Teaching Economics as a Non-Specialist: 10 Tips for Survival

worried teacher

The American poet (and teacher) Mark Van Doren once said that The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery. But what if you the teacher are required to go through this process of discovery prior to teaching thirty or so teenagers an entire A Level?  In the world of budget squeezes and rationalisation that is indeed what many of us are increasingly being asked to do. Below are my top ten tips for those of you who have been asked to teach Economics for the first time.

 

 

1. Plan aheadplan ahead

Whichever examination board you are following, the Economics syllabus has a clear line of progression. The economic problem leads into resource allocation… resource allocation leads into markets… markets takes you into supply and demand and so on and so on. Speak with faculty colleagues. They may have a programme of study that you can adopt as your own or alternatively most of the examination boards offer something similar. It is absolutely vital that before you begin you have a clear plan of delivery for the entire year. I would recommend a week-by-week plan to give you some flexibility. Take some time to think about which topics will be most challenging (and so will require more time). If you are unsure help can be found in the points below.

 

2. Get to know the assessment model

I can’t stress this point enough. Of course it is vital that you understand how an economics paper will be assessed so that your students can have the best chance of success in their exams however in economics it runs deeper than this. The ability to analyse and evaluate key concepts is a skill that a good economist must develop in order to be able to fully understand the subject itself. The ability to make arguments using their economic ‘tool kit’ is not just vital in the context of an exam paper but also an integral part of being an economist. Examination boards are now providing mark schemes with more detail than ever. Use these in conjunction with past papers and examiners reports to help you to get a feel for the sort of questions your students will be asked in those all important examinations.

3. Ask for advice or teaching materials from colleagues

There is no shame in asking colleagues to share their teaching ideas or materials with you if you are not sure of how to approach a particular topic – indeed most of us enjoy nothing more than the opportunity to show off our resources! Your colleagues will appreciate how tough it is to teach something away from your specialism and they will be happy to help out with information or materials. Make sure you take the opportunity to pick their brains about the order in which they deliver materials – they may even have an old scheme of work that they could pass onto you.

4. Book yourself onto a course

Although exam boards are beginning to move away from the traditional one-day CPD courses, there are still a number of outstanding providers out there. These can be a priceless opportunity to gather resources and ideas, as well as an opportunity to meet other professionals and build your own professional network.

teachers planner5. Stay a couple of weeks ahead

For your own sanity and the good of your students try to prepare lessons a few weeks ahead. I know that this is often easier said than done but when teaching Economics it is useful to have an understanding of where the syllabus is heading. This will help you to plan and build resources for each lesson, knowing what key material students must understand before moving on.

 

 

6. Build cross curricular links

The Business Studies teachers that I work with are a rich and invaluable source of interesting information, facts and figures. As you progress through the Economics syllabus you will notice opportunities to bring in some of what you are doing with your Business Studies students – particularly anecdotes or quirky facts that will help to breath life into some of the more conceptual areas of the Economics syllabus.

7. Let the material teach itself!

Economics is a tremendously fun and engaging subject to teach because it is so relevant. Hardly a day will go by without a news report appearing that can be used by you with your students. Just listening to the radio on the drive into work can provide you with a lessons worth of discussion material. The usual media outlets are a treasure trove of useful news articles and video clips. Using these as a supplement to what you teach will add to its relevance and really enrich the discussions you are having with students in class.

resource bank8. Build your resource bank

The scale and speed in which you are able to do this may, of course, depend on what sort of budget you are working with. It is important that you make your case to the budget holder and are clear about what your requirements will be. Although many schools seem to be moving away from purchasing full sets of text books (at least in hard copy form) I would  recommend you purchase at least one copy of the exam board approved text. In most cases these will have been penned by chief or principal examiners and will follow the prescribed syllabus closely. Most will contain some useful activities or worksheets that can be used in class. My own centre follows OCR but I also have copies of texts approved for the other examination boards as the material is quite similar. There are a large number of educational resource providers in the market – my recommendation to begin with would be to stick with those companies that you trust and that have served your Business Studies needs well in the past.

