Tag Archives: A levels

GCSEs and the Erosion of the Education System

GCSEs, considered some of the most important exams of your life, but are they really inspiring confidence in our education system? In the past few years since this government has taken power, the overall average of those obtaining five ‘good’ GCSEs has been on the decline. In fact this year only 52.6% of those taking their GCSEs got the expected results, which is a significant drop on the 59.2% last year.

Now it’s very easy for the government to make the excuse: ‘Well we’ve changed the way that these results are calculated so that only those taking their first attempt at GCSEs are counting under this statistic.’ OK fine, we’ll work out the statistics using last year’s system and still the results show around 56%, which is still a significant collapse on last year’s results.

As if these results alone aren’t eroding the credibility of these exams. Well guess what guys? That’s not the end of the matter. It recently came out that this time round there have been a record number of successful challenges to marks of GCSE and A level papers. The number of appeals made in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have doubled in the past three years. So not only are results tumbling, but people aren’t even marking these papers correctly? Who’s marking these papers, Joe Bloggs from round the corner? (apologies to anyone called Joe Bloggs who might be reading my blog)

Despite the drop, the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, welcomed this year’s results, saying: “I am delighted to see more and more young people taking the high-quality subjects that will properly prepare them for life in modern Britain. With record numbers taking science at GCSE and maths now the most popular subject at A-level our plan for education has finally reversed the decline in key academic subjects.”

The government introduced the changes after a review by Prof Alison Wolf, who found too many schools were entering pupils for GCSEs multiple times or relying on poor-quality vocational courses to inflate grades.

Schools whose results this year take them below a baseline target of 40% of pupils gaining less than five good grades could be closed or taken over by an academy chain.

At A-level this year, 11.6% of sixth-formers gained three A* or A grades, down from 12.5% last year. Boys did better than girls with 12.3% getting three A*-A grades, compared with 11.1% of girls.

Commenting on the GCSE figures, the ASCL general secretary, Brian Lightman, said: “Our qualifications system must be trusted. This year the opposite is happening. We are seeing a worrying drop in confidence in exams. We know there has been a massive increase in appeals. The statistical manipulation of results has led to a lack of predictability that few can make sense of. Students and teachers are struggling to understand this year’s results. We believe the most disadvantaged students have been hit hardest. This cannot be in anyone’s interest.”

ASCL president Peter Kent, who is head of Lawrence Sheriff school in Rugby, added: “We want a rigorous approach, but change needs to be introduced in a way that does not destabilise the system and unfairly disadvantage young people. We are working with the government to make sure we understand the factors that have contributed to the problems this year. Above all, it must not be allowed to happen again.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “We believe the fall in GCSE English A*-C grades is due to the removal of the speaking and listening element from the grade, and the likelihood that disadvantaged students struggled to get at least a C due to the shift to end of course exams. We have serious concerns about the government’s plans for GCSEs from 2015. Ofqual’s decision to return to an over-reliance on testing through final exams at the end of two years, which will assess only a small part of pupils’ achievements, and its drive to promote a narrow academic curriculum disadvantages young people and ignores the skills and attributes they need to live fulfilled personal and professional lives. Changes to what’s assessed in exams, along with uncertainty about the quality of marking, is turning the exams system into a lottery for young people. It also makes it extremely unfair for schools to fall under the government’s minimum performance standards based on potentially unreliable grades. We know there has been a massive increase in appeals and that this has dented public confidence in the exams system. Government changes to the system in the future will mean that confidence is further eroded.”

The schools minister Nick Gibb said the figures should “inspire confidence” in the examination system which would provide a more accurate picture of standards. He said: “You might think it odd for an education minister to extol the virtues of a drop in the national pass rate of those achieving the benchmark number of GCSE passes.” But, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gibb added that the country needed “to be sure that the qualifications which young people study are of the highest possible quality, and that they work for young people, not politicians”.

I have to say it depresses me that in the 25 years or so we have had GCSEs we are still having problems with exams not being marked correctly, grades being challenged on a record level basis, and more and more people are failing to meet 5 A*-C grades, including in Maths and English. We are letting young people out of our education system without the basic skills they need to enter the wider world and survive. How this can inspire any confidence in the credibility in our education system goes beyond me. For me this is further proof that education doesn’t belong with the politicians, it belongs with the teachers and other education professionals who commited their lives to educating generations of young people for years to come. I personally think it’s about high time these politicians get in touch with society, and not lining their pockets.


