Tuesday, 8 September 2015

What's Wrong With A Levels?

For all the work done by JCQ and QCA, there’s a nasty secret about A levels: they aren’t fit for purpose.

I am not one of those who thinks that current A levels are easy - on the contrary, in a ‘blind’ comparison of coursework from ten years ago and from last year, one of our departments has demonstrated quite clearly that there has been a raising of the bar in at least one subject, even before the new specifications are introduced. Nor do I think that A levels produce a ‘treadmill mentality’ among students - that’s done by teachers teaching to the  test, which is something schools have to avoid through their culture (anyone who says that moving to the IB, or Pre-U, automatically eliminates that might be kidding themselves, but they shouldn’t kid anyone else - all tests can be taught to).

The problem with A levels is more fundamental. We try to come up with the most accurate measurement system we can, on a scale of 0 to 100, and then we divide this into just 7 grades - A* to U. This produces a clumsiness that is unfortunate. It also encourages pupils to appeal, and this is where the system falls down terminally. To understand why, we need to go back and, as Simon Sinek would say, ‘start with why’.

By and large, the purpose of A levels is to grade, sift and divide students so that they are able to attend the higher, further or in-work education course to which they are best suited. Universities base their offers on grades, causing huge pressure at the margin between one grade and another. This means that all students who can afford to do so have an enormous incentive to challenge any mark which places them just below the grade boundary: someone with 318/400 needs two extra marks for an A grade, and is most unlikely to lose the 39 marks that would take them to a C grade. In fact, it’s even possible that this student could go up to an A* with two extra UMS points. So, at the margin, one UMS mark can be worth up to 40 UCAS points, whereas many UMS marks are worth nothing. Any student close to the boundary for a higher grade has an incentive to appeal, whatever their mark, and their original expectation, since all the risk is on the upside.

This year 208 A level exams were sat at the school at which I work. Of these 13 have since been regraded, potentially making or breaking a university place. That’s a failure rate of 6.3 % for the exam boards, just from those which have been reassessed, which is a comparatively small proportion of the 208 A levels taken. The highest revision to one module has been an eye-watering 27 UMS marks. (Actually the average result of a re-mark at our school is an upward move of only +2 UMS*). The grading system creates a huge reward for the candidates’ (schools’?) efforts to ‘game’ the system. And, guess what? Doing so is expensive, and so only those that can afford to do so will.

Not only is the system clumsy and open to gaming, it clearly can select less well qualified candidates. An applicant for Medicine scores 600/600 in Biology and Chemistry, but only 479 in English Literature gets no place, while one who scores 480/600 in all three subjects does. Many such scenarios can be found. Higher education courses need to be for the best qualified for that course; at the moment, A levels will be sending the wrong pupils onto courses.

So what should be done? I suggest A level grades be abolished entirely, and replaced with a UMS scale of, say 400, in every subject. Universities could make offers based on this UMS scale. If all A levels were scored out of 400, Cambridge might insist on 1080 from three A levels (equivalent to A*A*A*), Durham 960 (AAA), Birmingham 840 (BBB), Within these there is scope for greater subtlety - Cambridge might insist on 1200 - a step above 3A*s. The crudeness of the grade’s indivisibility would be overcome.

Best of all, basing offers on UMS points means pupils would have to think carefully before appealing any mark, because any downward revision to their mark could be costly, and we could avoid the use of the appeal mechanism to game the gradings (by those who can afford it).

Then, of course, exam boards would need to make sure that aberrations, like the revision of one paper by 27 UMS points, don’t occur.

*I am reassured it's positive - at least it means my colleagues are appealing where their professional judgement is that the mark should have been higher, and not just because it's close to the boundary for a higher grade.

May 2016 Edit - Ofqual's changes to the criteria for appeals make the appeal of this post even more urgent and important.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

How To Prepare Yourself For Exams

While much has been written about the mechanics of revision - and I am sure there are many excellent examples of the superb teaching of revision skills (see http://uk.elevateeducation.com/ for the best example) - relatively little seems to be said about the business of students making sure they are in exactly the right frame of mind for an exam.

So my first assembly of this term was devoted to the Performance Curve. Used, I believe, by stress management consultants and others, this describes the relationship between performance - ie the quality of output - and the level of pressure, or stress, the latter being measured on the horizontal axis. The relationship between them is expressed by a line that rises gently to a peak, and then declines again - not unlike a bell curve.

