Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The crunchy and the smooth

I'm sure there's a specific blogging way to do this, but I don't know it. This post has come about because of a site posted in M's comment on my previous post... The link is Boris Johnson on Physics A-level. Boris, who according to They Work for You , asks most of his questions in Parliament about Capita, Capita Group, Community Hospitals, Swill Feeding and Swill studied at Eton and Oxford and to my great surprise seems to have been quite a scholar. (It obviously takes a lot of brains to play the fool.) He writes here about this list of subjects , published by Cambridge University (towards the bottom, under course requirements.) Cambridge Admissions Tutors will only give offers to students who have two A-levels in subjects not on this list. They must, instead, be what Boris calls 'crunchy' subjects.

Two things to note...

Firstly, Psychology and Sociology - all derided from time to time by commentators - are crunchy!

Secondly, the majority of the 'smooth' subjects (i.e. on the Not Suitable For Cambridge list) have practical elements which require significant skill; just not skills that are relevant for the range of traditional courses offered at Cambridge. For example, Media Studies, which includes film-making, Drama which includes acting, Dance and Photography... These are not 'easier' per se, they are different.

Personally, the hardest learning experience of my life was participating in a Drama workshop as an adult. Drama A-level would be a huge struggle for me. I doubt I could get one of those 'easy' A's. (I have a full measure of pre Curriculum 2000 crunchy A-levels; and I live with a Drama teacher so I know what the subject entails) The lowest exam mark I ever got was for Art, in which I was examined for the first (and last) time aged fourteen. It was an utterly humiliating experience for me - I was a straight A student up till then.

Sure, physics ain't a pushover. And we definitely need more physicists and chemists applying to university - that's a whole different issue. But as I say to students when they say 'which A-levels are easiest?' - it depends on what you find easy.

Actually, I think Cambridge have phrased it rather well.
The list below details the A level subjects that provide a less effective preparation for our courses. To be a realistic applicant, a student will normally need to be offering two traditional academic subjects

They are reflecting the fact that they offer only traditional, academic courses at a world class standard delivered in a conventional way. In order to realistically study those courses, a particular set of gifts is needed, evidenced by a particular set of results. That's not a scandal.

The scandal, as Boris has identified, is that 'we live in a mad world of league tables' and this culture has distorted schools' advice to students and the curriculum options made available.

There's nothing wrong with saying that subjects are different. But as I commented in my post on Jan Sramek, we all have subjects we find easier and subjects that present a significant challenge (in Jan's case, why did he accumulate 10 A-levels rather than stretching himself by taking fewer and including some literary or essay subjects instead?) Let's not fall into the easy labeling of 'hard' and 'easy', 'crunchy' and 'smooth' and join in the eternal denigration of some subjects.

I interviewed a young woman today for admission to a post-sixteen course who had low grades in some crunchy subjects at GCSE, but an A* in Textiles and another in Art. She is obviously very talented indeed in ways I can't imagine. I hope we can put her onto a course where she will flourish, be challenged, and be able to access the top universities or institutions in her field. Which will not be Oxford or Cambridge. But that's fine because she wants to be a fashion designer. Not a journalist and Tory politician...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Back to school

I'm back tommorrow. Kid's Health has provided me with some soothing advice for coping with my general depression about this. I am going to try and get a good night's sleep, I have already packed my bag and I am going to wear a great t-shirt that I got on vacation.

Good luck to everyone else as you face The Return. Eyes down till Christmas.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Decline in A-level computing

My parents have recently become readers (of IYTYWNM. They haven't just achieved literacy...) and rang me this morning to tell me about an article in The Independent (who said that old and new media can't work together?) Nestling in one of the articles in the online education section is this bombshell...
The biggest decrease in [A-level] candidates came in computing - down 13.9 per cent.

What? Why? I have been expecting a demise of ICT as a subject at A-level and in schools, but I thought that computing was here to stay. The only thing I can think of is that there has been a corresponding rise in the status of, and number of students on, post-16 vocational computing courses. This would not be a disaster as many of the hardcore vocational courses (such as the BTEC National Diploma for IT Practitioners) are very rigourous. However, if schools are phasing out Computing in favour of more insipid courses such as Applied ICT, I am concerned. The more modern ICT post-sixteen qualifications vere towards graphics and web design, but do not include the artistic theory content of a graphics course. However, they are easier to market. (The same is true of the new Level 3 DiDa qualification, which removes a lot of the spreadsheet and database content in favour of web editing.)

Another thought may be that gifted future programmers might choose to take Maths, Further Maths and Physics, deciding that they could easily teach themselves to program at the weekend.

On the other hand, they may all have decided to become TV presenters instead. Or 'software developers and models', like Big Brother's Mikey.

When you wander into the blogsphere...

...you always come back with souveniers
Because ultimately, society has to decide – very abstract phrase, I know – whether they want to equip its next-generation leaders with a bunch of facts, or with the tools and mental models which allow them to tease problems out.

An excellent post from Receding Hairline which is the very readable blog of Christopher Phin, an IT journalist living in London.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

'The street finds it's own use for things'

Remember those high pitched teenager repelling noise devices on the news sixth months ago?

