Recent analysis of the average point scores of pupils’ key stage 4 exam results from 2015, has revealed “staggering” differences between the results that pupils achieved in GCSE qualifications compared to the results from non-GCSE courses.
The research, published by Education Datalab earlier this month, found that pupils achieved two points higher (equivalent to a third of a grade), across all non-GCSE qualifications, compared with their GCSE scores. The startling figures coincide with growing concerns about the use of non-GCSE qualifications, such as the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) to boost schools’ key stage 4 results.
The Datalab study revealed that on average, pupils scored the equivalent of an ‘A’ grade when taking the ECDL, despite achieving an average score of below a ‘C’ grade across their GCSEs. With variance as dramatic as this, it’s no wonder that questions are being asked about the validity of such qualifications and their use in boosting whole-school results.
A series of investigations has been carried out in relation to school network partnership PiXL. It was reported last May that PiXL Club, an organisation aimed at raising attainment in schools, advised its 1,500 member schools to enter “vulnerable pupils” who were less likely to achieve five GCSE passes, on to the ECDL course.
PiXL also advised schools to run three days of intensive training to prepare candidates for the exam. The short-course qualification is worth the same amount of points as a GCSE and the number of pupils entered for the course has soared from 1,800 in 2014, to over 30,000 last year.
A member of PiXL, who is a senior leader, explained that some schools had improved results, but they believed that the quickest route to raised results was to “game the system”, by mass-entering pupils into additional non-GCSE qualifications or by selecting different qualifications, such as the ECDL and iGCSE English, which are perceived to be easier.
Other qualifications reportedly recommended by PiXL include Trinity College London’s ‘Rock and Pop’ music exams, which allegedly require no sight reading or theory, and an English qualification for speakers of other languages (ESOL), which does not clash with other English course codes – a major consideration for the Progress 8 measure.
Reports of PiXL members being advised to enter pupils into the English iGCSE date as far back as 2012, with one headteacher explaining that “mass entry” into iGCSE was perpetuated by the view that “it used to be undoubtedly easier to get a grade C in that exam”.
Last month, exams regulator Ofqual published the findings of a year-long study into the factors that cause instability in exam results. The report revealed that the only school-led factor linked to the stability of GCSE pass rates was the consistency of a school’s exam entry profile. Ofqual’s report has serious implications for school leaders and teachers, as it suggests that schools that move large cohorts of pupils into different exams each year are more likely to have volatile pass rates.
Documents released by Ofqual under the Freedom of Information Act (2000) have disclosed that when large amounts of pupils are unexpectedly entered on to a qualification, Ofqual notes it and then reviews the grade boundaries to ensure that they reflect the ability profile of the entries.
If large cohorts of pupils with a particular ability profile migrate from one qualification to another, and seem to be scoring a grade C when other data suggests they should be scoring a lower grade, the boundaries may be shifted to reflect the changes.
Last year’s iGCSE results are currently being challenged by independent school leaders, as an “unprecedented number” of schools had raised concerns over grade boundaries which were “exceptionally out of line” with expectations. Interestingly, the pupils involved would have embarked on their courses in 2013. Only time will tell how influential PiXL’s advice to enrol pupils on to iGCSE courses has been.
One of the most vocal opponents of employing such strategies is headteacher Tom Sherrington, a London-based headteacher who blogged about his first experience at a PiXL meeting. Despite being impressed by the first section of the meeting, which had “direct, practical, no-nonsense information” focussed on “securing success within the mechanics of the system”, he found the later part of the meeting to be “disturbing and depressing”, as it was suggested that schools use exams such as the ECDL to boost their scores.
PiXL chief John Rowling has rejected claims that the advice given to schools is tantamount to “dumbing down and gaming”, stating: “This is not a con trick.” Reports also suggest that PiXL has confirmed that it does not advise schools to enter whole cohorts of pupils for exams.
Ofsted issues warning
Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding the ECDL qualification and similar non-GCSE courses which offer equivalent points has not escaped the attention of Ofsted. Sean Harford, National Director for Schools, has recently branded the “tactic” of entering whole cohorts of pupils into exams perceived to be easier as “depressing for education”. He also made it clear that inspectors will focus on qualification selections and exam entries made by schools, adding that inspectors have been told to consider any such tactics when making inspection judgements.
Results at any cost?
Given the high-stakes attached to such tactics, why do some schools resort to gaming the system? A brief glance at the education headlines over the last 18 months would make some of the reasons clear.
Continual pressure to meet the ever-increasing demands of accountability measures, during one of the most intense periods of curriculum reform is surely a factor. Combined with the recent threats of national academisation, the fear of negative Ofsted judgements and poor league-table rankings, pressure for leaders and their staff is continually mounting.
The complex protocol associated with the Progress 8 measure and a shift to a strictly academic curriculum via the English Baccalaureate, teamed with severe budget cuts and the ever-deepening recruitment crisis, means that schools are required to scale new heights of attainment, without the time, staff or resources to do so. Is it any wonder that some schools opt to take short-cuts to achieve the grades?
Despite being keenly aware of the dubious practices employed by schools to produce favourable results and the factors which lead to improper action, it could be argued that Ofqual is choosing to ignore them. The 47-page unpublished report ‘Assessment Practices in Schools’, commissioned by Ofqual, found that more than two-thirds of teachers had considered the performance of their school in league tables when choosing subjects to offer pupils. Four out of five teachers had also focussed on improving the results of ‘C/D borderline’ pupils by seeking out “easier” exam boards to achieve success.
The report, based on anonymous information provided by 500 teachers, suggests that the tactics employed to achieve success at any cost, and the circumstances which lead to ‘gaming’, are understood by Ofqual, even if they are not publicly acknowledged.
Consultants hired by Ofqual reported that a quarter of the 500 respondents disclosed that they had experience of pupils being removed from the roll to boost results and nearly half had experienced qualification choices being governed by those that pupils would excel in, rather than selection based on pupil enjoyment or employability.
One teacher is quoted as saying: “Too much is done because heads are scared into meeting targets, so staff are bullied into going above and beyond and at times do ‘unacceptable’ things because of the pressure of no excuses.”
Another teacher highlighted the cynical selection of qualifications, stating that: “Qualifications are picked based solely on data and performance, rather than the best interest of the student.”
Unless the government acknowledges and addresses the climate of fear created by its prescriptive measures, it is unlikely that the dubious practices employed by some schools will cease.
John Dickens (2016) ‘ECDL lifts GCSE grades, but Ofqual uneasy’, <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/ecdl-lifts-gcse-grades-but-ofqual-uneasy/> [Accessed: 9 May 2016]
John Dickens (2016) ‘The game changer: Schools Week’s year-long investigation into qualification switching and PiXL’, <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/special-investigation-into-qualification-switching-and-pixl/> [Accessed: 9 May 2016]
John Dickens (2016) ‘‘Gaming’ row flares up again over PiXL Club’s advice for schools to use three-day ICT ‘GCSE’, <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/gaming-row-flares-up-again-over-pixl-clubs-advice-for-schools-to-use-three-day-ict-gcse/> [Accessed: 9 May 2016]
Daniel Boffey (2015) ‘Teachers play the system to hit league table and exam targets, says report’, <http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/27/teachers-play-system-hit-league-table-exam-targets-says-ofqual-report> [Accessed: 9 May 2016]