A levels – Pass rate down, more university places

Today is results day for the A level students of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the news isn’t as positive as perhaps hoped.

A-level grades have edged down this year for the first time in 30 years, and there has been a slight fall in A* and A grades.

But there are, however, a record number of university places available and students could still get places even if they miss their grades.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says the government is “lifting the cap on aspiration”.

Exam officials say the results of this year’s A-levels are broadly “stable”. But for the third successive year the A* and A grades have fallen slightly – down from 26.3% to 26%. There were also marginal falls in the proportion of entries in the A* to B grades. But the very highest A* grade has risen from 7.6% to 8.2%.

For school leavers planning to go to university, there are suggestions this could be an unusually good year to apply, with a “buyer’s market” in which universities are competing to attract students. A student contacted the BBC and said that they had achieved two C grades and a D, but had still gained a university place for which the original offer had been three grade Bs.

There are an extra 30,000 university places available and it is expected that for the first time over 500,000 places will be allocated for courses this autumn. Universities continue to have a flexibility over recruiting students who achieve AAB grades or better.

The Ucas admissions service says that so far 396,990 students have been accepted on degree courses at UK universities – up 3% compared with this point last year.

Universities Minister Greg Clark says the expansion in places is an “important source of social mobility”.

The Joint Council for Qualifications, issuing the results, said there was a trend for more students to take so-called “facilitating subjects” at A-level, such as maths and physics, which can help university applications. But there have been big falls in the take-up of subjects outside this mainstream group, such as a 47% drop in critical thinking and 24% fewer entries in general studies.

Nick Foskett, vice-chancellor of Keele University, says students will have more options than in previous years, even if they do not get their expected grades.

“More students are likely to be accepted into their first choice, even if their grades are slightly lower than universities requested,” said Prof Foskett. “Many universities that have plans for growth will be using this year to expand their numbers, so will be keen to accept students that may have been rejected in previous years.”

The Russell Group of leading universities has indicated that there will be more flexibility than usual. “Some Russell Group universities may still have places available in some subjects for students who have done better than expected,” said the group’s director general, Wendy Piatt. “There may also be places available for highly-qualified students who have narrowly missed out on their first choice.”

More universities than usual are expected to take part in the clearing process, which matches students looking for a place with any available courses.

For students doubting the accuracy of their grades, the Information Commissioner’s Office says they have a right to see how their exams were marked. This is an addition to the exam boards’ appeals process.

This year’s results will include the first A-level grades from a free school, the London Academy of Excellence.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said he would scrap the government’s plan to remove the link between AS and A-levels. This de-coupling of the exams would limit young people’s “opportunity to realise their full potential”, said Mr Hunt.

The CBI’s director general John Cridland said after so much concern over grade inflation “we should not beat ourselves up if grades and overall passes don’t go up each and every year”. But Mr Cridland raised concerns about the continuing decline in students taking modern languages.

Head teachers’ leader Brian Lightman said this year’s results were a “real good news story”. “It shows how hard students and teachers have worked in the face of changes to exams to achieve results that are as high as ever.”

Ok so let’s take a quick summary of all this: results are down in significant places, yet because of all these extra university places, more and more are still going to university despite not necessarily achieving their grades. For me personally this smells of a slight mockery of the grade requirements if several people are getting into university having not achieved the grades. It reminds me of this Labour drive that everyone must go to university which is what gives birth to so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees just to get people in, when perhaps university isn’t the destined place for these people.

Well it’s safe to say on a national scale, a rather mixed bag of news for A levels. I hope, however, that the vast majority of people who were aiming for the top grades got them, and I wish those who are going to university the very best of luck in whatever degree you are going into. Best advice I can give you as someone who will not long be out of uni: Work hard, get a core group of friends around you as early as possible, and make every possible use necessary of the support network there!

No Plan B for would be students?

So imagine the scenario: you’re a prospective university student, aiming to get AAB in your A-levels to get your first choice university place and course that you really want to do. After 2 years of hard work and graft it all comes down to the final exams. You’ve revised time and time again and taken all the exams. But there’s a problem. It’s results day and your grades come back BBC … not what you need. What’s the plan?

