michael Gove, the former secretary of state for education.
The Joint Council for Qualification has published an analysis of the subjects UK teenagers chose to take at A level and AS level in 2014. Its analysis points to some dramatic changes both for GCSE qualifications taken by 16-year-olds in 2013 and AS level qualifications taken by 17-year-olds in 2014.
GCSE entries for geography, history, French, German and Spanish all increased markedly from 2012 to 2013 – up 19.2%, 16.7%, 9.4%, 15.5% and 25.8% respectively. AS entries in geography, history and Spanish – all Ebacc subjects – increased significantly between 2013 and 2014, as the graph shows. AS science entries increased as well, albeit less dramatically.
The EBacc effect
These increases are chalked up to the first signs of the “EBacc effect”. This is the fallout from the policy to include a measure on school league tables showing the proportion of 16-year-old students at each school who achieved good grades (A star to C) across five core subjects. These subjects are English, mathematics, science, a language other than English and history or geography.
The EBacc effect is real, and to my mind, mostly a good thing. Since its inception, state schools have been entering more and more students onto these GCSEs. In 2013, government figures showed 35% of state school students were entered on programmes that could lead to an EBacc up from 23% in 2012 (in independent schools the figures are much higher). Of those students, 23% achieved the EBacc goal in 2013, up from 16% in 2012. Language entries, which had decreased sharply since 2004, increased to 48% of students.
This “Ebacc effect” has now been shown to continue on to AS Level, because students are likely to continue with these subjects they did at GCSE. Given the uptick in parallel AS subject choice, more students will fit the profile that selective universities are looking for: students who choose “facilitating” subjects, which largely parallel EBacc subjects.
This means that more and more students are enrolled on courses that will give them the most flexibility in choosing their futures, taking subjects that have both the breadth and depth to prepare students to progress in further or higher education, for work, for family life and for social and civic participation.
Driven by pressure on schools
So why have I qualified my enthusiasm? It’s because these increases are largely due to the perceived (and, starting in 2016, real) accountability pressures schools perceive themselves to be under, rather than a fundamental philosophical shift towards providing all of our students with the curriculum provision they deserve.
Because schools are accountable for their students’ performance on qualifications, the notion of a broad and balanced education (to use a somewhat hackneyed phrase) only seems to apply to higher achievers. In England, there seems to be a policy consensus that lower achievers need a skills-based rather than a subject or knowledge-based curriculum.
The underlying assumption, unfortunately shared across the political spectrum, seems to be that up to 50% of children have a “style of learning” that is simply not compatible with the academic grind of GCSEs and A levels. Consequently – in the conventional wisdom – such students need more applied or vocational qualifications.
But if there’s a worthwhile set of knowledge, skills and understandings enshrined in EBacc subjects, then shouldn’t all students be pursuing them? Michael Young at the Institute of Education has pointed out that until quite recently, government policy on education systematically marginalised knowledge. He argues instead for a curriculum for all that is built around substantive content but is based on the understanding of important concepts and universal values that all students should be treated equally and “not just members of different social classes, different ethnic groups or as boys or girls”.
The right direction
The EBacc effect may be a pull in the right direction. The new accountability measures for 2016 that feature the best eight GCSE subjects could be a further incentive, but these are still high-stakes measures that will provoke some schools, understandably, to try to game the system. The unintended consequences could be that schools pay less attention than they already do to lower achievers in their efforts to chase their slice of an already cut pie.
For now, I’m reserving judgement because; a) I think the shift to base accountability on the best eight GCSEs is going in the right direction and; b) we don’t really know how schools will change their students’ subject entry patterns. And so many other changes are happening simultaneously.
For both GCSEs and A levels the level of demand has increased, examinations have reverted to being linear rather than modular and the way the GCSEs will be graded has changed. At the moment, we cannot predict if these changes will also have an effect on which subjects schools offer all of their students, not simply the top half.
Tina Isaacs does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Evening classes were once such an unshakeable part of the British landscape. They were the setting for TV and radio sitcoms, editions of the London guide Spotlight used to fly off the shelves on release and the standard advice of 70s ‘Agony Aunts’ – make friends, join an evening class – was the butt of comedians. My own experiences have included learning to touch type, creative writing, car maintenance and pottery. Most of my contemporaries have done evening classes in something, including the near ubiquitous foreign language courses.
But times have changed. In the past few years the headlines have been about falling numbers participating in adult education, a collapse in adult education funding and a collapse of morale.
Back when I was taking part in after work education we were not looking for pieces of paper – although I did get a Pitman’s typing qualification. We were doing these courses to try something out, learn a useful skill, or to be able to talk to the locals on holiday. No doubt some were following the agony aunt advice and were aiming to meet new friends and potential partners.
But it strikes me as sad that since the start of this century, accreditation has become the only game in town. Adult Ed (as we used to call it) has slowly been dragged into the accreditation net, becoming part of the ‘qualifications mania’ that insists on certificating subjects such as dance and music. The prevailing philosophy from all political parties has been that education is not worthwhile unless it leads to a qualification, and that therefore education should not be supported unless it leads to accreditation. No one, it seems to me, will stand up for the idea that education is a ‘general good’.
A European project provides some much needed support for Adult Ed. The Benefits of Lifelong Learning (BeLL) project looked at the individual and social benefits perceived by participants in ‘liberal adult education courses’ in 10 countries. The project produced over 8,500 survey returns, and project teams interviewed more than 80 participants across the participating countries.
The results are striking: adult learners felt that they led healthier lifestyles, had improved wellbeing, had improved their social lives and social networks and were more motivated to continue with learning. Younger participants found the courses acted as stepping stones into adult society, improving their sense of control over their own lives. Older people found that the courses had a cushioning effect, softening some age-related changes associated with retirement. And perhaps most importantly, the lower the participants’ level of education, the stronger the benefits.
An unexpected finding was that these results were not only consistent across the participating countries, but they held regardless of the type of education class being taken. The results were the same for those doing languages, sport or civic education.
Adult education suffers from not being a distinctive sector. It takes place in sixth-form colleges, higher education institutions, FE Colleges, through work-based learning programmes and local authority adult education services. While many courses for over-19s are funded by Government, these tend to be for English, mathematics and vocational subjects leading to qualifications at Level 2 and 3.
Non accredited courses such as those covered by the BeLL report are increasingly hard to find and expensive to participate in. Government, both local and national, appears to have lost sight of the importance of these courses and this report will hopefully provide a reminder of the benefits which used to be taken for granted. There is an echo of that dated agony aunt advice in the finding that adult education classes were one of the few social spaces where you can meet strangers safely, interact with them and make friends. Adult Ed classes are perceived to provide the scaffolding for social cohesion.
There are messages here for many stakeholders, if they are prepared to engage with the study. It provides good evidence for local government, which may need reasons for continuing to support the sector, it should remind central Government that the benefits of adult education go beyond attaining qualifications, and it has particularly strong messages to those that work with mental health or the elderly, particularly in the charitable sector. Adult education really can help people with their mental health and ease older people’s path into retirement.
The sad thing, though is that it takes a European-wide survey with thousands of participants to remind us of something that used to be a self-evident truth. Adult Ed, indeed all education, is a fundamentally good thing; it benefits individuals, their families, society and even employers. It is sad that policy makers and politicians have forgotten this obvious fact. Perhaps in retirement they themselves will reengage with non-accredited education and understand again its importance.