HARRY All right, pop quiz. Airport, gunman with a hostage. He’s using her for cover. He’s almost to a plane. You’re one hundred feet away.
[Jack doesn’t respond]
JACK Shoot the hostage.
Sean Harford once more stuck his head above the parapet and threw out an open question to twitter on Saturday morning:
I think we should all be glad that someone is publicly not only asking these questions but also taking the time to listen and respond. It matters a lot to teachers. To the slaves of the tiny blue bird at least. I’m not quite sure what he wanted to gain from asking though; whether it was to gauge teacher feelings on the subject, confirm what he already suspected or something else. I find these kinds of questions fascinating because they pick at the scabs of teachers’ philosophical reasoning. We don’t always come away from it unbloodied.
The question relates to the current measures in Progress 8, where students will be scored only on either Eng Lit or Eng Lan, filling only one of the two English buckets unless they take both options in which case the highest scoring of the two will be doubled for the purpose of the Progress 8 score. It seems that some schools are taking the decision to only teach one of the two courses, enter the students for the other but not use up valuable curriculum time teaching it but can reap the benefit since only the higher score will be accepted anyway. From a Progress 8 score it is utterly irrelevant what the other Eng option scored, whether it was exactly the same mark or zero.
The moral case here seems quite straightforward. Although it is within the ‘rules’ to do exactly what is being described, it is surely against the ‘spirit’ of how those rules are intended to be applied. Yet presumably this is large enough issue to cause concern about how widespread it really is. I also assume it’s pretty straightforward to assess by comparing correlation in marks between the two Eng subjects for schools. So why are schools using this approach?
It’s no mystery to teachers: League tables. Once a high-stakes metric is introduced it should be of little surprise to find people looking for ways to exploit or bypass rules to maximise chances of doing well. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m saying that’s what will happen. A cursory glance at the world’s economic situation of the last two decades would show this in glaring, gaudy and graphic detail. For better or worse the school system we are now in is acting more and more like an economic market. Granted, I didn’t vote for it and I think it is the wrong direction for education as a whole, but it’s not going away anytime soon. When schools are incentivised to get higher Progress 8 scores it is understandable, even if we don’t condone it, that some schools will look for any allowable advantage. Dare I even mention ‘incremental gains’?
My personal take is that the regulation is an issue here. To be honest, I’m not really clear on how the regulation chain works. I’d assumed that Ofqal’s role involved assessing the suitability of qualifications and specifications. Once they’d been rubber stamped I imagined the rules for what could and couldn’t be used came down to the DfE and Ofsted’s role was to check how schools were applying that guidance. That would mean that the DfE would have responsibility for the situation in Eng Progress 8. I like to try and apply the principle of charity in these situations and assume that where a mistake is made, in this example not predicting that schools would exploit a rule, that it occurs due to genuine mistakes or oversights. I can’t imagine the DfE (or whoever made the decision) donned a camel-hair coat and said “Well you could do both of these English exams, of course you could…I mean you could though, you know, just do one of them, but nah, you wouldn’t be interested in none of that now, would ya?”. However, and much to Sir Mix-a-lot’s delight, there’s a big but. After the last seven years where the government clamped down on the number of ways that schools could game the system by use of curriculum choices I don’t think it’s acceptable to miss something out as big as this. It’s not ‘David Beckham Studies’ or whatever the newspapers are making up to disparage exams today (I don’t know what these youngsters are into nowadays, throw in your own cultural icon) – this is English. When so much rides on this for league tables why did noone ask the question ‘What would happen if schools misuse this?’. Sean Harford rightly pointed out that the government has done things with good intentions that have later been subverted, giving the examples of compulsory MFL, ESOL and ECDL, so it’s not as if these things came out of left-field. Regulations are a big lever in getting people to comply. If they are open to interpretation then you don’t get to grumble when they are exploited. There is the argument that regulations and rules can curtail options for schools that allow them operate in a way that they see fit, but you have to accept that under that model you will not agree with all of the ways that schools choose to interpret the rules. It becomes a question of how much ‘gaming’ are you willing to accept in order to protect the freedom of schools to choose. None of which sheds much light on whether schools should be doing it.
According to Datalab, around 20% of schools used the ECDL qualification last year. I don’t know much about it since our school don’t have this course, but from what I do know about it the course can be taught in a relatively short number of teaching hours. Ofqal are apparently concerned enough to be looking at ECDL as a qualification as they are worried about its overuse. Should there concern raise issues, Ofqal will hopefully be having a frank and immediate discussion with whichever department is responsible for regulating exams, qualifications and tests in England. A fifth of all schools is no small number. Are they all immoral? Perhaps they’ve all been dragged in to educations version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the classic psychological game to show cooperative choices. Despite the apparently rational choices to minimise potential damage by cooperating (in this case using the freedoms of curriculum to make the best options for pupils) there is the risk of individuals acting ‘selfishly’ to maximise benefits to themselves. 2015 saw ECDL entries swell by 2,000%. Doesn’t it make rational sense for schools to get on board? The moral answer may be deceptively easy (no, don’t do it, this is to benefit a school and not a pupil) but the argument can be made that a pupils do benefit (they get another qualification and improved school standings can effect staff and students in lower years). Headteachers are sometimes in the position were their moral standing may be in conflict with the ethical choices that must be made for the school. Teachers are a very moral as a profession and (most) Heads where at one time teachers. That moral sense has not vanished. But the responsibility of the position does not mean that they can always necessarily take the line they would personally like. They are responsible to students, staff, Governors and communities and it is unfortunately understandable if they do make these choices. I’d like to think the bodies responsible for putting the conditions in place for schools could do so in a more cooperative fashion and understand the effects policy decisions have. These philosophical questions may be interesting diversions for most of us; for Headteachers the decisions play out in real time and there are real consequences for their staff and students. All right, pop quiz: School, results on downward three year trend, threat of being taken over unless you can show rapid improvement. Pressure from DfE, student numbers falling, what do you do? What do you do Jack?