Well, it has been reported today that more than half (around 54%) of students in England and Wales do not have a backup plan should this scenario arise, according to Which? University. Researchers questioned 1012 students across England and Wales in the anticipation of their A level results due to be released next week.

This isn’t the only alarming statistic they found. Here are some more;

Of the 1,012 students questioned, 939 of them held conditional offers for their university place, dependent of course on their A level results. However less than half of these (48%) were confident of getting the grades required for their first choice.

More than four fifths (82%) said they had an insurance choice as a backup, but 40% of these said they didn’t really want to go there. Just under a quarter (23%) said their insurance choice had the same or higher entry requirements as their first choice university.

Almost three quarters (70%) of those questions had not researched the clearing process for unfilled degree places. Last year 12% of applicants got their places through clearing, but the survey reveals some misunderstanding among this year’s students of how the system works. Some 54% wrongly think that if they do not get the grades for their first choice, but do get their insurance choice, he or she can still apply for another course through clearing. A further 22% said they did not know whether this was true or not. Actually if the student wants to take their chances on clearing, they would have to give up their second choice university place.

Which? University’s Sonia Sodha said a plan B was a good idea “just in case”. Ms Sodha said: “As A-level results day approaches, it’s an understandably stressful and nerve-wracking time for prospective students, especially those who aren’t confident they’ll get into their first choice university. Hopefully they won’t need a back-up plan, but we advise they research all their options just in case.”

Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges advised applicants to explore credible alternatives to a three-year full-time academic degree before results day. “These can include full or part-time higher education offered by colleges, which is often cheaper, and a range of professional certificates and diplomas such as marketing and accountancy. There’s also the option of an apprenticeship or higher apprenticeship in a range of occupations. Students need to weigh up what their employment prospects will be after degree study against the debt they will accrue and seriously consider what an alternative educational and training route may bring in terms of expense, career progression and financial rewards.”

Jason Geall, of The Student Room website, also urged planning ahead in case of surprises, either good or bad. Students who exceed their grade predictions can face having to make snap decisions about “whether they want to change university altogether”, said Mr Geall. “With a week to go until A-level results day, we would advise all students to sit down and understand exactly how clearing works, and start sketching out some scenarios. The worst thing would be making a snap decision under pressure that could affect a future career and finding yourself on a course you don’t like. There’s still time, now, to get it right.”

For me this just highlights how unclear the system is when it comes to university and higher education. The government insist on trying to get people into univerisities, yet the career’s advice often doesn’t talk about the clearing process. I’ve more or less gone through university now and I still don’t know exactly how it works, I was fortunate enough to not require that as I got into my first choice and had 3 other offers as a backup. I can see where the confusion is in that respect. The other problem is students in a way are almost taught the mentality of aim for your first choice without a mind to think of backups, as certainly my experience at school I was told ‘you need this for your first choice’ or words to similar effect. It’s a mentality we all need to change so we can maximise the potential of as many would be students as possible.

It’s the exam season again! My take on behaviour changes

Exams, the maker or breaker of children’s dreams and school years, the inconvenience to the summer in just about everyone’s eyes (not that we get much sunshine in the UK anyway, but we can dream), are back on the horizon now, with children up and down the country taking on GCSEs, A levels, SATs and any other exams that the government want to throw at us.

So what effect do these exams have on the children’s behaviour? What do you do as a teacher if a child starts acting up, knowing the pressure that these kids are under? Well I’m going to attempt to answer these using a couple of different examples of people I’ve met, worked with, or went to school with many moons ago. Of course I won’t be using names for obvious reasons.

The first example is a boy I used to know who always knew where the limits to behaviour was, and frequently tried to push them. He had potential, but was never completely willing to show it for whatever reason. He would often decide to turn up late, answer one question in an hour, and then sit in the back corner of the room doing nothing productive for the rest of the day. Naturally, the expectations for him were very low because he showed little evidence of anything higher. The exam season came around, so much so that the penny finally dropped. All of a sudden his attitude towards his learning completely changed. He would turn up to lessons on time, ask for additional work to support his revision, and even apologised to the teacher for all the problems he caused previously. It was like a completely different boy had entered the classroom.