9. Sign up to social mediasocial

Education is changing. Teachers are building their own professional networks through social media and are using these outlets to share ideas and resources. Business and Economics teachers already have a thriving social media network – particularly on the Twitter and LinkedIn platforms. These can be a rich source of ideas and resources and can also provide opportunities to ask for advice or guidance. Try searching in Twitter using #ecbusteach

10. Enjoy it and stay positive!

Admittedly I may be slightly biased but in my humble opinion, Economics is tremendously interesting and fun to teach. As a subject it is so diverse that students will inevitably build their own cross curricular links with other A Levels they are studying and this is where things can get really interesting for them. I believe there are few A Level subjects as relevant to students everyday lives and as important in helping them in understanding their own futures. There will be times when the content may appear a little daunting or counter-intuitive. Some of the more challenging diagrams can begin to resemble and aerial shot of Spaghetti Junction but stick with it and like your students, you will find that your own view of the world is altered irrevocably.

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Political Doublespeak – Value for Money

I watched with a mixture amusement and awe at Russell Brands recent diagnostic of the British political system. In his own interminable style Brand brilliantly articulated the prism of growing of discontent, bemusement and apathy through which many of us now view the political class.

His words got me thinking about one particular pet hate of my own. One gnawing sound byte the grey men, in grey suits trot out when asked the same grey questions about public services. A sound byte that, having emanated from the direction of my television, always somehow manages to penetrate the white noise of  kids screaming or the wife asking me to put the kettle on.

The offending phrase in question is that of ‘value for money’.

The phrase has entered the lexicon of British political double speak, alongside others such as ‘accountability’, ‘hard working people’ or the delicious irony apparent when a politician claims to be ‘passionate’ about something in a distinctly ‘passionless’ way.

I have come to believe that politicians view our public services in the same way in which I view green vegetables or prostate examinations – its probably necessary to have some but lets try to keep them to a minimum shall we…

Along with their co-conspirators in the British press, the establishment has consistently sought to convince us that the only real measure of the value of pubic services is how cheaply they can be provided. They somehow dress this up in a way that convinces us that ‘value for money’ is synonymous with quality. It is not. 

Everything from healthcare, education, social care to local council services is measured by this dubious yardstick. Nothing escapes this ethos of perverse frugality. The saddest irony here is that a vast swathe of the electorate seem to been in agreement. Often displaying an astounding mixture of ignorance and memory loss, strike up a conversation with your average voter about public services and sooner or later the topic of ‘wasted money’ will raise its head.

We have been conditioned to think this way. Our media and political class feed us this line. ‘Taxpayers money ….’ they say.

To see through the web of deceit it is necessary to understand that the same people who are telling us that public services are a giant black hole of waste and opportunity cost are the same people who most likely have never had to rely on public services in any shape or form. They are the people who were educated at public schools, use private healthcare companies and live in affluent areas that don’t really have much need for a decent constabulary.

Of course, say any of this in public you are labelled a ‘socialist’ or a ‘red’ at best and at the worst….I’ll probably leave that to your imagination.

 

Independent Learning

KEEP CALM 3INDEPENDENT LEARNING…hmmmm sounds great in practice. But what about all of these exams students have to sit? What about these targets I have to help students to meet? Surely there’s a inherent conflict in pursuing a strategy of independent learning and the far narrower requirement for students to transmit their learning in an examination?

dont go back

I have recently finished reading a very interesting book entitled ‘Don’t Go Back To School’ by Kio Stark.

The central premise developed by the author is that today’s education system is not designed to teach young people how to learn and is far more concerned with jamming their heads full of facts, figures and knowledge that can then be regurgitated at the appropriate time. Whilst this may provide students with a set of qualification certificates it does not provide them with something far more valuable – a set of skills that allow them to learn and acquire new skills in the future.

Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do

independenceAs I read the authors words I realised their relevance. I consider myself to be pretty good at learning things. I have an inquisitive mind and also possess the skills to be able to find out new information. I also realised that I possess something much more valuable – resilience. If I don’t quite understand something I will stick at it and find a way to make sure that I do. I then realised that I only developed these skills in adulthood. Upon leaving school and, to a lesser extent, through my time at university I was pretty inconsistent in my approach to learning. It would seem that I had to actually leave education in order to learn how to learn! I’m certain many reading this will have had a similar experience. Most of us spend out lives refining our own learning processes through a kind of ‘trail-and-error’ process – what works for us we continue to use and what doesn’t work we discard. But is there anything we can do as teachers to speed this process along? How can we help you people to develop more effective learning skills and a degree of resilience that will allow them to become effective lifelong learners?

It would seem that I actually had to leave education to learn how to learn

I have recently been thinking about independent learning strategies in preparation for a presentation I am due to deliver at a national subject conference. I have made a list of potential independent learning strategies for delegates to discuss and have included this list below.

Please feel free to add any strategies that you have employed successfully with your students

Silent lessons – divide them into groups and put all of the lesson instructions onto the board. Students have to follow the instructions and solve problems themselves

Silent debate – give each group/pair a large sheet of paper. Teacher poses a question and students have a written debate on the sheet of paper.

Fish Bowl – a small group of students demonstrates or explains something to a larger group of students

Think Aloud – students are grouped and given a piece of text alongside some questions. One student reads the text whilst the others stop them to discuss as the answers to the questions become apparent from the text

Group Presentations – ask students to conduct some research on a topic and then feed this back to the rest of the class by presenting their findings

Give them a choice – provide students with a choice about how or what they complete in a lesson.

Problem Based Learning – provide students with a problem to solve. Students work in groups to establish what they already know, what they need to know and how they will access this new information

Go beyond the classroom – develop a culture where students willingly engage with your subject outside of their lessons (in addition/conjunction with homework). This could be through the use of news articles, books, video clips etc…..

Learning Tokens – students are given 3 tokens at the start of each lesson. Each time they ask a their teacher a question they have to hand over one of their tokens

Students set lesson objectives– encourage students to set their own lesson objectives. If possible require them to use learning language (describe, analyse, evaluate). Give students a list of verbs, adjectives and key words as prompts

Reflective culture – develop a culture where students are encouraged to reflect on their learning throughout the lesson. Develop strategies to support this

Embrace social media – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Scoop.it – amongst many others!

Use technology for collaboration – Scoop.it, Wikispaces, Go Animate, Wordle, Proboards, Popplet, your schools VLE

Peer and self-assessment –     enough said! But how do we make this more effective?

Students develop success criteria-  ask your students work as a group to develop a mark scheme for a question you have set

Think-Pair-Share – teacher poses a question, students think about the questions, pair up with a classmate to discuss and then share their discussion with the class

Critiquing – teacher poses an idea or an argument from a particular point of view. The class then work together to find flaws in the argument presented by the teacher

Carousel questions – place large pieces of sugar paper round the room each containing a question. Students divided into small groups and spend a few minutes at each question adding their own ideas to the piece of paper

Exam rubrics – develop students understanding of assessment criteria. What strategies can we employ to support students?

Videos – create your own videos for use as a learning aid. Make this available to students so that they may access these at their own convenience

Flipped Classroom – deliver core content to students prior to the taught lesson. Students assimilate this content independently. This should allow the lesson focus to be switched towards the application and discussion of the content

Diagnostic assessments – students complete a self-diagnostic assessment of their progress. They can then develop their own learning plans to address areas of weakness

Writing mnemonics – develop class or individual writing mnemonics. These can then be used by students when self or peer assessing work. Particularly powerful if students develop their own versions

Group Research Project – students work collaboratively to research a topic and then present their findings to the rest of the class

Reflective Journal – encourage students to keep a record of what they have learnt this week in your lessons. Students could set up a blog to record this information

