Monthly Archives: February 2012



Milwaukee Independent Charter Schools Study:  Report on One Year of Student Growth

Not much difference in performance between Charters and Public schools


Supporters of Charter schools see the potential of high-quality charter schools to help transform the education system by raising achievement levels, closing achievement gaps, providing competitive pressure to traditional public schools and stimulating greater innovation.

The first evaluations of charter school achievement seemed to suggest that charter schools performed no better than traditional public schools, on average. The Charter Schools Dust-Up, a meta-analysis of early charter schools studies, found that students in charter schools scored about the same or sometimes worse on standardized tests compared to students in traditional public schools (Carnoy et al. 2005). However, more recent reviews of panel studies evaluating charter school achievement contain findings which suggest results are more mixed and more positive (in favour of Charters) than the findings for example  of Carnoy et al. (2005). The problem with the Charter movement generally is the variation in the quality of Charter schools-some are very good indded – the KIPP Chain etc-others are clearly no better in terms of performance than public schools. (Although it is worth remembering that Charter schools tend to be in the most disadvantaged areas and have, for the most part, less per capita funding than the average public school)  Supporters  posit that giving charter schools more flexibility over such practices  as hiring teachers, budgeting school funds, and selecting curricula will lead to these positive outcomes (Finn, Manno and Vanourek 2001; Payne and Knowles 2009). Further, through a system of accountability, they expect to reduce the number of low-quality charter schools that are not able to meet the standards they agreed to in their charters (basically contracts). Indeed there has been a major push to tighten up vetting procedures and contracts in states-with each state having its own charter laws.

In addition charter school have proved popular with parents, particularly from minority communities.

The aim of this particular evaluation was to assess the effectiveness of independent charter schools in promoting two desirable student outcomes: student achievement growth and educational attainment.  This report provides findings comparing the first year of achievement growth (2006 to 2007) of students attending independent charters to the achievement growth of a group of matched comparison students attending  Milwaukee Public Schools.  The report states ‘Using regression models that produce the most precise estimates of 2007  achievement, our comparisons of students in our sample of independent  Milwaukee charters to matched MPS students exhibit few significant effects of attending a charter school on achievement growth in either maths or  reading.  The exception is in one of our three models for mathematics gains.  When we control for prior achievement, and not for student characteristics or switching schools, students in charter schools gain approximately .105 standard deviations more in maths achievement than students in MPS.  Further analysis reveals that the positive impact of independent charter schools on average in maths is concentrated primarily at the lower end of the achievement distribution; these schools were estimated to improve the maths achievement of students at the 25th percentile of the achievement  distribution by .109 standard deviations. There are no differences in any models in reading. There are differences, however, when we disaggregate the charter impacts  by charter school type. Conversion independent charters, schools which converted from private schools, hold an advantage in math and reading achievement.  Prior to controlling for both student characteristics and  if students switched schools, students in conversion charters make .170  standard deviations greater gains in math achievement compared to similar  students in MPS schools. Once controlling for student characteristics and school switching, the effect is reduced to .114 standard deviations.   Similarly, in reading, students in conversion charters make .124 standard deviations more gains than MPS students without controlling for student  characteristics and switching schools. By adding these factors the effect is reduced to .054 standard deviations. At the same time, students in non -conversion, independent charter schools, schools which began as new charter schools or start-ups, achieve gains that are no different from their  counterparts in MPS.’  School switching the report noted  has a  negative impact on student achievement gains .

Again both pro and anti -charter campaigners  will  draw some comfort from this survey. It  is hard to argue though that charters are damaging pupils prospects in Milwaukee.

John F. Witte; Patrick J. Wolf; Alicia Dean; Deven Carlson School Choice Demonstration Programme CDP Milwaukee Evaluation ; Report #21 — Version 1.1; December 2010



Evidence that good diet  does  have some effect on school performance


In many developed countries, children’s diet has deteriorated significantly over the last decades;  resulting in significant increases in child obesity, but also in important deficiencies in those  nutrients playing an essential role in cognitive development.  There is increasing evidence that a healthy school lunch whether free or paid for, can have a positive impact on pupils’ behaviour, alertness, concentration and their performance at school directly and indirectly.  Try teaching a class of children who have had no breakfast. One study ‘ Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children’ concluded that Diet can affect cognitive ability and behaviour in children and adolescents with recent findings showing a more consistent link between improved nutrition and school performance and behaviour  It found for example  that nutrient composition and meal pattern can exert immediate or long-term, beneficial or adverse effects.  It said ‘In spite of potent biological mechanisms that protect brain activity from disruption, some cognitive functions appear sensitive to short-term variations of fuel (glucose) availability in certain brain areas. A glucose load, for example, acutely facilitates mental performance, particularly on demanding, long-duration tasks.’ One aspect of diet that has elicited much research in young people is the intake/omission of breakfast. This has obvious relevance to school performance. While effects are inconsistent in well-nourished children, breakfast omission deteriorates mental performance in malnourished children. Even intelligence scores can be improved by micronutrient supplementation in children and adolescents with very poor dietary status.

