Is the purpose of schools to educate pupils or provide data fodder to quangos and examination bodies?

Andy V's picture
by Andy V
"New GCSE tests 'could be compulsory'", reported by the BBC. This item is revealed with spectacular coincidence to the revelation that if re-elected the Conservatives would introduce resits for pupils who do not achieve L4 in KS2 SATs.

It can be argued, indeed I have supported the position, that irrespective as to the debate around the effectiveness of SATs the aim and purpose of the latter has been wholly hijacked and woefully misrepresented. That is to say, SATs are an exam and not achieving the government baseline renders 11 year old's failures. Neither of the these falsehoods is tenable or hold water. But that is perhaps a thread for another day.

What is being proposed in the GCSE tests is risible and laden with the potential to cause foreseeable untold damage to the pupils that sit them in the final run up to their actual GCSEs. The reason, Ofqual, an unaccountable quango, wants to make sure that they can confidently set the GCSE grade thresholds for summer. To do this they want to force approximately 7500 pupils to sit the new GCSE Reference test. Our learners are already under unrelenting stress:


1. At a direct personal level to achieve to their best and meet expectations
2. At an indirect personal level to meet parental expectations and desires
3. To fulfil the expectations of their subject teachers
4. To contribute to arbitrary government floor targets in English and Maths
5. To meet the newly imposed Progress/Attainment 8 floor target imposed by the outgoing SoS Educ, Michael Gove

And now an unelected, unaccountable body wants a random selection of Y11 pupils to undergo the pressures of a test that has no qualification relevance for them other than to help examination bodies determine and apply GCSE thresholds. It is surely nothing short of a national outrage when a quango can enforce stressed and pressured pupils as GCSE threshold setting fodder. I would go as far as to suggest that it is an infringement of their human rights to be treated as forced labour.

It would serve Ofqual and the government right - irrespective of its political complexion post the general election - if between the pupils and schools the tests were not taken seriously. The impact on threshold setting would be direct and reverse the situation by forcing Ofqual to set thresholds using existing mechanisms.

All of that I didn't even venture into the annually adjusted thresholds debate ...
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Arthur Harada's picture
Sun, 12/04/2015 - 14:47

The fundamental puropse of education in schools is to initiate students into morally and ethically forms of knowledge, beliefs, practices, skills and social behaviour deemed appropriate through a democratic process of consultation of all members of that society. Suggestions like the purpose of education is to release the individual's potential are facile as it is impossible to forecast what enyone will become until the lid is banged down at the conclusion. The best hope or wish for an individual is he/she becomes everything he/she is as life unfolds.

PiqueABoo's picture
Sun, 12/04/2015 - 17:58

That begs a question: what is parenting for?

PiqueABoo's picture
Sun, 12/04/2015 - 18:14

If they want a reference point for relative 'ability' from on year to the next then why not round up some of those near-ubiquitous CAT test results? I believe that's essentially what Durham CEM did for their reports on grade inflation.

rogertitcombe's picture
Sun, 12/04/2015 - 20:56

PiqueABoo - You are so right. Universal CATs testing as per Hackney provides all the data needed for secondary school accountability (if it was only used). It is cohort based, not individual pupil based (although individual pupil CAT data can also be useful if used with caution and expertise).

It is all set out in my paper here, and much else besides.

This paper is a stunner. The passage of time has made it even more relevant. See Fig 1 in the paper. The schools below the line could all do better. They need to learn from the schools above the line and especially schools like 'Gas Street Comprehensive' which was doing this with a mean intake CATs score of 84.5 (15th percentile). Such charts should be the starting points for discussions between heads and LAs, or preferably LEAs. I suspect the Learning Trust in Hackney did something like this.

Individual pupil progress is a different matter altogether. It should have nothing to do with school performance tables, marketisation, PRP and all the associated deeply destructive and hugely expensive drivel.

Of course teachers should give base line and diagnostic progress tests to pupils for all sorts of reasons at all ages, but these are private, educationally based, professional information, like the the doctor patient/parent relationship in the NHS. Nothing to do with OfSTED and still less David Cameron. LEAs should be reinstated to support schools in developing their pupils to the maximum and yes, measuring pupil progress. BUT NOT IN ORDER TO JUDGE SCHOOLS BUT TO HELP KIDS. We also need a re-instated non-political, state employed HMI to ensure LEAs are set up to support schools and teachers properly.

And where can you find all this tightly argued and set out with evidence?

In 'Learning Matters' of course.