I'm probably behind the times, but the repelled teenagers have bitten back.


Friday, August 18, 2006

Driving up standards (another A-level ouroboros)

I meant to post a summary of the A-level results reporting, however I got distracted by my previous post. However, now I have found this :
But exam chiefs insist standards are being maintained. They talk of "driving failure out of the system" - and are predicting a 100% pass rate within a few years.
(BBC news)

This is causing an outcry - and it's obvious why - as most people instinctively feel if it is 'impossible to fail', the result is meaningless. However, we must not confuse the factors which are internal to the exam boards and the factors which come from schools and colleges.

Here is an anecdote - it didn't happen to me, it happened to a teacher friend. She had an OFSTED observation of a post-sixteen lesson which was severely disrupted by a young man faking illness. Obviously, the quality of teaching and learning was affected as my friend had to stop what she was doing so she could deal with the 'crisis.' However, the observer criticised her and penalised the lesson. My friend argued that she had dealt with it well, minimised disruption and made the most of it. The observer's judgement was that any student who misbehaved in a post-sixteen context was obviously on the wrong course. This was a failure of the institution in signing him up for the subject that he was not motivated to study. Therefore it was a justifiable criticism of the lesson.

Anecdotes are not data. However, I think anyone in education will agree that in the current climate we are constantly called to account for student 'failure' - did we teach them badly, did we give them enough support, were they on the right course etc. etc. This comes from the management of schools and colleges, but they are simply reflecting the agenda set by OFSTED etc. The implication is that we should strive towards a situation where we can absolutely guarantee a successful outcome for all students. The student is not really seen to be an active part of the process.

Ergo, we are tacitly being encouraged to aim for a situation where no child fails. We should take no risks, expect no miracles, make no demands from our students for which we cannot act as guarantors. If a child is going to fail, we should be able to work this out in advance. Young people will only be on courses they can pass, because if they don't pass they were on the wrong course...


The awful fallout from this trend scarcely needs spelling out but I'm going to (very blogpompous.) If students are only in situations where they will pass, then it must mean they will pass even if they are dis-engaged from the learning process. This is effectively the death of the educational process. Because if we can contrive that they can get by without us taking any risks on them, we will. And so farewell to the risk-taking ethos of widening participation and raising aspiration which is so important for students from backgrounds where no-one has gone on to further or higher education.

10 A's

Well, is it me or is the slavering furore a bit dulled this year? In the light of the situation in the Lebanon and the ongoing terrorism alert here in the UK, there hasn't been nearly as much A-level related brouhaha in the news as we have come to expect. However, the odd thing has jumped out at me. The Guardian has a jovial round up - many congratulations to the triplets, the Big Brother finalist, the grandmother and to the amazing Jan Sramek who gained 10 grade A's. It's Jan's story that has got me in a bit of a slather. Well done to him, he's obviously a brilliant and hard working person and I wish him the very best at Cambridge. But to be critical, as someone who will sit down in a fortnight and counsel dozens of young people enrolling on A-level courses, I think this story raises the question of whether accumulating all those subjects was a wise use of his time. Look at the subjects...
He gained A grades in maths, further maths, additional further maths, economics, business, German, physics, ICT, economics and business studies combined and general studies
So that's 3 maths subjects plus physics - so obviously a very bright young man. If someone is mathematically gifted it has always been possible (and beneficial) to do extra maths subjects with significantly less burden than, say, doing an extra humanities subject with its additional reading burden. So not really a scandal there.

Then we add economics, business studies and 'economics and business studies combined' - surely a blatant case of sitting exams for the sake of it? The amount of overlapping content must have been laughable. I think it's actually a forbidden combination. (see page 13 of this specification which is the one that Bootham School do)

ICT is a huge amount of work, but maybe not a significant challenge for him, especially if Jan is a hobbiest computer fan - which he may well be, with his strong flair for maths.

Then German - he's from the Czech Republic - can we assume a head start?

And finally General Studies.

My question is this - what on earth were the school thinking of? This young man is obviously very gifted indeed. Surely it would have been better to do far fewer A-levels and then look to other ways of filling his time and stretching him academically. I've put gifted students in for OU modules before now. Or maybe he could have been advised to study less subjects but ones that stretched him and took him beyond an obvious flair for maths and economics. What about Politics or History? Both are key areas of understanding for a future economist - both require a different skill set to the mathematical based subjects. Maybe his spare time would have been better used in extra-curricular activities. Did he initiate this frenzy of A-level grabbing or did his school?
Jan said: "Although I was more attracted by the challenge of taking so many exams in a short period of time than the results themselves, I am, of course, delighted."

(P.S. To non A-level hacks, don't be confused by stories like this. The 'nine A's' refer to the papers, not to the A-levels.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The day of reckoning

Well, congratulations to my students for getting a really good crop of results. I am delighted and relieved that the grades you got largely reflected your skills and efforts and I am very happy for you all. Not just those of you who got A's but you guys and girls who arrived with borderline GCSE grades and who worked your socks off for two years to turn that into E's, D's and C's. While doing part-time jobs, looking after siblings, and in many cases fulfilling your responsibilities to your family business or even looking after sick parents. You're great. Some of you are amazing young men and women and I am very impressed with you.