Students write starters – as a plenary get students to create a starter based on that lessons learning that could be used to recap next lesson

Slow writing – ask students to pause every few minutes (time set at your discretion) and review what they have just written, making an necessary corrections and adjustments

Planning for differentiation

Differentiation is a funny term in education. Mention the D-word to any educationalist and the response will often range from a glazed indifference to a subtle rolling of the eyes that takes place prior to a very professional acknowledgement of the important part that a differentiated classroom plays in effective education. Invariably differentiation is a subject that often fails to arouse much enthusiasm amongst teachers – perhaps any such enthusiasm has look since been extinguished  by the dousing properties of numerous leadership led INSET’s ?

The truth is we all understand the important place that differentiated instruction has in the classroom. The question I am interested in is ‘Are we differentiating in the correct way?’ The typical response when asked to define what differentiation means is to say that it involves ‘providing challenging activities that students are able to engage with’ put in even simpler language it is about ensuring work is suitably challenging for all learners and that enough support is provided for those that are less able.

But is that it?

Think about the best lessons that you have delivered. It’s almost certain that they all have one major feature in common – the students were interested. Despite all hours of the training and discussion on questioning, differentiation strategies, starters, plenaries, behaviour management, literacy, numeracy, feedback and assessment for learning – in the end the think that made it great was that they were interested!

So the big question we should be asking ourselves is HOW DO WE MAKE LESSONS INTERESTING? Of course it is a simple question to pose but a far more difficult task to answer. Think about the things that you yourself are interested in. Not only will there be a variety but these will vary from reader to reader. I find watching Manchester United incredibly interesting, my wife is interested in watching the Antiques Roadshow – we disagree on what is interesting in this instance. And therein lies the problem, children have different ideas on what ‘interesting’ means.

A couple of years ago I cam across the Blooms/Gardner Matrix shown below. This is essentially a planning tool that not only addresses the need to provide more rigorous and challenging activities for students (that’s the Blooms part) but also addresses the different ‘intelligences’ of children in order to provide a learning environment that is far richer and more interesting for more of the students more of the time. Of course we can’t meet the needs of all of the students all of the time (despite what the DFE seem to believe) but we can attempt to create a classroom where students arrive not knowing what to expect and one thing we can probably all agree on is that the unknown is interesting!

Below is an example of how the Matrix could be used to support planning. Links to the full document and other examples can be found below

BloomGardner_matrix_Example (1)

BloomGardner_matrix_Business example

BloomGardner_matrix_worked examples

OFSTED 2012 – Embedding RWCM

Embedding RWCM – Anthony Steed

OFSTED’s 2012 framework first published for implementation January 2012 and then later revised for implementation September 2012 builds upon many of the key components identified in previous Inspection Frameworks.

This post will focus on the main changes in the framework that will be used to judge the quality of teaching.

The new inspection framework for implementation in September 2012 is, in some regards, a case of ‘more of the same’ with respect to judging the quality of teaching. It builds upon many of the key elements contained in the 2009 framework and carried through to the January 2012 framework. Familiar points about the use of assessment, planning, subject knowledge, questioning and feedback are replicated from the frameworks of yore. The most significant difference I noticed when reading was that the points of consideration were fewer in number when compared with January 2012 (10 points down to 7). This appears to be an attempt to simplify  and streamline the framework in order to make its interpretation easier for teachers and to provide more focus to all in the teaching community. In this instance such changes should be welcomed.

So what has changed? Well actually, between January and September 2012, very little. The most significant changes took place between the 2009 and January 2012 frameworks. In the authors opinion, in addition to the familiar elements mentioned above, there are really two significant areas of change in 2012. The first of these is discussed below. The second point will be developed in a subsequent blog post.

The 2012 framework now contains the following line with respect to overall judgements about the quality of teaching.