Guest's picture
Sun, 12/04/2015 - 21:34

There's that book again ... Reckon if I back tracked through LSN contributions for the swathes of 'Learning Matters' quoted herein I - not anyone else - would need to buy a copy of it :-D

It seems to me that the thrust of this thread is about the "outrageous" attitude of a quango in trying to force unwilling students into sitting a completely unnecessary test with no direct benefit or qualification relevance to them; particularly when they are already feeling the heat of exam build-up pressure/stress and also very likely to have sat mock exams just before or just after Christmas in Y11. I would add that this is move by Ofqual (quietly accepted by DfE) is entirely shameful and a huge indictment of the system and how it treats Y11 students (and their parents) with disdain bordering on contempt. :-(

What the thread highlights is the action of Ofqual and DfE and not Ofsted who it seems to me have nothing whatsoever to do with the situation, and as such I fail to comprehend how/why you drag them into it. Ofsted don't need any help from others to incur criticism they manage well by themselves but on this occasion they are simply not involved.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 13/04/2015 - 05:36

Guest - you're right that Andy's spot-on article highlights Ofqual and, as you correctly say, its 'entirely shameful' action in requiring Year 11 pupils to take trial tests, but the title also mentioned 'data fodder to quangos'. This could be said to mean other bodies such as Ofsted (whose use of data I recently criticised) and, of course, the mad data-crunching machines of the DfE via RAISEonline and School Performance Tables and of the Local Authority Interactive Tool which seems to gather everything from the prevalence of breast feeding at X number of weeks to SAT results (and lots of other things besides).

Andy V's picture
Mon, 13/04/2015 - 11:32

Janet/Guest - If it helps clarify matters the critical issue for me is that this action by Ofqual is about the wilful and gratuitous use of unwilling participants (pupils and schools) in generating completely new data of no immediate value to them whereas Ofsted is a user of data that is already being generated and existing activities within schools.

For me this is a profound difference between the two quangos. The question relating to whether Ofsted uses data sets that are appropriate to their 'regulatory' function - as Janet, Henry and others have highlighted - is a wholly other issue.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Tue, 14/04/2015 - 04:40

The compulsory forcing of students to do trial tests of GCSE - known as the Reference Test - should indeed be kept separate from the issue of use of data by OFSTED. In principle, the data OFSTED use are on all pupils. The National Reference test only applies to a small sample, and clearly puts these students under pressure which is not applied to others. It is a seriously damaging proposal for a section of the cohort which will be under double jeopardy, in an attempt to fix grade boundaries and try to ensure exams are consistent across years.

Which raises a number of issues about comparability, which is almost impossible to secure unless the same questions are set, which is not possible.

I am about to submit a piece about the GCSE reforms and the way the independent schools are avoiding them by taking the IGCSE. However this story, which first appeared in the TES last Friday and should be taken seriously as OFQUAL are stated to want legislation, is potentially damaging to a significant number of pupils and schools as imposing a burden which only falls on a few. Perhaps here the independent sector will be affected, but that is not the key issue. Its a pressure which is not across the board, and is blatantly unfair.

Trevor Fisher

rogertitcombe's picture
Fri, 17/04/2015 - 15:10

Guest - Ofqual want to conscript school students to do trial tests to help them assess their quality and to fix grade boundaries and especially the key ones that drive performance measures. This raises profound questions about standard setting and the debate between norm referenced and criterion referenced assessment.

Norm referencing involves setting mark thresholds for grade boundaries based on fixed percentiles. For example, An A grade could be awarded to the top 10 percent of candidates, a B grade to the next 10 percent etc. Percentiles go with normal distributions (bell curves). The problem with such a system is that it doesn't track general increases or decreases in the overall quality of the intake attainment distribution. If teaching methods become corrupted (as I believe has been happening as a result of marketisation), then the absolute standards associated with the percentile-based grades will fall. This is the sort of thing that can revealed by comparisons like PISA.

Criterion referencing relates grades to absolute standards that are judged by binary decisions (tick boxes) based on the concept of mastery. These have always been associated with vocational training. Another example is the driving test. The examiner ticks a box if you can reverse around a corner. You either can or you can't - box ticked or not ticked. Whether you do it beautifully and deftly, with obvious consummate skill, or whether it is a nervous, tentative effort that just gets the box ticked, makes no difference. An overall pass/fail decision is based on an arbitrary number of ticked boxes achieved on the test. There is clearly a place for such an approach and for teaching methods (instructors providing training based on practise) that works. No-one would expect a person trained in such a way to become more capable in a generally educationally transferable sense. The skills that are gained are largely independent of each other.

