BERA 2019 - Emma Walland

Teacher decision-making on post-16 provision

09 Oct 2019 (24:48)

This qualitative study, involving 11 interviews with senior teachers, explored the impact of the recent decoupling of AS and A Level qualifications.

Emma Walland from Cambridge Assessment and Ellie Darlington from Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing explore how teachers responded to this reform by analysing their decision-making processes for post-16 provision. Findings showed that teachers had to navigate competing demands in response to the reform. Their decisions were bounded by factors such as resources, belief systems, and the availability of information.

Video transcript

[00:00:11] Hi, I'm Emma Walland and I'm a researcher at Cambridge Assessment. I'm going to be telling you about a piece of research my colleague Ellie Darlington and I conducted at Cambridge Assessment, it's about teaching decision making on post 16 provision in response to reform. Just to unpack that title a little bit for you, by reform, we're referring to the A Level curriculum reform that was implemented under Gove, shown on the right, and the particular aspect of the reform that this study was concerned with was that the age levels were decoupled from A Levels. A Levels and AS Levels of qualifications are taken by school children aged 16 to 18 during key stage five of their studies. This period of study is known as the sixth form and it comprises year 12 and year 13, which are also sometimes called the lower and upper sixth. It's the final two years of secondary school before they move on to university, apprenticeships or employment. So it's a very high stakes time in their education. And these are very high stakes qualifications. By teacher decision making, we mean that we were interested in how teachers responsible for decision making explained how their school had made certain choices in response to this reform, because there was not a uniform response. We were interested in why and how they have chosen to offer or not to offer AS levels as a result of the reform. Now, I'll give you a little bit of background about the decoupling of the AS and the A Levels. Before the reform, A Levels were what's known as modular. So this meant that halfway through their studies students sat AS level examinations and at the end they sat A Level examinations, which was sometimes referred to as A2. And in this system the AS Level counted 50 per cent towards the A Level grade. So in essence, AS plus A2 equals A Level. Students would typically take four AS Levels in year 12 and they would carry on to take three A Levels in year 13. They would usually drop the one they disliked or performed the worse in. And the fourth AS Level was purported to create curriculum breadth so that students could study a wider range of subjects - four in year 12 as opposed to three. The AS Level counted for half an A Level in terms of UCAS points. Now UCAS points are a tariff point school system. Each qualification is allocated one point and universities often use them for admission decisions. After the reform, the AS Level is a stand alone qualification, so it no longer contributes towards the final A Level grade. But it can still be taken. And A Levels are now what's known as linear, which means that the two years of content is assessed at the end of the qualification. So the AS and the A2 no longer equals A Level. The AS Level was also devalued in terms of UCAS points it attracts, so now it's 40 percent of A Level as opposed to 50 percent. So you might ask why keep AS Levels at all? The reason that was stated is curriculum breadth and for progression. Now, let's forget the motivation for the reform. Well, the one that was stated, at least. So it was argued that a linear system rather than a modular system would promote synoptic learning. This is when students are able to study a subject in greater depth and they can make links and connections between the different sub topics within a subject. There are several references which explain this. This is an example of a cyclical reform, because A Levels used to be linear in the past and this latest reform represents a return back to linearity. When and how did the reform take place? So it took place in three different phases for three different subject groups from 2015 to 2017. It's an example of an external reform also known as top down or mandated change in the educational change literature. It means that it's driven by the government and passed down to schools. In contrast with internal or bottom-up change, which would originate within a school. At grassroots level, schools and teachers face the challenge of implementing these reforms set from above, but in this case, there was some room for choice and flexibility in how to implement the reform. But this is not always the case. Often mandated change results in resistance as the meaning of the change for the teachers, or the burdens that it may place on them may not be thoroughly considered by policymakers. Since the reform AS Level entries have been in decline. However, previous and contemporaneous research studies have found that there was no uniform entry approach and there were still large numbers of students taking AS Levels in a variety of ways. Our research extends this by exploring possible reasons for the divergent approaches to AS Level provision. I'm looking at this through a theoretical lens, so we consider the different factors that influence decision making and the particular challenges and complexities experienced by schools during this reform. Studies investigating responses to reform like this one are infrequent, but they are really important because the