Little_Mavis' rants and musings

Grade inflation. A personal view

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This is a personal experience of teaching. It has a bearing on what is happening with English GCSE grades and why I hope eventually some good will come of it. It is going to be difficult because I am exposing my inadequacies and failures to you all, but then, you already know I am far from perfect.

I went into teaching in FE in 2000 after bailing out of a Primary PGCE because I was having difficulty with behaviour and I was unhappy at what we were expecting small children to do in schools. I was probably not cut out to teach small children anyway and it was the year they introduced the (now abandoned) Literacy & Numeracy strategies.

Someone at the time suggested I try FE. I was handicapped in this by having my degree in Chemistry (which I had not used for many years) and no qualification in IT, which is what I had actually done as a job for 15 years or so.  I spoke about it in an earlier blog here.

When teaching IT Key Skills, I was new to teaching so I didn’t come with all the baggage that came from teaching old vocational qualifications such as GNVQ. I read the specifications and tried to do what was described, to teach IT which was useful in a real world situation and submit evidence from the students’ main subjects as evidence that they had the required skills.

After the first year, I became the co-ordinator for IT Key Skills across college. I was encouraged by the head of Maths & Science to produce an assignment that all students taking the qualification would do to “ensure consistency & make  marking easier” I argued against it. Oh the cheek of it, but I was used to doing a job where my skills and experience were valued so I didn’t realise this wasn’t the done thing. Instead, I produced generic schemes of work that other teachers could use, samples of completed portfolios, I worked with students and teachers to find out what different groups needed to know and which work would be suitable for their portfolio. I had an especially good relationship with the Sport department.

The HOD wrote an assignment for the Maths (Application of Number) Key Skill which was for all students. When the Maths portfolios were seen by an external verifier, they were downgraded from Level 2 to Level 1.

One year when I had some new teachers delivering the course, I was asked to explain why the pass rates for one teacher were higher than those of another. I explained that Teacher A had many portfolios that I considered to be borderline, Teacher B’s student portfolios were excellent and “spot on”. (Remember, I was not actually in charge of these other teachers, I just co-ordinated). I was told that “spot on” was unnecessary; we should be aiming for “just enough to obtain a pass and no more”. This was by a very senior member of the management team. I was not happy with this, but passed appropriate messages on. In all the time I was co-ordinating Key Skills IT, not one single portfolio that we passed was rejected by the external verifier and our pass rates were at least double the National Average, (small boast there), although it was surprisingly difficult to find the national average as the pass rate was astoundingly low since many teachers did not take the qualification seriously. This of course was mainly because the results were not counted in any league table and were not considered by universities. The college delivered them because they attracted a good level of funding. I taught them because I believed that if done properly they were genuinely valuable to students. The students (bless their little cotton socks) told me this once I’d finished encouraging, berating, goading them into understanding how to use IT efficiently and apply it to their work elsewhere.

And here we have the whole problem. Schools are measured by results. If they meet their targets, the targets are raised. If they fail to meet them they are criticised and punished, now by being forcibly converted into academies. Are we really surprised that schools concentrating on getting students to produce work which is “just enough to obtain a grade C”? since that is the prime measure.

According to Warwick Mansell in an effort to counteract grade inflation, Ofqual would redraw grade boundaries as required although

 under Ofqual’s rules, there could be an increase in the proportions gaining top grades (At GCSE) but only if the boards’ statistics on the underlying ability levels of the candidates suggest the cohort is more able this year.

 Interestingly, however, Ofqual’s paper shows that the main method for calculating the prior ability of the cohort is key stage 2 results for that year group.

Now this seems to suggest that there could be no value added by teachers in secondary education and that a child’s ability in GCSE is entirely governed by how well they performed at Key Stage 2. And since Ofqual would also control A level grade inflation based on GCSE results they would also depend on what the children did in Primary school. Quite a burden for Primary teachers.