  • reading, writing, communication and mathematics are well taught

The interpretation of this may seem straightforward to some and less so for others. The reality is that regardless of the subject taught this line of the framework will require some discussion simply because this expectation is cross-curricular. The expectation from OFSTED is that these core skills will be developed and well taught in all subjects – that is to say that Mathematics lessons will need to also develop reading and writing skills as well and English lessons making some provision to develop Mathematics skills.

This will require some prior planning on the part of subject teachers to ensure that, where possible, provision is made for these core skills. It may be worth approaching staff with a particular area of expertise to get help or advice on where core skills can be implemented and whether students are familiar with these skills beforehand. For instance, before asking students to calculate a percentage change it would be worthwhile checking they have covered this in their Maths lessons! It is also important to include any provision of these core skills into your lesson plans/schemes of work as evidence of a sustained and consistent approach.

As a non-specialist in either Mathematics or English I have taken some time to think about different approaches to these four areas. Below is a list of different generic strategies that could (in theory) be applied across all subject areas.

Tips for including core skills for non-specialists;

Reading

Ask students to identify key words before using search engines (reading)

Identify key vocabulary from a piece of text i.e. students make a list of what they think are key words from a text and discuss/compare (reading)

Ask students to use glossary to find what they need (reading)

Ask students to reference their work (reading)

Show evidence of prior planning by asking less able readers to read less challenging text and more able to read more challenging text (reading)

Ask students to find evidence from books/websites independently to back up an opinion (reading)

Asking students to read a piece of text out loud to the class (reading)

Use challenging vocabulary when explaining concepts and highlight to clarify understanding (reading)

Writing

Ask students to write about a topic using a ‘Six word story’ – this teaches them succinctness as well as encouraging them to identify the most pertinent information in a topic (writing)

Ask students to identify key words to be included before undertaking a piece of writing (writing)

Discuss writing strategies that could be employed i.e. how would we evaluate/analyse? (writing)

Model writing strategies for students i.e. write an example response to an examination questions and ask them to identify the evaluative paragraph (writing)

Provide writing frames where necessary showing evidence of planning for prior attainment (writing)

Use self and peer-assessment to enable students to reflect on their writing. Emphasise narrative, prose etc. – not just subject specific content! (writing)

Communication

Ask students to write a blog (communication)

Encourage students to take part in debate that are ordered (communication)

Show students examples of real world communication and ask them to evaluate/discuss their effectiveness/tone/purpose – as well as subject specific content (communication)

Use podcasts/videos as a way of delivering content  (communication)

Allow students to choose the ‘most appropriate’ method of presentation for their work (communication)

Ask students to make presentations (communication)

Ask students to consider the effectiveness of any PowerPoint presentations with respect to target audience (communication)

Mathematics

Highlight any mathematical key words and make provision to explain/question students understanding of these i.e. percentage, trend, volumes (mathematics)

Graphs to compare changes in data over time (mathematics)

Comparing different ways that data could be presented (mathematics)

Please feel free to add any further suggestions below.

Source:

http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/

http://www.usethekey.org.uk/popular-articles/grading-of-lessons-under-the-new-ofsted-framework

Nudge Theory and Education

Anthony Steed

I have recently finished reading an interesting book entitled Nudge: Improving decision about Health, Wealth and Happiness. Authors David Thaler and Cass Sunstein draw upon research in behavioural economics to make some interesting assertions about human psychology and behaviour. The central notion of the book is that human beings make poor choices and are often irrational in their behaviour; that is to say they do not always make the best judgements given the information available and that these judgements are often influenced detrimentally by their peers. Anybody who has spent about 10 minutes in a classroom or has children of their own will immediately be able to identify with this notion.