[sarcasm] Due to the phenomenon of grade deflation, you of course need realise that your grades are worth fractionally less than they would have done if you had sat the exam last year. As the overall pass rate went up by 1.3%, obviously any exam was 1.3% easier than it was last year. Just remember that. If you are tempted to forget it, just listen to the news. [/sarcasm]

The A-levels taken today are not the same as the exams I took as an 18 year old. We have completely changed and re-defined A-levels and you cannot compare like with like. But why does this translate into such depressingly predictable bitterness? And why are there not more intelligent analyses of the facts?

My A-levels (in 1988) were done over two years with no exams until the last term of the upper sixth. I think I did two papers for each subject plus practicals. A modern A-level is done over two years and each consists of six papers, the first of which will often be sat at the end of the first term. Any of the papers can be re-taken as many times as necessary. In the first year, most students now sit four subjects in the time they would traditionally have taken three so obviously there must be less content included. It's not the same. Please get over it.

The critics seem to divide into different groups... there are the ones who lament the day when 'an A-grade meant something', who seem to resent the fact that the achievements of their children are not as exclusive as they want them to be. Hum. Well, maybe if the A grade was harder to get, your children would have got B's and C's. Maybe you could console yourself by correcting your child whenever s/he claims to have got four A grades.

Then there are the ones who lament the continual rise of standards, witnessed by the statistics. We can't deny the numbers. Perhaps they should look a bit deeper into the whole phenomenon of the statistical engine that drives modern education. Schools and colleges are forced to focus more and more on the headline statistics produced and so most of the effort in an institution revolves around improving these numbers (including the pass rates and the 'higher grade' rates.) Exam preparation, choice of exam boards, timing of modules, teaching methodology, advice to students on subject choices - all are influenced by the need to work the numbers. So the year-on-year rise in numbers is no surprise. It seems the pass rate is stabilising, as exhausted teachers finally reach a point where they have done everything they can in the service of the numbers and it is solely down to whether the pupils step up and do the work or not.

Finally, there are the complaints from universities that they cannot differentiate between the best students. Here I am very sympathetic. One factor there is that most universities can no longer afford to interview candidates, which is not mentioned but certainly closes off a whole way of assessing students' suitability, passion, commitment, thinking skills and depth of knowledge. Something should be done - certainly, universities should see module results and the number of times students have re-sat a paper. The greater use of additional entrance exams is also a possibility - or maybe universities should actually be allowed to read scripts. I write this with a heavy heart, because this will inevitably translate into more work for me. It won't be long before the machine finds a way of measuring this, another statistic which I will need to address ('Hum, your A grade rate is stable, but the number of students getting into top universities from your subject area is still low. What are you going to do about it?')

Anyway, I'm off to college now to see my students. I am hugely proud of them and they deserve a day of rejoicing.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Back from the beyond

Well, I apologise for my absence. I can bring a note from my Mum so it's OK.

This particular week for me is spent, as usual, in a state of insomnia waiting for A-level results to come through. I am more worried than usual as it is a truth universally acknowledged that a school or college who have recently been inspected will suffer a dip in results. I am worried about the pass rate, I am worried about the coursework moderation (which is playfully inconsistent from year to year despite us following identical working practices), I am worried about my retention rate because of the students who figured out that we couldn't actually stop them from absenting themselves from exam... I am pretty sure I am more worried than most of my students.

Anyway, here are a couple of pre-emptive A-level headlines. Pick one.

"As A-level results reach a record level of passes, there are calls for change as standards of assessment continue to be eroded."

"As A-levels results dip for the first time in 5 years, there are calls for change as the quality of teaching in schools and colleges comes under fire."

There is a phenomenon in the sociology of scientific knowledge known as 'The Experimenter's Regress'. This is the inability to agree on a test to decide on the truth or otherwise of a controversial hypothesis, as any two competing scientists can argue that the other has a flawed experiment.

Prof A 'Look at my whizzy wave detector, it proves the existence of whizzy waves'.
Prof B 'No, your machine is faulty. My machine shows there are no such things as whizzy waves.'
Prof A 'Ha ha, Prof B, it is your machine that is faulty, not mine!'
Repeat ad infinitum.

Sometimes it seems that the whole of education is in danger of spiraling into itself in the same way. When more students pass, we say that we have taught them better, but our critics say that obviously standards have dropped. When less students pass, our critics say that we have not taught them well, but we could equally say that standards have risen. The problem is that even in these enlightened times of measuring absolutely everything we possibly can, we have no consensus about how we measure either pupils' achievement or institutions' performance. The figures thus become pseudo-scientific garnishes to endlessly cyclical and cynical arguments.

The final word, however, must go to the defense of our students. Yes, there are dozens of them who are over-dependent, lazy, or manipulative. However, I think it's true to say that in my institution at least, the majority of young men and women who get large numbers of high grades have worked very hard indeed and deserve a sense of pride and security in their qualification. And the same is true of many of the students who will emerge with a clutch of C and D grades and take up places at universities with long names.