Overall, the literature suggests that good regular dietary habits are the best way to ensure optimal mental and behavioural performance at all times. The behaviour of children and adolescents with poor nutritional status   can, to a certain extent at least, be altered by dietary measures.  What is clear is that for some pupils from low income families school lunch may be their only nutritionally balanced meal of the day. But it is also true that we do not yet have clear evidence of a direct link between diet and educational attainment. There is very strong evidence though that improving the educational attainment of poorer pupils is the most effective way of reducing inequalities.


What about specific research? The Belot and James (2009) Healthy school meals and educational outcomes paper uses the unique features of the “Jamie Oliver Feed Me Better” campaign to study the effects of healthy school meals on educational achievements of children in primary school. The Jamie Oliver campaign introduced drastic changes in the meals offered in the schools of one borough (Greenwich), shifting from low-budget processed meals, high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar towards healthier options. This showed that the intervention in Greenwich did indeed result in higher SATS scores compared with similar LAs with no intervention. The study evaluates the effect of the campaign on educational outcomes using a difference in differences approach; comparing key stage 2 outcomes in primary schools before and after the reform, using the neighbouring Local Education Authorities as a control group. The study found evidence that healthy school meals did improve educational outcomes, in particular in English and Science.  School Food Trust research on School lunch and behaviour in primary schools found Pupils’ alertness increased, resulting in a three-fold greater engagement with teachers in four intervention schools compared with two control schools in Sheffield. The study supports the anecdotal reporting by teachers that children are more alert following a healthy lunch.


Healthy School Meals and Educational  Outcomes (2009) Michèle Belot  Nuffield College, University of Oxford; ISER Research Associate   Jonathan James ; Department of Economics, University of Essex


Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children (2004)

France Bellisle; Hoˆtel-Dieu, 1 Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, 75181 Paris, France


Independent schools and support for state schools

The Government wants the independent sector to support Academies

But the mood music needs changing


A leading think tank hosted a lunch seminar this week on the developing relationship between independent schools and state schools against the backdrop of David Cameron’s  recent very public encouragement for independent schools to support state schools through the academies scheme . Indeed there was a Downing street meeting recently on this very issue. Lord Adonis the architect of the academies scheme has long championed greater support from the independent sector for the academies scheme and used  emotive language to get the point across-referencing the Berlin Wall, apartheid and so on. He even claims that independent schools have a moral obligation to offer such support. Adonis in a 2011 speech said ” Successful private schools ought to be prominent among the sponsors for the next  wave of academies. Everything about academies is in the DNA of the successful  private school: independence, excellence, innovation, social mission. And the benefit  is not only to the wider community, it is also to the private schools themselves,  whose mission is enlarged, whose relative isolation is ended, and whose social  engagement, beyond the families of the better-off, is transformed.”

Given that the seminar operated under Chatham house rules I cannot give the source of the following comments and observations but the seminar attracted some leading heads  from both independent schools and  state schools, including Academies  .

What is clear is that there are divisions in the independent sector over what, if anything, to do to support the state sector. Many schools already have extensive links with neighbouring state schools and around thirty independent schools provide some form of support for an Academy. What has caused resentment is the hectoring tone of politicians telling independent schools and the governors and trustees what to do. It is after all their decision as to how they will deliver public benefit. Support for Academies  is certainly one option but there are a range of others –bursaries, specialist teaching support, access to equipment and facilities, advice on  governance, curriculum advice and support , exam method, summer schools, pupil swaps, community support  etc.     The feeling was that the tone of the debate and perceived hostility from most political quarters towards the independent sector hardly establishes a context within which  a constructive debate can take place, rather it encourages a siege mentality (particularly given the additional antics of the Charity Commission.)   One point rammed home at the meeting was that one of the key reasons for the independent sectors success was its independence, and , specifically, independent governance. So called ‘ autonomous’ and ‘ free schools’ are not actually free in the same way as independent schools are   and are still subject to  significant bureaucratic restrictions , constraints and stipulations in their funding agreements.  However, it was also pointed out that governance was a key area where independent schools really might help  ‘autonomous ‘ state schools-ie how to use their autonomy effectively and what it could mean in practice  so harnessing  the aspirational ethos of the independent sector . There could also be more exchanges between governing boards, so independents have state school Heads on  their governing bodies and vice-versa.