How many students, however, are taught to self-evaluate? Are they under too little pressure, to the left of the peak of the performance curve in their revision? Do they know how to respond to this? How many students, on the night before an exam are right at the top of the peak? And in the minutes before an exam, how many students find themselves experiencing so much pressure that they are beyond the peak of the performance curve and on the downhill slope at the right hand end? And, if they are, how many know what to do about it?

Starting this discussion with pupils in classes is, I think, a key way to help pupils to begin to self manage, so that the level of pressure they experience at each stage of the run-in to their exams can be optimised - in the revision stage, in the night before nerves stage, and in the few minutes before the exam.

We are late in this cycle as I write, so three tips for students in managing the later stages of stress as they approach the exams when they tend to be too far along the curve, potentially diminishing their ability to perform. First, when experiencing stress, breathe with your diaphragm: this should involve your belly expanding when you breathe in (check by placing your palm on your stomach, and feel it expanding when you inhale). Your fight or flight mechanism responds to stress by moving your breathing up to your chest, but this response actually exacerbates the stress if you aren't going to take exercise.

Second, visualise yourself in the exam (or practical, or wherever) performing successfully. Take time to have a short daydream in which you are doing well.

Third, remember that every other candidate in the country is feeling the same as you, and they are the people you are competing against. And if the other candidates are looking relaxed, that's only because social conditioning teaches us to do so. They are all nervous. Nerves are normal.

And some nerves, of course, are necessary to bring us to the peak of the performance curve.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Last Lap - Dealing With Disaffection

It's one of those problems which has come up every year. The beginning of the Summer Term of Y13 and a number of pupils feel as if they have outgrown school. Much of its routine is irritating, and they can't wait to get out, and into the 'real world'. The irritation infects their motivation for their academic work, and rather than finishing well, with good feelings all round, there is a real risk of cynicism and sourness being the emotional colour-notes of May and June. So, what to do?

This morning, I addressed this head-on with our Y13 pupils. I asked them to give me an indication if they felt that they had already outgrown school and couldn't wait to leave. Bravely a good number raised their hands.  It seems to me that this is so normal (and yet may not feel it to the students) that schools have to react sympathetically to such students. And the approach we take is as follows:

First, it's reasonable - possibly right - for students to feel like this. Students in Y13 should feel ready to face the world by now. It'd be worrying if they all wanted to stay at school forever. Having students who want to leave and want to get on with their lives indicates that parents and school have raised young adults who have the appetite and ambition to make a go of their lives and fly the nest rather than waiting for winter within it. It's not a sign that school (or home) have done anything wrong - it's healthy.

Secondly, schools need to be reasonable. Why should Y13 pupils toe the school line at this late stage of their education? Well, there are good reasons, and they have to do with their positions as role models for younger pupils, the importance of consistent applications of expectations of students, and maintenance of the routine which students have become used to to sustain them through the stressful exam period. But it's also reasonable of Y13 pupils to ask why, and to get a good answer to that question.

Thirdly, students need to be given a picture of what it means to finish well. I recounted the member of our support staff who, in tears, came to tell me that he had received a thank you letter from a leaving family. He always tries to be more than just an employee, and supports pupils in matches, is interested in them as people and is always cheerful - all qualities picked up in the gratitude of this family. Leaving students have power - to encourage, to show gratitude, to reward, to become significant for decades to those they leave behind. I encourage our leavers to use this power for good, rather than merely to exercise a juvenile desire to disrupt. I encourage them to demonstrate their maturity in the quality of their finish.

Finally, I trust them. It's now up to our leavers to show the quality of young people they are by the way they conduct themselves from here to the finish line - and thereafter. I tell our leavers that this is only school - it's the menu, not the meal. The point of their lives has not been to do well at school, but to go on from school doing well, doing good, all the time, and to encourage each other in doing so.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Holidays - What Are They For?

Obvious question? Possibly, but the answer's intended to be reassuring.

First, rest. The point of holidays is rest. It's a point that's often lost. There's no point in doing the heavy lifting part of revision if it means you start the next term exhausted and ill. Build in some rest at some stage.

Second, relationships. During term, time can get squeezed. This means young people spend less time with parents, siblings, extended family and non-school friends. Much of what we understand by quality of life comes from these relationships. Holidays are when they should be fed (and that means, teenagers, you should do the washing up more often in holiday time!).

