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English GCSE … and Ghana!

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Blog - English GCSE … and Ghana!

Saturday 15 September 2012

This past week has been a busy and important one in the world of schools. Many will have followed or heard that the parliamentary Select Committee for Education this week questioned both Ofqual, the body responsible for regulating the quality of public examinations, and a range of other people on the fiasco which has engulfed this year’s English GCSE results. I was not able to follow the whole two day proceedings in detail, but I did hear some excerpts, and personally found that the evidence given by the head of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, was baffling and unconvincing in the extreme.

As I keep repeating, this episode has nothing to do with ‘grade inflation’. All of us want GCSE grades which are worth what they say they are worth, and that can’t happen if almost everyone in the country is getting a top grade. But we do emphatically want examinations which are fairly and consistently graded, and where grades mean the same thing across the range of subjects and across the country. We also do not want a situation where top grades are rationed – everyone who meets the standard specified, however tough that standard is, should get the grade. Unfortunately Ofqual has not been able to ensure this happens, and confidence in this body is pretty low amongst schools and educators.

This week a member of our staff attended an examination briefing led by AQA, the examination board at the centre of the English controversy. Students are being offered free retakes of English GCSE in the autumn by the board (itself an admission that they got something wrong!). One person at the briefing asked the AQA official what the grade boundaries would be in November for English GCSE, and was told clearly that they would be set somewhere between June’s and January’s boundaries – lower than June but higher than January. So just thinking that through for a moment: a student who got a D in the June exam could replicate exactly the same performance in November, in their free retake, and because the grade boundaries will be lower in November than June will get a C. Now, I would be very pleased for that young person – but how can this be a fair, reliable and consistent examination system? And really, why not just regrade now and give them the grades deserved in the first place?

From what I hear nationally, this issue is not going to go away any time soon. The Select Committee is to undertake further investigations of Ofqual, and some of the aggrieved parties I am sure will take further action in due course.

Meanwhile at Bennett we are getting results from our remark requests which we routinely put in for students who are near the next grade boundary up (an important precaution, because exam boards can put grades down as well as up). We are getting a good number moving up a grade. More than half of the 26 remark requests we put in in RE GCSE for example have moved up one grade, as did a number of the remarks we put in for English. We are now looking at whether to put in more for RE GCSE, or whether the large number of grade changes will trigger an automatic review of all marks by the board. For English we have only had the higher tier papers back so far, so mostly people who were aiming at A*-B grades. We put in a number of foundation tier remarks too, but the board has not yet returned these.

One practical step everyone who is concerned about the English GCSE problem could take is to sign the e-petition calling for a full investigation which has been launched on the government e-petition website. If a petition gets 100,000 signatures, it is considered for a debate in Parliament. You can sign the petition whether you were directly affected or not, and the petition is accessible through http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/37620 .

Now on to a much happier topic. “This is Tom, the expedition leader. I hope you are not missing your children too much. I just wanted to give you a quick update on our expedition and share a few thoughts.” This was the opening of a blog written by the leader of the Bennett group on expedition to our partner school in Ghana this summer. I was so cheered and encouraged to read this, when it was pointed out to me recently, that I thought I would offer an excerpt from it here. It continues as follows.

“We are quickly approaching the half way point and time has flown by. The team spirit is fantastic. I was absolutely blown away by the group in the first couple of days here in Ghana. The entire group were immediately so relaxed and comfortable with our hosts here at Ankaful. I was so impressed with their openness and friendly nature they took about building new friendships at the school and the community. I have been working with youth groups here in Ghana for the last 9 years and I honestly can say I have never worked with a more kind, mature but also good natured fun group. This is the first time we have brought a group to Ankaful and first impressions are obviously very important. For most the students at Ankaful High School this will be the first time they have interacted with Western people and our group is making a great impression. Not only this but the atmosphere within our group is excellent. It is common during an expedition that if students are to be homesick it will be around day 4 or 5. The excitement of the journey and first couple of days has worn off and the reality of how long they will be away from their parents sinks in. The group has shown compassion to each other and kept morale going back at camp.”

What a wonderful endorsement of the Bennett students and the ethos they took with them to their challenging project. Congratulations to all of them.