But it was also clear that most independent schools are keen to have greater meaningful contact  with state schools and there can be demonstrable shared benefits  from such contacts. Every independent school that has an arrangement with an Academy agreed that this relationship brought mutual benefits. And state schools can offer expertise and know- how in particular areas-not least in adapting to big resource challenges, encouraging leadership at every level-adding value and getting the best out of challenging pupils and so on. Indeed, one independent Head said that much of the really innovative thinking going on was happening in the state sector, suggesting perhaps, some complacency in the independent sector

There seemed to be agreement that the real problem with our education system is not the fact that a relatively small percentage of pupils are educated privately but in the long tail of significant underachievers in the state sector, ie  the bottom 20-25% cohort. They are the big challenge and  a drag on the system and there seems to be an assumption that Academies are the answer to addressing this problem, although evidence is not yet clear on this.

It was also remarked that rather too much is expected of the independent sector based on wrong assumptions. It educates just 7% of the school population and most schools operate on tight margins, with small surpluses. Large endowments are limited to a few.  So the idea of supporting an academy just on practical grounds with limited resources  is daunting and hard to sell to fee paying parents.  There was a suggestion that those organisations responsible for representing the sector ISC,HMC etc  might  provide centralised support  to schools wanting to get involved with Academies but it is clear that thinking in this area is undeveloped and these organisations  have ,as yet, shown no indication that they would want to get involved. (joint approaches and action from these bodies is rare).

It was agreed ,though, that the aim for any academy engagement must be for it to be cash neutral. You cant ask hard pressed fee paying  parents to fork out additional money  to support engagement with the state sector, whatever its perceived merits. Raise funds separately so  that  the support operation is ring- fenced.  And ,of course, don’t rule out pro-bono support because, it was agreed, some of the simplest most straightforward advice can pay the biggest dividends in return.

My view is that most independent schools want to knock down perceived barriers between the sectors and agree that there are mutual benefits at stake but this is a view that is not always reciprocated in the state sector. Support for Academies is certainly one  mutually rewarding  route and maximises public benefit in a way that bursaries clearly don’t. (indeed by removing the brightest from a state school you can damage that school) But Academy engagement carries some risks, reputational and otherwise, and is by no means the only way that schools can fulfil their public benefit requirement. Academy engagement will suit some schools but not others. If the government seriously wants more independent schools involved it should help them  more in practical ways, for example by providing a matchmaking service,  rather than  hectoring them claiming that there is a moral imperative involved, which is entirely counter-productive and  just bad politics.



Whether its teachers or other employees- do cash bonuses incentivise improved performance?

Evidence suggests not


The Ministry of Defence, last year, paid 57,000 employees a bonus. The MOD is widely seen as the most dysfunctional government department, quite apart from presiding over massive cuts to service personnel as its staff trouser more cash.   . It again raises an issue, yet to be addressed by our politicians and civil servants. (who so readily heap opprobrium on the private sector and particularly the City for its bonus culture,) over whether or not bonuses can be justified and are effective in incentivising employees to  raise their performance and productivity. The bonus culture has leached, in recent years, from the private sector into the public sector,  yet there is little evidence that departments are becoming more efficient or productive or ‘public value’ is improving.  Hard evidence in support of bonuses and their positive effects is, in fact , very hard to find.

Daniel H. Pink, the author of four provocative bestselling books about the changing world of work, gave a talk recently at the RSA on what motivates workers (see animated video below). He said that we are not as predictable as we seem when it comes to rewards and incentives- indeed, it is not easy to manipulate us by giving us cash rewards.   A Massachusetts Institute of Technology   study, funded by the Federal Reserve Bank, set a number of mental and physical challenges and tests to a group of students. Three levels of cash reward  were on offer for completion of the tasks- small, medium  and large .What the study found was fascinating. As long as tasks tested basic mechanical,  algorithmic skills, the higher the reward the better the result.   However, and this is key,  if the task involved even the most rudimentary cognitive skills- cash incentives demonstrably  did not work.

So extraordinary and unexpected were these results that they repeated the experiment in India just to double check.   Again similar and not insubstantial rewards were to be given for respectively low, medium  and high performers . The US results were repeated. Indeed, the bigger the cash incentives the worse the performance. The conclusion – complex -non-mechanical tasks requiring some creativity  do not benefit from cash incentives. If you want more widgets made on a production line…. then maybe.  So, why are we paying out as taxpayers  large amounts of cash to  civil servants  in the form of cash bonuses, while concurrently demonising city folk for doing the same, when the evidence is so threadbare to non- existent in support  of bonuses ?

If you don’t pay people enough salary  they wont, of course,   be motivated.  Pay people enough,  so that they aren’t worrying about their basic pay and can concentrate on work  and they will be Ok according to Pink . (How much is enough?)