The authors argue that the correction of these behaviours require a series of subtle ‘nudges’ as a way of encouraging people to make certain choices. They argue that simply telling people what to do often fails to work because more often than not the person doing the telling is wrong. So what, if anything, can the book teach us about correcting this irrationality and how could this translate into practical education policy? Below are some ideas I had as to its applications in the classroom and across the school;

1. Replace detention with ‘freetentions’ – OK the name doesn’t really work but the principle is sound. People are loss averse. The idea here is that human beings respond better to incentives than punishments. Imagine a school where the standard day finishes at 3.30pm. All students currently finish at this time, with the exception of the naughty ones who are often kept behind. Those children who struggle with their behaviour are regularly kept behind, as a result they begin to assimilate this into their expectations – in their mind the day finishes at 4.30pm as they are used to being put into detention and this is a price they are willing to pay for their behaviour. The result is that the disincentive loses its impact. Now imagine the same school where the typical day finishes at 3.30pm, but any child whose behaviour is good will be allowed to leave at 3pm. Moreover, they could choose to save these ‘time bonuses’ up and cash them in for a full or half-day off. What impact do we think this might have on some students? Remember…people (and kids) are loss averse.

2. Parents Day – not a totally new idea as I’m aware some schools already do this effectively already. This strategy could be directed at groups of parents to enhance their role in their child’s education and improve relationships between teachers and parents. The idea here is that many parents still maintain a negative perception of their child’s school and teachers. This is often based on memories of their own educational experience which create negative bias. Nudge theory would contend that these opinions are incorrect for two reasons;  firstly, in most cases the child will be taught by a different teacher and at a different school than the parent was, and so any such comparisons are spurious; secondly, the parents memories are often inaccurate, with particular incidents remembered and other positive experiences forgotten. In other words the parents’ negative perceptions are based on incomplete information. A Parents Day, where parents go into school and have a day of lessons without their children may give the parents a more accurate picture of what a school experience is all about and close the information gap.

3. Allow kids to choose which lessons they attend – Controversial I know but please bear with me. Imagine a school gives students a free choice that goes something like this, “Today you can attend any lessons you want, but you must attend for the entire day and you can only attend each lesson once”. What do we think would happen? If we take boys for example, I would hazard a guess that PE, Computing and perhaps Music would be packed. I would also hazard a guess that English and Languages classes would be devoid of males. OK, so obviously we want a balanced curriculum but how can we ‘nudge’ them into doing a variety of subjects whilst maintaining the illusion of choice? What if we made it easier or more appealing for boys to attend English but did this in a subtle way? For instance, we could make English lessons 45 minutes as opposed to an hour and offer English at the end of the day (so they could get away earlier). Or we could put English lessons on in the most comfortable rooms? Or we could give boys a ‘bonus’ (to be determined) if they attend an English lesson? By giving kids a choice but offering different levels of incentives to ‘guide’ their behaviour we are engaging in what the authors called ‘choice architecture’ – maintaining the notion of free choice whilst subverting this free choice with incentives to achieve the best outcome.

4. Change an ‘opt in’ to an ‘opt out’ – rather than letting kids off the hook by asking them to ‘opt in’ to something change the default position to an ‘opt out’. This idea gets to the heart of human psychology and plays on our inbuilt desire to avoid confrontation and our ability to feel guilt. This could be applied effectively to a number of areas around the school – for example, as a means of encouraging students to partake in extra-curricular activities a letter could be sent to parents stating that an after school club is compulsory unless the parents choose for their child to opt out.

5. Improve information for school leavers (when they’re 11) – this is one idea that is currently being pursued on a national level. Research has shown that children from poor disadvantaged backgrounds often have poor knowledge of their further or higher education options and the careers they could lead them into. As a result such children often view professional qualifications and careers as unobtainable. By filling this information gap it may be possible to raise aspirations among the most disaffected. This idea could be taken even further by providing parents with this information as well.