Thirdly, revision (at this time of year). It's no good leaving your revision until a month before the exam. By the time you go back to school, you should have done your learning, because your teachers will be running through the final elements of how to use your learning to perform well in the exams. Work intensively in the holidays, and work a lot. See the next post below for more tips on this score.

So, it turns out that not only is term time about the 3 r's, but so is the holiday: rest, relationships and revision. If you don't have public exams next term, substitute reading for revision, and the same applies.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Last Lap

So, you are preparing for your last school holiday, before A levels launch you into a more independent world. How can you make the most of this period of time. Here are five simple things which have helped students I have been associated with in the past, and which could be helpful for pupils this year, or for parents. They are probably equally applicable to public exam candidates in Year 12 or 11.

First, remember what the purpose of your revision is. Nobody revises just so that they know more. Nobody revises to fill the time. The purpose of revision is to answer exam questions more effectively. Remember that in every revision session - make it as much question and answer driven as you can - this is more effective and more interesting than trying to learn facts. Work intensively, as you would in an exam, so that you are practising being examined. Practise questions you can’t do, not those you can.

Secondly, be collaborative. I recommend students set a target for the amount of work they are going to do on each day in the holidays, and show their progress against it in a public place in the home. Organise it as a table, and show across the top the days on which you will work, and down the table show one box for each work session, whether that’s an hour, forty minutes or another time period, you intend to complete. Agree the total and distribution as a family, and put a tick in each box as that revision session is completed. If you miss a session on one day, don’t try to catch up, just move on to the next day. This helps family communication - everyone knows how much work is really being done towards agreed targets - and means praise can be used rather than students feeling checked up on, or chased, by their parents.

Thirdly, seek help. Technology means that every revising student in the UK can revise collaboratively without leaving their home. While finding someone else to revise with face to face is good, sometimes Skype, Facetime or the phone helps - you are less likely to distract each other. Use question and answer with someone to break up the day - so that it comes between silent at-your-desk sessions of work. If a topic has six units, prepare a revision lesson for another person on three of them, and get them to prepare the other three topics. Deliver them on Skype with no notes.

Fourthly, be realistic. Don’t set yourself the target of working ten hours a day for ten days. You won’t be able to do it. Don’t listen to others who have told you how much time they have spent revising, revise intensively and effectively towards the goal of answering your exam questions better.

Lastly, while you are doing all this, keep an eye out for what works best, so that next time you have to revise for exams, you can do it even more effectively.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Becoming An Adult?

Last week someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s a question that stopped me in my tracks because I haven’t been asked that for some time. In the context in which I was asked, it was a clever ‘getting to know you’ question from someone I was meeting for the first time. But it got me thinking about what we mean by being ‘grown up’ - or ‘adult’.

It’s certainly clear that this is something that we all aspire to from our early teenage years onwards. I can remember longing to be old enough to be adult, and enjoy all the things that that meant. But what does it mean, and crucially what does it mean for young people today? And, just as importantly, what doesn’t it mean?

When I was younger I tended to think that being an adult was about self-determination: I thought that, as an adult, I would be able to choose when to get up (whether to get up) in the morning, what to wear, what I wanted to do. I saw independence as the goal, but it was independence of others’ control of me. When others trespassed into areas that I wanted to control I was resentful, whether the trespass was related to my appearance, to the appearance of my room, to my work habits, or my other choices.

But it’s striking that experience of being an adult is not of the independence that teenagers seek. It’s not of being able to work when we want, how we want, or dressing how we want. To a large extent the way we look, and the way we work, and the hours we keep are governed by conventions, by the desires and needs of other people and by our larger longer term aims.

Adulthood is about knowing when to be smart, and when to be scruffy, it’s about when to get up early, and when it’s reasonable, or wise, to stay up late. It’s been about understanding not only our independence, but also our dependence, and the interdependence we experience with those around us. The simple everyday decisions we make reflect the acknowledgements we make about our dependence, and our interdependence as well as our independence.

So here’s the challenge? How do we talk to teenagers about ‘growing up’? How do they think about adulthood: is it about simply doing what they want? Or is it about living responsibly and constructively within the web of dependence, interdependence and independence with wisdom. And how does this also relate to all the other decisions and habits that we acquire which make up the adult person we are, or are becoming? How will our decisions today influence this person we are, or are becoming?