Three factors lead to better performance in the work place -according to evidence- autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy means- some sense of self-direction,  personal control and  independence of action in the work place .Mastery is the  urge to get better at stuff or self-improvement. This explains why people want for example  to learn to play an instrument.   And last -the purpose motive .Employees want a sense of purpose a feeling that what they are doing at work  is  good and worthwhile in the scheme of things . If the profit motive becomes un-hitched from purpose then bad things happen.

So what does Pink think about incentivising teachers to perform better through cash incentives ? Here is an extract from his blog:

‘One of the hottest ideas in education policy these days is tying teacher pay to student performance on standardized tests. The theory is that offering up cash bonuses will prompt unmotivated and unaccountable teachers to get their acts together and do better by our kids. The first comprehensive study of this approach, from the Nashville public schools, showed an effect somewhere between minuscule and non-existent. The students of incentivized teachers did no better than the students of teachers paid regular salaries.

Now an even bigger study is out from Roland Fryer, a prominent Harvard economist and an architect of some of these programs. In an impressive paper( published March 2011), he examines the effects of pay-for-performance in the New York City public schools. Here, from the paper’s abstract (and with italics added), are his key findings:

“Financial incentives for teachers to increase student performance is an increasingly popular education policy around the world. This paper describes a school-based randomized trial in over two-hundred New York City public schools designed to better understand the impact of teacher incentives on student achievement. I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”




Useful guide for students to help choose the right qualifications for post 16 options


What you decide to study post-16 can have a major impact on what you can study at degree level. Whether or not you have an idea of the subject you want to study at university, having the right information now will give you more options when the time comes to make your mind up.  The Russell Group of Universities, with the help of the Institute of Career Guidance, has published a guide that  aims to help students make an informed decision when choosing their course for post-16 education.  The Group believes that it will be of use to parents and advisors too. This is an important document. It would surely help to have a similar one for pupils aged 13 and their parents and advisors as the wrong choice at that  crucial age can massively influence a child’s future options post 16 too and indeed whether they can apply for university courses.  It is the case that many pupils, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, are limited in their choices of HE courses because they have not taken appropriate GCSEs or vocational equivalents, often because they have had poor advice in school  or indeed no advice. One question put by the Guide is – Know what you want to study? – Check out the entry requirements  If you have a university course which you are keen on, have you checked  the relevant university website or UCAS course search to find out whether  this course requires certain subjects at advanced level? Pretty obvious, of course, but some pupils don’t even do this.  The preamble to the Guide says ‘ Getting your post-16 subject choices right is an important first step towards university but it won’t guarantee you a place on your chosen degree course. Entry to Russell Group universities, in particular, can be highly competitive and academic background, while vitally important, is only one of several things universities will take into account when they consider your application. They will also want to select students who are clearly well-motivated and passionate about their subject. In some cases, they may even ask you to gain some work experience in a relevant field. ‘

 Informed Choices; A Russell Group guide to making decisions about  post-16 education 2011




Independents, unsurprisingly, dominate


Professor Les Ebdon, despite the objections of many Tory MPs, looks likely to be the new head of OFFA. Tories believe that he will push universities too hard to admit under qualified state school pupils or, to put it another way, indulge in social engineering. Ebdon believes that we should deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, shorthand for- the disadvantaged get poor qualifications so universities should reduce entry qualifications  for them  and instead spot their potential.  Not a good idea runs the counter argument , spotting potential is not easy   and in any case we have to compete with the best in the world, so dumbing down probably  isn’t such  a good idea .  Better to raise the quality of pupils coming out of state schools, even if this takes time. Rob Wilson MP , giving his views representing  the Fair Access to University Group, says that  intervention to improve standards at the pre-university secondary school stage is the best way to improve fairness, recognise talent and ensure that students, regardless of background, are able to access top institutions. It seems likely that OFFA will now find itself under political attack.

43 % of graduates from Ebdon’s  own university (Bedfordshire) have no job six months after graduating, so indications are that he has no  access to a silver bullet  to improve social mobility  or to ease  access to good jobs (or any job ,come to think of it!).     And doubtless more pressure will now be put on Oxbridge to admit more pupils from state schools and to invest more in their already substantial outreach programmes. On top of which they will need to offer remedial programmes for undergraduates in the first year to get them  up to the standard required to cope with  their courses(  and, in the process ,increase the costs of their courses, so reducing the number of places available-how much sense does that make?).

