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.



  1. As I may have pointed out before Patrick (apologies if so) one of the lesser known reasons for schools exploiting equivalence, was that it meant huge numbers of their pupils simply never sat what you and I would call exams at all. I was told this by the head teacher of an Ofsted outstanding school, who was very proud of the fact that she was gaming the system so cleverly.

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