consequences of reform cannot always be predicted in the beginning and it might very well have unintended outcomes. Such research can lead to insights for understanding and predicting the potential effects of reforms in general, as well as evaluating the impacts of this reform. So our research aim, broadly, was to explore how teachers made decisions in response to this reform. So whether they were still offering the AS Levels or not and in which cases and why? How did different factors weigh into their decisions, and what were their rationales for new provision choices. We wanted to understand this through a theoretical lens. Our method was that we interviewed eleven teachers involved in decision making at schools across England and we did semi-structured, in-depth telephone interviews in spring and summer of 2018 after all three of the subject groups had been reformed for first teaching. We recruited participants from a range of school types and locations. They were all state funded, mostly mixed gender, mostly non-selective, and they ranged from 800 to 2000 students. We analysed the interview transcripts using thematic content analysis in the style of Braun and Clarke, and we then analysed the data through the lens of decision making theories and educational change literature. This was done on MAXQDA 2018. The two theoretical frameworks that best explained our data were utilitarianism and bounded rationality. So I'll start by explaining both of these theories briefly before I present the results. Utilitarianism is based on the ethical philosophy that the best course of action is the one that benefits the greatest number of people. It's a teleological theory, which means that decisions driven by utilitarianism focus on consequences and outcomes of decisions and whether they provide benefit or cause harm. So a utilitarian approach to education would focus on the outcomes for key stakeholders and the decisions are made with the aim of maximising benefit for stakeholders. Bounded rationality is a decision making approach from behavioural economics, and it states that while people strive to make logical and rational decisions, they are bounded by various things, such as their own cognitive limitations, the availability of information, and the context. Behaviour is driven towards achieving goals, according to this theory, which are based on a person's assessment of a situation which is within the limits set by the conditions and constraints. Differences in choices can therefore result from differences in how people perceive and understand the same phenomenon. So together with insights from educational change literature, these two theories gave us a really in-depth understanding of how decisions had been taken in response to this reform and what the resulting impact may have been. Moving on now to our findings. Participants had adopted one of two different responses to the reform. And this was in line with previous and contemporaneous research studies with larger numbers of participants. The two responses were firstly what we've called the safety net approach. This approach was to offer the AS Level in an ad hoc manner. So not to all students, but just as a safety net to support low attaining students - students who are struggling, for example, and looked like they might not achieve a full A Level. They were given the opportunity to sit an AS Level instead so at least they would leave with something. So that's the first approach, the safety net approach. The second approach that some schools took is that they maintained pre-reform patterns. So they maintained the same provision patterns that they had practised prior to the reform, which as I mentioned earlier, was typically the four AS Levels in year 12 and the three A Levels in year 13. And this was even though the AS Level no longer counted towards A Level. So in some cases, this response might have only been temporary as some of our data will show, and there were also a few nuances in this approach. But these two approaches are important because I'm going to explain our findings through the theoretical frameworks in each of these responses separately. Analysing this through our theoretical frameworks gives us possible explanations for the divergences in approach. So utilitarianism, as I noted, it focuses on the outcomes of a course of action for stakeholders. So during our interviews, the key stakeholders that came up were students, higher education employees, teachers and school leaders. So the value of the reformed AS Level qualifications was considered by all participants in relation to the outcomes for these stakeholders. Broadly at times, it was that the needs of different stakeholders were in tension which led to teachers having to choose a course of action that might benefit some stakeholders at the expense of others. And they also sometimes had to make difficult trade offs between practical and pedagogical outcomes. So, utilitarianism in the safety nets approach. For those who opted for the safety net approach, which is keeping AS Levels only for some students and reducing AS levels for all other students. The main reason was the high financial cost to the school if they'd had to offer AS Levels to everyone, for example, PARTICIPANT 4 said: "For a college of our size, the financial cost of offering AS Levels too would have been prohibitive." Another main factor that arose in our data was the issues with co-teach ability. So teachers reported that they found it very challenging to try to teach the de-coupled AS Level and the A Level together in the same class. So they were going to have to adapt their teaching or have extra classes to fit in the extra content, and it was