The college eventually dropped Key Skills IT because of pressure on IT rooms and reduced funding and I started teaching BTEC IT. The college had a reputation for obtaining high grades in this, well above the National Average. It took me a while to find my feet teaching foundation and intermediate level IT students instead of Level 2 Key Skills to Level 3 students. My main job before was finding the hook to get all sorts of students interested in IT and understand how it could apply to their circumstances. Once I’d done that they were willing to learn. Now the problem was to do with confidence, getting the students to focus and working out how the system worked. The first year was mixed and difficult, but we got through. The second year the colleague I was working with went off on long term sick leave and I was more or less left running the level 1 and 2 courses with another teacher coming from another site for some lessons.

I think we did well under difficult circumstances with some extremely challenging students. All those that stayed the course passed, though some with only a Pass grade rather than a Merit or Distinction.  I honestly thought I’d done quite well. I felt the students achieved the grades they deserved and all had passed. However, the number of students obtaining “only” a Pass had caused arguments in the past. There was great pressure for students to achieve more than a Pass grade. Other teachers had experienced the same problem. We felt strongly that students who worked hard to produce distinction level work deserved to obtain a higher grade than someone who did “just enough” to meet the criteria and only with a teacher standing over them. We said it was also unfair to potential employers who would not be able to separate out candidates by their results and that it devalued the qualification. This applied whether we were measuring ability or hard work. The following year I had a level 3 class added to my timetable and I saw how the high grades were obtained. Lots and lots of guidance. Writing frames in the form of questions which could be answered in one sentence and similar support. The students were meeting the criteria but many with no initiative of their own. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is how it should work.

After time off with stress, mainly due to the struggle to constantly deliver new courses and units and write new assignments, I put this into practice. I thought it was more appropriate for levels 1 & 2 than for A level equivalent qualifications and in any case, I was given no choice. My performance review (after I returned from sick leave) said I must improve grades and I must have lessons graded 2 or better. There were other targets but I really can’t remember what these were as (looking back) I was still pretty unwell. Eventually, my students did all pass at level 1 (a pass/fail qualification) even those who struggled to conform to college rules and who had little confidence in themselves.

At BTEC Level 2 every student got a Merit or Distinction Grade. This was mainly because they were a much harder working set of students than I had last year. They actually wanted to succeed. When they had met the Pass criteria they came and asked what they needed to do to get a Merit rather than asking if they could go home now. I had no problems with their all getting high grades. They deserved them.

Unfortunately in the middle of all this, some of my many lesson observations were not graded as “good”, partly because I panicked whenever my manager walked into my classroom. I was told I was being moved to capability proceedings, I resigned. I could not face another year of obtaining “high grades” for students however much or little effort they were prepared to put in.

So, there you have it. I am officially a shit teacher. I can only guarantee good grades for students if they contribute to this. The light at the end of the tunnel is that maybe when the dust settles after the grossly unfair moving of the finishing post mid-year we can all accept that results won’t and shouldn’t rise constantly. The vast majority of teachers will always do their best for students. The emphasis on results and qualifications above all else hinders this, because teachers will be “encouraged” and coerced into enabling their students to do “just enough” to meet the required criteria for whatever grade they are aimed at under threat of losing performance pay or even their job. I fought against this view for years and finally lost the fight. I wanted to educate my students in the way that was best for them and in a way that helped them to know and understand rather than to just deliver an assignment that met the criteria.

Please remember. This may not happen everywhere, I may just have been exceptionally unlucky with my experience. I did have several years of working hard, obtaining good results and being confident that my students left me better equipped than when they started. And with a qualification, even if it wasn’t especially valued.

Of course teachers are upset, they worked within the system as it is with the knowledge they had and under the constraints and demands of successive governments. They were effectively betrayed. I actually think this needed to be done. But not in the underhand way it was. Maybe I could go back to being a teacher without compromising my conscience and still help students to achieve as well as they can.


Author: littlemavis

Retired teacher. (also Information Scientist, Export Sales Assistant, Sales Administrator, Computer Programmer, Software Support Specialist) Worked in Sixth Form college and recently as support in a primary school.

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