I think that schools need to teach young people that adulthood is living within the reality of those we depend on, those with whom we interact, those who are dependent on us, as well as our independence, and being able to make decisions which are consistent with our longer term plans, and not just our feelings at any one point in time.  A discussion - about what adulthood is, and what it means for each of us, as well as how to get to it - is one that all pupils should be having with their parents, older siblings, teachers, tutors, houseparents, and any other people whose opinion they respect. I have encouraged our pupils to get involved in this dialogue, with each other, and with those they know already in adulthood.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Random Act of Kindness Week - an Assembly Reflection

Just before half term, it was Random Act of Kindness Week. I spoke against it. It's not that I am not in favour of kindness - I think it's the glue that holds a community together. And I am not against the idea of having a week to promote kindness - on the contrary I think it's an excellent idea.

What I spoke against was the idea was that there is something particularly laudable about a random act of kindness. I encouraged our pupils to think of it as routine act of kindness week. What really ought to distinguish a community like a school as a good place to live, and learn, is the total normality of kind treatment from others. Habitual kindness is, it seems to me, a vital skill. For as long as the kindness requires a particular effort, or a particular initiative, it will take an intentional decision to exercise it.

Most of all this seems to be evident in the other end of the spectrum. There is nothing laudable at all about a random act of unkindness, but worst of all would be routine acts of unkindness.

Our manifesto is for habitual kindness, as a routine.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

School Assembly - In Response to Charlie Hebdo

People are sometimes critical of our school, calling it a ‘bubble’. When they use that word to describe it they intend it as a criticism. But I am proud of the fact that our school is a bubble. Young people should not be exposed to muggings, assaults, burglaries and other unpleasant life events if it’s possible to protect them. However, the bubble must be transparent: although untouched by unpleasant events, it’s essential that young people are aware of the world, and observant of it.
In that spirit, it’s essential that we talk about events such as those at Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday and all that has followed it. All young people (of secondary age) ought to have found out about it via their own news listening, paper reading, website surfing. But how should we respond?

First, we should respond with compassion. Compassion for the bereaved families, compassion for the injured, compassion for those most scarred – whether with guilt, fear or another emotion. How will the Charlie Hebdo employee forced to admit the gunmen to her office at gunpoint recover?
Secondly we should react with a sincere and authentic attempt to understand. What forces drive people to the extraordinary, savage, barbaric acts of this week? Are there social factors which we are somehow tied up in? How can we lead our lives as responsible citizens and voters in such a way as to recognise these forces and seek to improve the lot of any critically disenfranchised, or neglected, groups in our society. This attempt at understanding does NOT in any way justify the actions of terrorists, or indeed of any law-breakers, but it may help society to strike at the root of problems.

Thirdly, we re-iterate our values. In the 24 hours immediately following the assault on Charlie Hebdo, the crowds that gathered in French town squares were moving and instructive. An instinctive restatement of the values of French people was taking place. In our context, we should restate our commitment to free speech; and we should have civilised conversations about where the line lies between free speech and gratuitous offensiveness. In the context of a school, free speech is also important, in transparency, in the reasonableness of the pupils asking ‘Why?’ and in open and unheated discussions of contentious issues, both inside and outside the classroom.
We should also, and most obviously, reaffirm our commitment to the resolution of difference without force. We should remind each other that using force to impose one’s will on others is wrong, whether it is in the queue for a meal, over the remote control for the television in a boarding house, or for the imposition of one’s own views on others.

When and where we perceive injustice or wrongdoing, we should pursue change through political, legal or legitimate methods. In any assembly of young people in a good school should be one or two, or more, pupils who are putting together their vision of public service in politics, in law – maybe as a lawyer, or as a judge, or as a lawmaker in the Civil Service – or in the Police force.
Finally, we should resist any pressure, through the media, or any other source, to stereotype people. The actions of those who have assaulted Charlie Hebdo are representative only of themselves, and it reflects nothing on the French people, or those of Algerian descent, or of Islamic faith that they have done so. To stereotype any of these groups as being terrorists is as offensive as it would be to say that all disabled people are violent in the wake of the Oscar Pistorius trial, or that all Christians are cheats because one famous Christian cheated at international cricket. The creation and sustaining of stereotypes is one of the most destructive forces to any community.

In our reaction to such terrible circumstances, we can reject the values of those inclined to terrorism with such quiet and effective collective force that, far from undermining our version of society, such attacks serve to strengthen it, tragic though their consequences are.