very logistically challenging. So, for example, this participant said: "We were going to offer AS Levels for a very long time, and then part of it was just that the AS don't embed into the A Levels very well. We were always told that they would and then they just don't." So it was interesting to note that schools that took this approach, offering AS Levels in an ad hoc manner, did this despite the fact that it might not have aligned with their pedagogical values. What arose in our interviews is that many teachers actually preferred the modular system prior to reform and they would have liked to replicate it post reform. They found it very useful pedagogically to provide feedback and motivation. So we found that the reform might have led to a tension between the practical realities and their pedagogical views, which could have contributed to a difficult change process because pedagogically speaking, they really valued the AS Levels, but practically because of the teaching and the costs, they just really couldn't justify it. And this quote illustrates this nicely: "I think if it were cheaper and if we had more money and if the exams were 'teachable', my preference would be to have always done an AS Level. It was a good indicator for students and staff about what they needed to do. And it's quite late to learn those lessons after two years for some... the AS Levels were very useful gatekeeping or early warning experience for students." In other schools who offer the safety net approach, it was a little bit different, but the teachers focused on the outcome for students progression prospects as their main motivating factor for reducing AS Level provision post-reform. So for them, they didn't seem to have that same tension between pedagogy and practicality. So the change process may not have been as difficult for them because the AS Level had been devalued in terms of progression, The lower UCAS tariff points and that it doesn't count towards A Level. They expressed that it was a pointless qualification and they felt that it had little value for access to higher education. This devaluing supported their decision to reduce AS Level provision. It resonates with one broader aim of education, which is for upward social mobility and improved life opportunities. But interestingly, it contradicts with one stated aim of the reform, which was that the AS Level was meant to be useful for progression. So it does show how the aims of the reform might not always resonate at grassroots level in some cases. This quote sums it up: "The value of the AS is dropping and dropping... the declaration was made by universities when they said that they were only going to be worth 40 percent of an A Level. That made a clear statement about what the value of them was for progression." Additionally, some participants who opted for the safety net approach did not perceive that their students desired AS levels, and this functioned to support and justify their decision making. They felt that any cost associated with it was just not worthwhile. For example, "it was throwing money at something that wasn't the right thing to do." This participant said: "We were offering more courses at AS initially, and they just weren't becoming as popular and a lot of the kids who were in those groups were deciding to drop them. And that's why we've taken some of those AS courses out of the curriculum... The value that the students see in them as well is dropping. A lot of students have specified that they want to not carry a course forward. A lot of students may not be particularly concerned about having an AS as a qualification." So this just illustrates the low perceived stakeholder demand. Now let's move on to schools who opted for retaining the pre-reform patterns of provision and looking at this through the framework of utilitarianism. So this could actually be interpreted as an opposition to the reform because it's rejecting the intended linearity of the new system in favour of trying to hang onto a modular system. It's not entirely unexpected because there were a lot of negative views about linearity raised in the consultation prior to the reform. And the reason why these participants reported keeping AS Levels for everyone is because they saw the benefits for teachers and students, in terms of feedback, grade prediction, motivation, as mentioned by previous participants. But they either felt that the financial cost was worthwhile or they had the financial resources to back this up. Another interesting reason they gave for maintaining pre-reform patterns i.e. everybody taking AS Levels was that it gave teachers authority and power that they needed to justify progression decisions to students and parents and to also provide a stronger motivation to students than could be provided by internal processes. So it seems that the reform might have created a loss of power for teachers over their progression decisions and their ability to motivate these students. So resisting the reform could be an attempt on their part to retain that power. One participant said: "The AS level gives us a bit more clout with the parents and with the students... if it's coming from an outside independent agency... it takes the pressure off the teacher trying to justify the marks." It could also be that resistance of the reform by maintaining pre-reform patterns could be an attempt to negate the negative effects of change on the school. Change create uncertainty and it's often difficult for teachers and schools to manage. And according to Dinham and Clement, it's not always the reform that teachers oppose, but the manner in which it was introduced, for example, if it grows too quickly. So it could be