The last word: this month in education - Paul Steer

The last word: this month in education - Paul Steer

Paul Steer, Director of Policy and Strategy at Oxford, Cambridge and RSA (OCR) gives an overview of the latest issues, changes and ideas in education.

The EBacc has been a huge success; it was designed to increase the uptake of GCSEs in core, traditional, subjects with a particular emphasis on STEM, and that is exactly what it has done. It may not have achieved much of a boost in the uptake of foreign languages, but, in the round, few will argue that it hasn’t done what it set out to do. Of course, there are plenty who have argued that the aims of the EBacc were wrong in the first place. The EBacc has devalued vocational qualifications and reduced the emphasis on the arts and humanities at a time when Universities UK tells us there has been a massive drop in HE applicants for business and administrative studies, and creative arts and design – areas which are as much a backbone of the UK economy as STEM.

That’s the problem with performance measures – they tend to impact in more ways than those intended. One way to mitigate against the risk of unintended consequences is to keep changing performance measures, or to add lots of new measures – an approach we see in the BIS consultation which wants to measure success through a new approach to capturing learner destinations for adults. Performance measures place a heavy burden of trust on the integrity of the exam system. Small wonder that, in the reformed GCSEs and A Levels, there is a noticeable reduction or even elimination of teacher assessed components – the argument goes that institutions that are held to account for their exam results can’t also be trusted to mark them.

There is one area where teacher assessment maintains a significant contribution to the final grade - this isn’t the science practical - but the oral in GCSE languages. No doubt this makes perfect sense, speaking being core to the skill of mastering languages, but it is true that languages are the one part of the core curriculum that the EBacc has struggled to influence. By contrast, for English language, worth double points in the new Progress 8 measure, ‘speaking and listening’ will be reported on separately from the overall grade. And so we learn that the head teacher associations want to introduce their own, alternative, school league tables. They are designed to encourage a balanced, broad curriculum and, importantly, will recognise extra-curricular activities as well as exam results and are clearly intended to supplement the existing performance measures with an alternative perspective. If we must have performance measures, let’s have lots of them.

There are also those wanting to see a raft of measures designed to boost the uptake of vocational qualifications across the education system. It is disappointing to learn from the latest Ofqual perceptions report that vocational qualifications are widely regarded as ‘easier to achieve’. In this context, we must welcome Ofqual’s signalled intention in its latest three year plan to make VQs subject to the same ‘scrutiny, attention and commitment’ that it has shown to GCSEs and A Levels. This was made a priority in last year’s plan but never quite came to fruition. Maybe, with the GQ reforms established, there will be a bit more capacity within Ofqual to take on close regulation of VQs. With 169 recognised awarding organisations and with VQs varying hugely in size, purpose and design, this will be a big challenge requiring some prioritisation. Hopefully the regulator will see the value of this variety and not seek to impose new regulations that force everything to fit a single template, or places too much emphasis on academic achievement – there are lessons to be learnt from the failures of the QCF and Vocational Diplomas.

No doubt, vocational qualifications in numeracy will continue to be a priority. The new mathematics manifesto from national numeracy has much in it that is worthy of praise. It highlights the need for flexibility in adult programmes, and anything that raises the profile of the issue of low numeracy skills has to be for the good. Sadly, for those who have worked in adult education for many years there will be a sense of déjà vu. Huge initiatives in maths, weighty reports, heavily funded national programmes, on-line tests and memorable media campaigns have come and gone. Sadly, there is no magic bullet - improving adult numeracy involves hard work, time and resources and tackling the root causes takes decades. But we should not despair – although the initiatives have come and gone, they have facilitated the development of the foundations of a strong, world class curriculum in both literacy and numeracy. With the right expertise, and with qualifications like OCR’s Progression awards and, above all, patience and a long term view, there is much that can be done.

Paul Steer 
Director of Policy and Strategy at Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR)

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