The second example is a girl that always used to push herself to the limit, working harder than anyone else around her, refusing to do nothing but her best work 100% of the time. In many ways, most people would class her as a model student. However, the exam season, like in the first example, showed quite an alarming twist in the tale. The exams came round and the expectation on her to get the highest marks in her class amounted to so much pressure that she caved in. Her confidence fell through the floor and she gave up. She stopped working on homework completely, her attitude turned sour towards her peer group and the teachers.

I’m sure I’m not only speaking for myself when I say it would be lovely to have all children have the attitude that the boy in the first example developed. Sadly the results in the second example with the girl showed what can happen. The question remains as to how we deal with this as teachers.

Well, if we were working as to the book, logic would say that you would treat this as any other incident across the year, using the appropriate sanctions. But this isn’t just any time of the year. This is a time when the pressure ramps up, partly due to the weight of expectation, but us teachers also put pressure on them, even if we don’t mean to. The last thing they need when they are get revision classes, practice papers and all sorts of different things thrown at them in all kinds of subjects is time in detention. It’s natural that behaviour may be a little worse than usual, so my advice is to not be so heavy handed.

So what could happen in the classroom and how do we look at it?

General disruption will always be present. Always acknowledge bad behaviour in whatever guise it appears. But some leeway for minor indiscretions can be appropriate on occasion. I believe in a firm but fair approach, but for kids who are feeling the strain of exams, I like to use discretion and give them the benefit of the doubt. I also believe in talking to them and helping them to see that what they are doing is unacceptable, and let them know that if their behaviour is linked to stress you can tackle it together.

Uniform and appearance is the hatred of the school, with some children taking to customising the look of their uniform with clown length ties, top buttons on their shirts undone and shirts untucked. Personally, I come down the line of tidy appearances throughout the year as I believe a person who dresses smartly would behave more mature. I usually wear a suit in the classroom so I expect the same courtesy. Of course this is exam time, and the summer, so this isn’t always going to be possible for some students. If someone does untuck their shirt, use your discretion and avoid being firm. A casual ‘your shirt has untucked itself again’ may be the limit I would use. We don’t want the children to feel like we don’t appreciate the effort they make towards the exams with something like uniform.

Often punctuality can become a problem with some children. It’s easy to reprimand the child on every occasion they are late, but this perhaps isn’t the best approach during an exam time. The may have genuine reasons for being late. Instead look at the minutes they are late by, and wait for it to accumulate to a certain amount of time. Perhaps for every half an hour in minutes the child is late, they have to attend a revision session for that half an hour. It’s important that the child know that if they miss some time, they need to make that time up. Time is not a luxury during exam times as the exam period in my experience tends to fly by.

Arguably, this is the most important part of the year for work to be completed on time because that time is fast running out. However, it is crucial to use your judgement. When children tell you they are finding it hard to stay on top of work and revision, it’s important to find out exactly what level of work they are contending with and how much revision they are actually doing. Based on this information, you can give the student advice on time management rather than punishing them, and help them to create structured timetables. If you smell a rat, however, don’t let them run through a list of tired excuses. Instead, tackle the issue head-on. It is vital that the children understand the need to be committed.

The most extreme thing I’ve ever seen happen is the occasional fight between children. It’s very easy to come down heavy on these fights, but knowing the time, I would treat this the same as general disruption. Once everyone is calm, talk to them, if their behaviour is linked to stress, which is highly likely, tackle it with them. Managing stress is not just an exam effort, but a life skill. Learning it early makes life so much easier, some adults haven’t even learned this skill. We’ve all been guilty of letting stress get the better of us, I can certainly think of a few occasions myself.

Not all people will agree that we need to adjust. There will always be people who advocate making no changes in behaviour policy during the exam period, arguing that consistency is all-important and that at this time more than ever children need to know where the boundaries lie. However, if we insist on putting students through the enormous stresses of exams, we have to accept the repercussions. We are already treating them differently in class – pushing them harder, piling on the work, making bleak pronouncements about the consequences of any lack of effort – and behaviour management should not be excluded from those changes.