that these schools felt that the reform was taking place too quickly for them to respond and they needed to slow things down and have a deliberate change management strategy by keeping the pre-reform patterns for a bit longer. For example, PARTICIPANT 9 said: "We haven't moved wholesale away from delivering AS Levels like some centres have. The main reason being that we wanted a bit of a smooth transition from the old system to the new one." So they might not have been enough guidance and support given to schools to manage this transition, resulting in this resistance. And they were willing to take this approach despite the financial implication, the burdens on teachers and the possible resistance from students. Now let's look at our data in terms of bounded rationality, our other theoretical framework. Utilitarianism provided a very useful lens to look at how they made decisions with considering how they would affect their stakeholders. But bounded rationality just explains this a little bit further by understanding the limitations that were operating on their decision making processes. So, as noted, bounded rationality recognises that while people strive to make rational decisions, there are various factors that place limitations on this. So differences in decisions about the same reform can result from limiting conditions. And these are the ones that I'm going to explain in this presentation: how teachers perceived and understood the reform as a limiting condition, the school culture, time, information and resources. Perceptions of reformed AS Levels. As we saw from the previous analysis, participants had different views of the value of AS level and they influenced their decisions. According to Goodson, reforms need to connect with teachers' personal belief systems in order to be successful. So in this case, teachers were able to take approaches which suited their beliefs in most cases. Some of them had a very narrow view of the A Levels and felt that they were pointless because they lacked value for progression and that supported their decisions to reduce AS Level provision almost entirely, but others had a broader view and they felt that it was really beneficial for the modularity aspects, the grade predictions, student feedback and the student motivation. So they either resisted their form if they had the means to, but for other schools, it became difficult because there was a tension and their perceptions were incongruous with the financial realities. Another limiting factor is school culture. The culture at the school and perhaps of the wider school community could have influenced how the reforms were implemented. So, for example, we saw in the one case how teachers might have felt a lack of power against students and parents. So they needed an externally delivered qualification to justify their decisions. Attitudes to change could also be a limiting cultural factor. So as we saw, some teachers may have been more hesitant about the change, wanting a smoother transition period, whereas others might have been more keen to adopt the change quicker. And lastly, time, information and resources. Schools, teaching and financial resources were constrained because they had issues with co-teach ability and they also noted the high financial cost of delivering AS levels. They often had to make decisions based on limited information so they didn't know what might happen to AS Levels in the future and or indeed how it was being treated at the time by examination boards. Participant 11 said: "We're waiting to see the climate on that because I think... I'm not sure how seriously the exam boards take the AS Level marking... and also whether they're going to continue to offer it, it's probably a bit of a worry for us." The schools who had drawn out the change process might also have done this to gather more information and have more time to make a better informed decision. Others justified their decisions based on their predictions of what would happen. For example, participant 4 indicated, "Our view is that the AS Levels are going to stop existing." In the context of relentless reforms, it's possible that teachers try to predict them ahead of time to lessen their impact. So to conclude, the theories of utilitarianism and bounded rationality gave us an insight into decision making in response to the reform and give us a way to provide possible explanations for the different entry approaches that we observed in response to the reform. The reform might have been refracted through each school context, which meant it led to different views and responses. Teachers reported having made decisions based on consequences for their stakeholders, their utilitarianism, but they exercised their decision making power in the context of limited information, their perceptions of the value and purpose of the qualification, their perceived agency and their resources. So while this research provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the enactment of this reform and contribute to literature on educational change, their are certain limitations, particularly the small number and volunteer-based nature of participants, and also independent schools were not represented in their search. So their views and experiences could have differed and it would be good to obtain their perspectives. The situation may have changed since our research, especially since some centres indicated that they saw themselves in a period of transition. So it's a useful opportunity for further follow up research to be conducted. And these are my references. And thank you very much for listening. I hope you find it useful.

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