So, which schools generally have the best record in getting pupils into Oxbridge? Here is the top ten based on the latest available figures:

North London Collegiate School                       (40) (42%)

St Paul’s Girls’ School                                       (40) (42%)

Westminster School                                         (50) (39%)

Magdalen College School                                 (25) (32%)

Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls              (30) (29%)

The Stephen Perse Foundation                        (20) (29%)

St Paul’s School                                             (45) (27%)

Guildford High School                                     (25) (26%

City of London School for Girls                       (20) (26%)

Wycombe Abbey School                                  (20) (25%)

There isn’t a single non-selective state school in the top hundred .42% of the end of KS4 pupils in both North London Collegiate and St Pauls Girls gained entry to Oxbridge, which is extraordinary. Eton, for the record, sent 60 boys to Oxbridge representing 22% of their cohort. Interestingly, though, increasing numbers of pupils from the top independents are choosing Ivy League Universities ahead of Oxbridge.  So, will Oxbridge be in a position to compete at all with the Ivy League in the future, given the access  agenda?   A question that Ebdon   may need to answer when he takes up his new job.

(Source Deposited Papers-Parliament 2012)- 2006 GCSE cohort progressing to Oxbridge 2010 



Just 34% of Free School Meals  Pupils achieve five good GCSEs


Latest  up-dated data is just out  for 2010/11 on attainment for GCSE and equivalent results for pupils attending maintained schools (including CTCs and academies). The  information covers different pupil characteristics, specifically gender, ethnicity, English as a first language, eligibility for free school meals (FSM) and special educational needs (SEN) at national and local authority level. It shows:

58.2 per cent achieved 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs (an increase of 3.0 percentage points from 2009/10).

Girls continue to outperform boys: 61.9 per cent of girls achieved 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs compared with 54.6 per cent of boys.

Chinese pupils are the highest attaining ethnic group, with 78.5 per cent achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs.

58.5 per cent of pupils whose first language is English achieved 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs, compared to 55.8 per cent of pupils for whom English is not a first language.

34.6 per cent of pupils eligible for FSM achieved 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs, compared to 62.0 per cent of all other pupils.

33.8 per cent of disadvantaged pupils (pupils eligible for FSM or looked after children) achieved 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs, compared to 62.3 per cent of all other pupils.

The proportion of pupils with SEN without a statement achieving achieved 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs is 24.7 per cent, compared to 8.5 per cent of pupils with SEN with a statement, and 69.5 per cent of pupils with no identified SEN.





Difficult times ahead?


The IB has enjoyed an increase in popularity over the last few years (close to 200 schools teach it) but is now experiencing its most difficult period. While the numbers of pupils taking the IB has been on the rise, for the first time schools are beginning to drop the award. The most recent to do so is a leading independent school, Kings Wimbeldon. The award is widely seen as more challenging than the A level and claims, with some justification, not to be a victim of grade inflation. But it is also seen by teachers and pupils alike as more challenging.  No bad thing, say supporters ,who say it’s the opposite of by rote learning, encouraging breadth and real understanding of the subjects studied. The ideal IB candidate is self-motivated and inquisitive. The Diploma also requires more teaching time, so it is more expensive to deliver. Already schools complain that they spend too much on exams and testing so any award that is relatively costly, at a time when budgets are under pressure,  is going to have the cards stacked against it, whatever its merits. There is another issue that is sometimes glossed over. The IB requires the post 16 study of maths and a science, subjects that pupils are often very keen to drop.

The IB, which it is often forgotten, operates at three levels: the Primary Years Programme for students aged between 5 and 11, the Middle Years Programme for those aged 11 and 16 and the Diploma Programme in the Sixth Form. The last is the most common in the UK. The Primary and Middle Years levels are rarely taught in the UK (mainly international schools for the middle years programme -and of course Wellington College-whose Head Anthony Seldon admitted that introducing the MYP was a  risk). Although some state schools run the IB most of the take-up is in the independent sector. And quite a few schools who offer the IB, also continue to offer A levels as an option.

Students on the diploma study six subjects, and specialise in three. They choose these from six subject groups to ensure a breadth of learning: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths, and the arts. They also write a 4,000-word essay, take classes in the theory of knowledge, and commit to 150 hours of CAS (creativity, action, service).