Criterion referencing seems great until you try to apply it to non binary learning and understanding rather than specific capability. Take my favourite - Newtons Laws of motion. These are complex. They can be understood at a limited basic level, or at a deep level. How is this tested? By setting cognitively demanding problems and having a mark scheme that results in a mark for each candidate. The cohort mark distribution will, if the cohort is big enough and the questions are any good, be a bell curve. So we are forced back into norm referencing. What is the best way of teaching students to understand Newton's Laws of Motion? It must be developmental. It is education, not training that is needed. It is possible that the student's personal cognitive framework may be insufficiently developed to accommodate the concepts involved. The student just might not 'get it'. No amount of training or practise would make any difference.

This is likely to be the result if you start KS4 in KS3. On the other hand, rich developmental teaching throughout KS3 may result in students being able to cope with the concept in KS4. Furthermore, the student who understands Newton's Laws of Motion will also be able to cope with cognitive challenges in other subjects and contexts that require the same level of cognitive sophistication.

This is the pedagogy of Piaget in terms of identifying general levels of cognitive demand. For how to teach students in a way that facilitates such personal cognitive development we also need the pedagogy of Vygotsky.

In Leicestershire, in the mid 1980s a group of teachers from a variety of schools got together to devise a GCSE framework designed specifically to facilitate individual student cognitive development. The subject matter was secondary and could be chosen (often by the student) to match their personal interest. The aim was to make students cleverer. It was called The Leicestershire Modular Framework (LMF) Mode 3 GCSE scheme. It rapidly became very popular with hundred of student entries from dozens of schools not limited to Leicestershire. I was the first Chief Examiner.

It is fully described in Section 5.7 of 'Learning Matters'. (Sorry Guest).

However you don't need to buy the book to get a feel for how it worked.

It was a modular scheme. Each module was a 20 hour study, set as a problem solving task in any subject area, across the full curriculum or beyond. There was a 'Master Objectives and Attainment Grid (Fig 6) that applied to each and every study module regardless of the subject.

However each module also had its own Objectives and Attainment Grid specific to the module. An example (Fig 7) is given in 'Learning Matters'. Fig 7 is a sub-set of Fig 6.

When it came to the Kindle version of 'Learning Matters' we found that these Grids were too small to be easily read. For this reason they, together with other tables and charts from the book, can be found on my website to which links are embedded in the Kindle version

You will find them here.

You can also find them from the home page by clicking on 'Charts from the book'.

So what has this got to do with this thread?

Well, LMF was a scheme that solved the problem of assessing attainment standards by linking these to Piagetian cognitive demand in a sophisticated criterion referenced scheme that could deal with 'degrees of deep understanding' through a combination of Piaget and Bloom's Taxonomy.

The point is that LMF showed that it could be done and made to work.

If you want more than you will have to read the book (or not).

Trevor Fisher's picture
Fri, 17/04/2015 - 18:02

Roger has much that is valid, but the NFER are apparently doing the National REference Tests so they have the problem. We can only have a watching brief.

However there is a simple problem I never see mentioned, going back to the days before modules and AS exams. We used to do mock exams and students never did any work for them. The NRT has the same problem. All students know they count for nothing in their own terms, so will they work for them? I don't think so. So how valid can they be?

Garbage in Garbage out.

One of the brightest kids in my O Level year failed all his mocks. Not bothered at all. For the real ones, he soared as a result of serious revision.

OFQUAL can take the horses to the water, can they make them drink? How effective are pressed men (?) in the heat of battle?

Trevor Fisher.

Guest's picture
Sat, 18/04/2015 - 10:15

Roger - nice tome highlighting issues around the threshold question but for me it is not relevant to the main piece which focuses on the moves by a quango to get legislation changed in entirely inappropriate way to facilitate their needs and that of the examination boards by dint of the wholly unnecessary and shameful use of already pressured and stressed pupils in a way that has no benefit to the pupils involved or to the schools who would have to waste time organising and administering the Reference Tests. That is the scandal here, not any need for threshold setting mechanisms but the rail-roading of pupils and schools. My anger at this wanton abuse of position by a quango cannot be fully articulated on here.

Trevor - I recognise the sentiment you employ when you speak of 'pressed me' but I seem to recall that such pressed men have served our country exceedingly well (e.g. Trafalgar and 2 world wars) :-)

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