6. Pay kids to go to school – some schools have already employed similar policy, somewhat controversially, as a way of improving student attendance. However, the policy could applied much more broadly and linked directly to students performance. The argument is simple – kids react to incentives (like all of us). The problem is that some children don’t feel or understand their incentives to go to school and work hard. A monetary incentive (or something similar) is an incentive they can easily understand. Although the policy may seem morally wrong actually, based purely on a cost benefit analysis  it may actually make financial sense. If we consider the enormous amount of resources devoted to improving student attainment, paying students to do well in school may actually save the treasury money in the long run

7. Use peer pressure – put up posters in your classroom showing statistics about homework completion or behaviour  i.e. “75% of the class completed their homework last week”. This policy again draws upon and exploits human guilt in a similar way to the ‘opt out’ idea. A similar policy was trialled with great success in Bedfordshire hospitals in 2011. Doctors began placing notices in their waiting rooms along the lines of “95% of patients kept their appointments this month”. The result was a marked improvement in the number kept appointments or prompt cancellations (although it should be acknowledged that this policy was one of a number)

8. Send personalised text message as reminders about deadlines – Again drawing upon a policy implemented by Bedfordshire hospitals as a way of reducing missed appointments. This time we are closing the information gap. I have trialled something similar myself, having set up an email group and emailing students prior to a submission date.

9. Share progress information – this is already being used to great success in some areas within my own school and doubtless in schools up and down the country. Set up a spreadsheet for all of the students in your class. Use a traffic light system – green for a good piece, yellow for an acceptable piece and red for uncompleted or inadequate – and watch the impact on the kids. Like us adults, children often judge their own progress against their peers. Closing the information gap so that the children can easily make that judgement should help to increase competitiveness and motivation

10. Students make their own assessments – set up two trays at the front of the class. When pupils have finished a piece of work ask them to come up and place it in one of the trays. Explain to them that one of the trays is for work they deem to be a good piece of work and the other tray is for a piece of work they deem to be poor. Most of us would tend to be modest the first time around and place our work in the ‘poor’ tray (even if we didn’t necessarily believe  it belonged there!). However, next lesson the pupils will know what to expect and will be keen to produce a better piece of work to be able to justify placing the work in the ‘good’ tray

Please feel free to leave comment below with any ideas you may have with regards to the application of nudge theory

UPDATE – A nice NUDGE experiment here

https://www.tutor2u.net/economics/blog/parents-nudged-in-economics-experiment

Why Gove is wrong about O Levels: Lessons from the past

Anthony Steed

The news that Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is considering scrapping the current GCSE qualifications and introducing more ‘academically rigorous’ qualifications has been met with no little derision by many in the teaching profession. Mr Gove’s justification for these changes seems based upon a notion that the current GCSE’s have been ‘dumbed down’ and that much of the improved performance identified in examination statistics originates from an inverse relationship between the difficulty of examinations and students attainment – pupils aren’t getting better, exams are getting easier.

The debate over whether this notion is borne out by fact is one that is on-going and extremely difficult to assess. The world is a very different place today compared to the 1970’s, with a labour market that requires a different set of skills. Advances in technology mean that both the skills and knowledge we would require young people to possess by the time they leave school and the way in which they access this information have changed.

Leaving this debate to one side, the author is in agreement with Mr Gove regarding the need to provide our students with more rigorous and challenging qualifications. This agreement does not amount to an acknowledgement of the ‘dumbing down’ assertion referred to earlier, but rather an agreement in principle that challenging qualification will drive improvements in the education of young people. If 22% of 16 year olds are achieving an A* in Mathematics it would seem to suggest that a good proportion of these students are not being sufficiently challenged by the current syllabus. As teachers and students become more savvy about how to achieve the top grades, inevitably a larger proportion of the results will bunch towards the top end – just under 70% of students achieved an A*-C grade in GCSE examination. This makes distinguishing between the achievements of these students evermore difficult and, inevitably, devalues the qualifications themselves.

If we take the chart below, which shows the distribution of GCSE results in 2011, this assertion becomes even more evident. Results are heavily skewed to the left. With seventy per cent gaining at least a C grade and nearly half get a B or above, and nearly a quarter get an A or above. The red line represents what the distribution should be and the yellow line is the reality.