Running the IB programmes, though, is a challenge for schools and is not a task that should be lightly undertaken. Marlborough College is still searching for a Head having stipulated that it wanted someone with a sound knowledge and experience of the IB Diploma. Rumour has it that the candidates that they have seen who were proficient in all matters IB ( fishing in  relatively small pool) had perceived  deficiencies elsewhere. (no names no pack drill)

It is fair to say that the IB  may be in some danger of becoming an obsolete qualification and disappearing as a mainstream award  over the medium term  unless universities play their part in keeping  the award  alive. In theory IB students should be attractive to Higher education institutions and their admissions tutors  as it encourages the kind of  self-reliance and lateral  thinking that they are on the look- out for in candidates , but   as things stand, see  far too little of.   But its not that easy.  Indeed, supporters of the IB believe that admission tutors are being far too harsh on IB candidates and must take decisive action and insist that the offers for IB students reflect the depth and breadth of study it demands.   Rather too many IB students believe the IB is receiving unsympathetic offers from universities, and this is having a direct impact on the number opting to sit the IB Diploma. If you hear of disappointed IB students not getting the offers they thought they might , then you, as a pupil , begin to worry and this is shared in spades by parents and  slowly   confidence leaches away.

UK universities are systematically underestimating top candidates with IB qualifications in their admissions procedures, according to recent research by Professors Anna Vignoles and Francis Green of the Institute of Education .They found that at the top end of the scale, universities are demanding higher scores from IB candidates than from their A-level equivalents. Overall, universities systematically deviate from the official recommendation (provided by UCAS) in the offers they make to IB students. Universities tend to ask their IB applicants for higher IB points than officially recommended, but adjust too far at the top end of the scale. The report states “In institutions with IB students having an average grade of 37 or more, for example, we find that the IB students are 5.4 percentage points more likely to achieve an upper second class degree or better.”

Dr Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, put the concerns as follows in a letter to Times Higher Education Supplement –  ‘My own experience as the head of an independent school offering both A Level and IB informs my alarm.  It is deeply frustrating to see two students of comparable ability being asked for (for the A Level student) three grade As at A Level and (for the IB student) 40 points with – and here is the sting – two 7s and a 6 at Higher Level.  That A Level student, doing modular A Levels, is almost assured of gaining his or her place; for the IB student there is far less certainty.  Students are being penalised for taking the tougher option. ‘

With competition for places at top universities getting harder all the time the very idea that IB students are not getting a fair deal has the potential to undermine the qualification. Those who support the IB as an important qualification and absolutely suited to the requirements of some pupils, which I do, need to work hard with stakeholders to resolve the  outstanding issues and the sooner the better.

Note; The IB Diploma should not be confused with the other Diplomas introduced by the last government which were neither  vocational nor academic qualifications  –so had a bit of an identity crisis right from the start. (qualifications should be demand- led not prescribed, top down by politicians and officials).  Poorly conceived, marketed and managed,  they never quite managed to establish themselves  as robust qualifications among stakeholders,  though championed and over-sold  by education ministers in the last government.


How can we educate young people for success in the 21st century?

Cambridge academic maps out a vision for 21 Century education


The Director of Education at the  University of Cambridge International Examinations, Dr Tristian Stobie, presented at the 21st Century Knowledge and Skills conference organised by the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP) on 11-13 January 2012.

The conference discussed how we can educate young people so that they take an active role in global society, and develop the skills, knowledge and habits needed in the 21st century.  Tristian Stobie  spoke about the skills that 21st century students need to develop – including in-depth understanding, critical thinking, creativity, global awareness, and the ability to communicate and debate ideas clearly.  There is a consensus about the competencies students need in order to function effectively in higher education and the modern work place.

• Most countries recognize that their education system is failing to produce students with these qualities

• Curriculum and assessment practices can be  developed to improve the situation.

We need, Stobie says,  ‘to assess what we value not value what we assess’.

• Assessment has a backwash effect on curriculum and  teacher practice. This must be recognized so that teachers and schools focus on what we value.

• Curriculum, with corresponding assessments, must be broad  and balanced. Students must be assessed on the processes as well as the products of learning and be able to demonstrate understanding and performance holistically in  authentic contexts as well as in examinations and tests.

• The central role of the teacher as a creative professional must be recognized and encouraged.

What about Generic Competencies and their place  in HE?

• Competencies refer to specific patterns of behaviour that enable a person to perform a

particular task to the required standard

• Study conducted by Cambridge assessment 2011 identified 10 areas applicable to all subjects:

- Active Enquiry   - Open Thinking Style

- Motivation         – Self-Discipline

- Organisation     – Copes with Demands

- Resilient           – Emotional control

- Self-reflective   – Organisation Citizenship


And what outcomes are we looking for from Learners?


Desirable Learner Outcomes

• Basic skills: Numeracy / literacy / IT/ languages

• In depth subject understanding

• Problem solving / critical thinking: the ability to investigate and  analyze complex problems in unfamiliar situations

• Information literacy

• Adaptability / flexibility / resilience

• Creativity

• Global / international / intercultural understanding

• Learning to learn for life

• Ability to communicate, argue and debate with clarity

• Ability to work effectively in teams and individually


Learn more about the 21st Century Knowledge and Skills conference

Read Tristian Stobie’s conference presentation: The Educational Challenge
Learn more about Cambridge Global Perspectives at Cambridge IGCSECambridge International AS Level, and Cambridge Pre-U


Finally an end to gaming and obfuscation?

