Posted by Michael Chandler on June 4, 2012 in What The Papers Should Have Said
Educational standards are seldom out of the news – usually in the form of a tirade about how they in sorry decline. And the message is always the same: “The rot set in during the swinging sixties and can only be remedied by a government with the backbone to get tough with trendy teachers.”
The latest panacea solutions are tougher A levels and differential pay rates (for which read docking the pay of bad teachers). In fairness to the media, these particular hares were set running by the Government. Less forgivable, though, are the unquestioned assumptions apparent in most of the coverage concerning the potential impact on standards of these two initiatives.
In the case of A levels, we have Ofqual’s word for it that there has been significant “grade inflation” over recent years. There are also authoritative voices amongst university admissions tutors worried about increasing proportions of entrants who arrive ill-equipped to handle some of the intrinsic demands of a degree-level course.
However, of itself increasing the rigour of assessment at A level will not improve standards of attainment. Indeed, in the short-term, the year-on-year attainment profile at 18 would no doubt show a deterioration. If failure rates rose significantly, this would pose a question about the sense of some pupils spending two years working towards a qualification that they had little chance of obtaining. Which in turn would raise issues about the programmes of study that might be followed instead – ironically so, give the media’s apparently negative opinions of standards in the vocational alternatives. There would, presumably, also be smaller proportions entering university, with knock-on effects on the viability of some existing HE provision, to say nothing of how and to where those students affected would progress in future. These factors do not invalidate plans to make A levels tougher, but they should not be ignored as they were in most of the coverage.
Reporting also tended to make the assumption that grade inflation at A level is synonymous with a general decline in standards of educational attainment at 18. But it is, of course, quite possible both that A levels are easier than they used to be and that general educational standards have improved. Indeed, the evidence available suggests that this is almost certainly the case.
By way of illustration, let me quote the performance of my own alma mater, a direct-grant boys grammar school in Lancashirewith an intake at 11 of approximately 100 pupils, all of whom were well within the top 10% of the attainment range within its catchment area. In 1965, the year in which I left to go to university, 42 boys were entered for A level, with a pass rate against subjects taken of 70% – an attainment profile which the school magazine notes as comparing “not unfavourably with past years”. Thirty-eight of us proceeded to higher education. In the same year the average number of subjects per pupil passed at O level (broadly equivalent to A*-C grades at GCSE) was 4.5. At the same school today almost all those who enter at 11 go on to take A levels, and the pass rate is nigh-on 100%, which – given the attainment range of the intake – is what one might expect. It is beyond belief that the discrepancy between now and then can be accounted for solely by A levels getting easier. If this was the case, A levels today would have to be easier than O levels were then – and I doubt even the most rabid media sceptic believes that to be true.
One further point concerning A levels. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme quoted fears that “they are no longer preparing young people adequately for the workplace”. Given that they are in effect a university entrance qualification, A levels are not, and were never, designed to do the former. There are programmes that fulfil this purpose. They are called Apprenticeships. If the media believe that more people should follow the latter route rather than A levels, perhaps they should say so more clearly? And if so, why should those directed towards Apprenticeships be restricted to the average and lower attainment ranges?
Where teachers’ pay is concerned, it is far less apparent why paying bad teachers less should help to improve educational standards. Even under the most minimal employment protection rights, there are practical considerations of imposing adverse conditions of service on the profession. And even if we accept the media’s apparent belief that the teaching profession has particular problems concerning competence, there are two obvious questions not explored in most of the coverage of this story. First, if bad teachers were always bad, how and why were they allowed to enter the profession? And second, if they were competent on entry, how and why were they allowed to become incompetent?
Amongst the more obvious possible solutions are first to have a more rigorous selection and probationary process for teachers entering the profession, and second a more effective system of in-service appraisal, linked to individually tailored continuous professional development.
Of course, other things being equal, these reforms would imply higher starting salaries for teachers, and more expenditure on in-service training. And the most practicable means of introducing differential pay would no doubt be via paying excellent teachers more than by trying to cut the pay of those deemed not up to it.
But these things don’t sit easily with a commitment to deficit-reduction, which is perhaps the kindest explanation for the level of support for this particular latest panacea.