Students rushed by Clearing process

Today’s article is based on something I don’t have experience of personally. For those who aren’t aware, Clearing is the process for which students who may not have a place at university either due to being rejected or haven’t applied to uni, can apply for spare places on University courses after they have received their A level results.

A poll by consumer group, Which, found more than one in four of 390 first-year students who got a university place through clearing felt unprepared. Thousands of teenagers will enter the annual clearing process on Thursday.

But admissions service Ucas said 94% of those placed through clearing last year were confident with their choice.

Which surveyed 390 first-year university students and found that 20% who gained their place through clearing felt unsupported and on their own during the process, while 27% felt unprepared and 38% felt panicked. Almost half, 48%, describe their experience of clearing as stressful. Some other statistics are just as distressing on the eyes;

37% said they felt pressured into taking the first offer they got through clearing, while 45% rushed into making a decision about where to go

40% said there was a lack of information and advice available for those going into clearing

46% felt prepared when contacting universities about available courses and 73% were not sure what to expect when they called them.

13% of clearing students were not satisfied with their university compared to 6% of other students.

10% of clearing students were dissatisfied with their choice of course compared to 6% of other students.

In some respects I suppose you could say that this may be expected because there is a lot less time available to make a fully informed choice of both which university and which course to attend, so there is a bit of a mad dash to grab a place before the opportunity is gone. The worrying part for me is the 40% feeling that there was a lack of information available for those entering the clearing process. I can only imagine that after the stress of perhaps not meeting the best grades at A level you could have achieved or making a late decision to move to university that adding this on top of it is quite a daunting prospect.

This ‘rush’ to get to university for me doesn’t start at A level though. This choice element occurs right from the beginning of GCSEs, where children in their early teens have to make choices as to which GCSE subjects to take. It is at that point where children are expected to make choices which could affect their careers. In my experience, I had no idea what I would even consider myself to be at that age, so to make informed choices of my career seemed impossible.

Once GCSEs are over, it’s a mad dash to get on A level courses, where choices have to be made which could affect your interests or careers. Choosing the wrong A level subjects for your course could mean that University is out of the question until you take the correct A levels, or you end up in the clearing process to do a separate degree course leading to a different career. These children are 16 at the point of making these A level choices. Even at this age it is difficult to decide what you want to do with your life for some people.

From my experience, secondary school is a buildup of stress that starts right after the first couple of years in, where all the big decisions need to be made, not just A levels. I would like to see this element of choice made a lot clearer for students who may not have the same confidence or idea about what they want to be, and allow them to make more informed decisions, rather than simply rush them in for the sake of government statistics and risk being in the 10% of clearing students not liking their course or 13% not liking their university.

Gove’s A Level plans a ‘huge gamble’

Plans for rapid changes to A-levels are “high-risk” and a “huge gamble”, elite independent school heads say.

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference is concerned about A-levels being introduced in 2015 without trialling them first, according to the Times Educational Supplement.

All A-levels will become linear, with exams at the end, under the changes. The government said details of the new qualifications would be available a year before they are first taught.

But Dr William Richardson, general secretary of the HMC, said: “It is a huge gamble to rush so much change at high speed with no piloting.” He added: “It is high-risk. You can’t be sure of the consequences.”

His warning comes a few days before candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland get their A-level results, which are not expected to rise significantly and may even drop slightly as a clampdown on grade inflation continues.

Dr Richardson, whose organisation represents schools such as Eton and Harrow, predicts the reformed A-levels – championed by Education Secretary Michael Gove – will continue a trend towards lower grades. “If you enter students for three linear A levels, the assessment regime is less predictable for them in their weakest subject because they have had no milestones along the way to help them calibrate their achievement,” he adds.

This if further evidence of the incompetence of Michael Gove. When making a major overhaul of something as vital as the A level curriculum, you surely must run a pilot first, otherwise there are so many pitfalls. A good example is a drastic crash in grades come the end of the courses, which leaves many students unable to get into university due to lack of scores. This is all assuming that the universities will keep the same requirements to get on their courses, and why shouldn’t they? A lack of people going into university will mean the universities will lose income and pretty much destroy the entire economy that the government are trying to produce.

Of course all that is rather negative, but it is also realistic. This of course may be a complete success and everyone’s grades go skyrocketing up ridiculously high, but I think we can agree that this simply is unlikely to happen.