Myth of equivalence exposed


Schools minister Nick Gibb made it clear that the government wanted to “stamp out” incentives for schools to “game” the system and had reformed the league tables to “iron out these idiosyncrasies”. He identified two problems with league tables that are based on the indicator of five A*-Cs at GCSE (or equivalent) including English and maths. First, the inclusion of “equivalent” qualifications can lead to some pupils “being entered for qualifications more in the interests of a school’s league table position than the child’s own prospects”. Second, the measure has encouraged “weaker” secondaries to focus only on pupils on the C-D borderline, neglecting other children. The longstanding concern, backed by evidence, has been that poor quality ‘vocational’ or ‘vocationally related’ qualifications at GCSE are locking both low-income pupils and vocational education into second-class status. The original aim was to create parity of esteem and to end the apartheid division between academic and vocational qualifications but the practice has done nothing of the sort. There are robust vocational qualifications that do compare favourably with GCSEs and are rightly regarded as equivalent, or frankly better in some instances, but there have been far too many Pseudo ‘vocational’ qualifications which have been used to artificially reach A*-C GCSE targets to secure league table positions. In this game pupil interests are of secondary importance. The reality has been that poorer pupils are more likely to be pushed into vocational qualifications. A strong relationship between lower predicted GCSEs and entitlement to free school meals means that lower-income pupils were disproportionately likely to be ‘pushed’ into these poor quality vocational courses. Professor Alison Woolf made it clear in her recent review of vocational qualifications that of the thousands of pupils getting their GCSE results each year many will had been sold short with sub-standard vocational qualifications. In school and national GCSE league tables vocational qualifications were indistinguishable from academic GCSEs. Subjects such as tourism, construction and retail were worth up to 4 A*-C GCSEs. Sadly this affected the initial tranche of new Academies schools too. Data on so-called ‘rapidly improving’ Academies, which cater for higher numbers of low-income pupils, showed that in these schools in particular vocational qualifications are being used to bolster their headline GSCE figures.

The aim has been to raise the numbers of pupils who attain 5 A*-C (or ‘good’) GCSEs to bolster learning across society, thereby overcoming the wide socio-economic divide amongst pupils characterised by the strong relationship between lower achievement and lower income background. This aim of narrowing the achievement gap between the affluent and the less affluent is a fundamentally sound policy objective, no doubt about that –in order to improve equity. However, the problem is the means chosen to narrow the performance gap actually serves to undermine the widening of the learning and opportunity – and thereby life chances – gap. Pupils leave school with qualifications that are worthless in the jobs market. And the system has encouraged schools to behave as if the more the better, regardless of whether or not the qualifications were of any value in the world outside. AS Professor Wolf put it in the Guardian on 31 January ‘Employers could not care less about “points” and “equivalences” and how many of them a young person has. Many of them have only just got used to GCSEs, as opposed to O-levels. They look instead at whether young people have got certain, specific qualifications: ones which they recognise and value.’ For chapter and verse on the equivalence nonsense look no further than the work of Warwick Mansell a journalist who has specialised in accountability measures .Mansell, together with former head teacher Roger Titcombe and statistician Roger Davies, compared the GNVQs with GCSEs on two measures: the teaching time a GNVQ took up and their relative difficulty. The decision to make an intermediate GNVQ, the most commonly taken level at GCSE, worth four GCSEs, suggests Mansell argues that they take four times as long to teach. Mansell et al.’s survey of the top 100 most improved schools in 2005, however, found that a GNVQ should instead have been worth 1.2 GCSEs, based on teaching time. Mansell also found there to be a discrepancy in the relative difficulties of GCSEs and GNVQs. In 2006 the GNVQ pass rates (C grade or above) in the two GNVQs the researchers found most popular, ICT and science, were 80 per cent and 86 per cent. This compared to the 62 per cent A*-C rate for all GCSEs. Mansell et al.’s research found that the most popular GNVQ was in Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The details of their research revealed why. The intermediate GNVQ ICT course came in six modules (or units). Only two of these units were assessed by exam and the other four were assessed by coursework. In 2006, for both coursework and exams, only 45 per cent was needed to gain a pass (in the GNVQs offered by the largest provider examining board, AQA). Furthermore, Mansell highlights, pupils were allowed to take as many re-sits as they liked, and not all modules had to be passed to pass the overall GNVQ. Therefore, thanks to the equivalence system, many schools were using the GNVQ in ICT to bolster their A*-C GCSE performance in the league tables.