This cannot be right. For GCSE results to have any meaning at all, then surely most entrants should be getting an average mark (C or D); in 2011 more entrants got A* – B than got C – D.

In this climate it seems only right that we consider how students can be stretched to their benefit. However, Gove’s latest conception is majestically flawed. Although details are sketchy at the time of writing, it does appear that, in a selective number of subjects, a new O Level style qualification will be introduced and that less rigorous ‘CSE’ style qualifications will be brought in for those students deemed ‘less academically able’. The inherent danger in this proposal is that a two-tiered system of education will develop. The author recognises that in the real world students have different abilities and talents. The author also recognises that an education system should stretch students of all abilities. However, I would also argue that a good education system should provide students with aspirations and that it should not put a ceiling on what can be achieved, regardless of perceived academic ability.

Arguably this is exactly what will happen with these new proposals. Fast forward to 2015 and Headteachers will have made the necessary ‘strategic adjustments’ which will likely amount to those students the school deems ‘most able’ being hived off to work towards a smaller number of O Level subjects. The abolishment of the National Curriculum will give Headteachers greater autonomy regarding which subject students study and, as they look to give these students the best possible opportunities to succeed in these new qualifications, it seems inevitable that many of the ‘optional’ GCSE subjects that enrich the curriculum for students disappear from their timetables. Meanwhile those students deemed ‘less able’ will be cattle-prodded into vocational qualifications and simpler CSE-style courses. These students, seeing that they have been overlooked for the more prestigious O Levels, will have little aspirations or expectation of further or higher education. “A Levels are for those O Level kids” they will say. Parents will treat these ‘lesser’ CSE courses as an anathema, interpreting any suggestion by the school that their child be placed onto these courses as a signal that their child is academically incapable. They will fight tooth-and-nail to ensure their child gets a place on an O level course because parents will understand better than most the implications that the alternative will have for their child’s future. Children on CSE-style courses will be branded as failures. A child’s course will be set at the age of 14 and it would be unlikely that many would find their way to an alternative.

If the vision alluded to here sounds like exaggerated hyper-bole  it may be worthwhile taking a brief look at the educational history of the UK. The two-tiered qualification system has been used before of course. The distinction between Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern, resulting from the Butler Act 1944, was implemented under exactly the same thinking – the most able should be stretched and the least able should be provided with an education that suited their ‘needs’. The reality, as highlighted by the Newsome Report 1963, was that the system had created a lost generation of young people who grew up educated in poorly funded and depressing environments with high staff turnover and poor discipline. Famously, in the year the report was published, only 318 former secondary school pupils went onto sit A Levels in the UK and none went to university.

Fast forward to 2025 and we may have our own ‘lost generation’ on our hands as Headteachers, having long ago begun to forcefully exercise their new admission powers, begin to ‘select’ the ‘right students’ for their O Level-centric school. Schools in poorer areas, with a less academically gifted demographic and perhaps a larger proportion of EAL students will have to make do with the rest. The O-Level schools will probably want to distinguish themselves from their ‘less able’ neighbours. They will probably want to re-brand themselves in a way befitting their academically elite position so that parents and children know exactly how superior they are to the rest. “We need a good name that conveys how we are different from the rest” the conversation will go….

“What about ‘Oration Schools’?” a junior minister will chip in

“Good heavens no! Those uneducated CSE-sitting parents won’t understand that word” replies the senior minister

“Er… ‘Enunciation Schools’ sir?” chips in another junior minister hopefully

“Dear God!” explodes the senior minister

“Were you two both educated in a flaming Secondary Modern!… I’ve got it we’ll call them ‘Better Schools’ – there’s no way the unwashed masses will mistake its meaning!” exclaims the satisfied senior minister.

“Sir, are you sure about this?” reply the junior ministers tentatively

“It’s just… isn’t the educational system supposed to support all children in the same way? Don’t they all deserve an equal chance?”.

“Yes indeed” replies the senior minster and then adds knowingly “But some children are more equal than others”.