So, the accountability system has managed to deliver perverse distortions. Parents and pupils have been misled. Colleges and Universities complained to Professor Wolf about growing numbers of young people applying for courses in the belief that they had the necessary entry qualifications, when they had nothing of the sort. These young people have been betrayed by the system. Politicians then appear confused as to why social mobility has not improved over the last generation.  One important part of the answer is staring them in the face.

Most worryingly, of course, was what was happening to the new Academies. Many of them, under political pressure to show rapid improvement, were inflating their performance using these soft qualifications, as the think tank Civitas revealed. So, much of the dramatic initial improvement in Academy results (though not all by any means) was pretty much a chimera. Academies subject results were not required to be included in annual school prospectuses, neither were they available from the Departments school performance tables. For state schools subject results can be obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, but this was not the case, until very recently, for Academies, which as independent schools were exempt from the Act. So researchers, or indeed parents, seeking to obtain the results such as Titcombe and Mansell found that Academies were extremely reluctant to reveal the breakdown of their GCSE entries by subject; when Titcombe requested the information from the Department, they said that they did not hold this information. And Academies exploited this. They no longer can, of course, shield their results from prying eyes because they are now subject to the FOIA. Crucially introduction of the English Baccalaureate will ensure that schools will find it difficult to game, although the Ebac is not a statutory requirement. The new benchmark requires at least grade C GCSEs or IGCSEs in English, two sciences, maths, history or geography and a language. Nationally, 15.6 per cent of pupils achieved an EBac when figures were first released. It is no accident that Academies fared badly when measured against the Ebac benchmark. A TES analysis revealed that of the 16 academies controlled by Harris, Ark and Haberdashers’ Aske’s where GCSEs were sat in 2010, only three saw more than 6 per cent of its pupils achieve the EBac. In three, no pupils at all met Mr Gove’s benchmark. This served to confirm what Civitas had already exposed. Anastasia de Waal, education director of think-tank Civitas, said in response to the figures: “Michael Gove is championing academy chains with a different recipe of success to his emphasis on core academic knowledge for everyone, regardless of background.” This is why the Government moved last week to put an end to this. More than 3,000 qualifications regarded as equivalent to GCSEs in current league tables – and said to be used by some schools to improve their rankings – will be reduced to 125. Just 70 will count towards the main performance measure of five A* to C grades at GCSE. The first league tables to reflect the changes will be published in January 2015, based on results from the previous summer. Vocational qualifications will only qualify for future league tables if they involve external assessment, grading systems, and offer proven progression into a broad range of careers, the DfE has said. What’s more, each qualification will now be treated as of equal value to a single GCSE – and not, as previously, up to six. The announcement follows the review of vocational education carried out by Prof Alison Wolf. She argues that pupils need to acquire “broad skills” to enable them to thrive over a lifetime of change and dismissed many qualifications as worthless.

The aim of parity of esteem is sound. And as we have said there are plenty of robust vocational qualifications that merit parity of esteem. But whereas there may have been ‘parity of esteem’ in the league tables when it comes to vocational learning there is not parity of esteem when it comes to the outside world. The Government must be right in tightening up the system and in acting on the evidence delivered by the Wolf report. But it is equally important to protect the status of robust vocational qualifications. Remember the Government supports the new university technical colleges and studio schools which will be weighted towards sound practical skills .

Some have objected to these moves. In particular the engineering community reacted angrily to the downgrading of the Engineering Diploma which was developed by leading academics and industrialists to provide a robust alternative to traditional academic qualifications. The Engineering Diploma was the only Diploma, by the way, that met the approval of Oxbridge, so they might have a point. There is also the important issue of what vocational qualifications should be available to 14-16 year-olds and how they should be delivered. This issue seems to be unresolved. There needs to be more clarity here. Alison Wolf doesn’t really think that practical courses have much place before 16, and she would limit their role to 20% of the curriculum. This doesn’t seem to square though with her wish that more students be taught full-time in further education colleges from the age of 14. Lord Baker, Chairman of the Edge Foundation as Conor Ryan pointed out in his blog was on the radio last  week waxing lyrically about the university technical colleges, declaring that 40% of their course content would be practical. UTCs take students from ages 14 to 19. Ryan says ‘His disdain for Wolf’s position on this issue is no secret in Whitehall; the feeling is said to be mutual.’ But the thrust of the policy, overall, has been largely welcomed.

The one big caveat is that the perception might be left after the cull that vocational qualifications are not fit for purpose. The cull should, by rights, have the opposite effect as the qualifications that are left have been judged robust. Our young people need to be given good practical options to ensure their needs are met and which enable progression to other study and full time employment otherwise they will opt out of the system and businesses will be deprived of the skills they require to compete.