One and a half cheers

Terry Mackie takes a sobering look at this year’s examination results.

This July I wrote in The Western Mail that the enduringly weak performance in our schools system was partly down to a significant cultural and political fragility: “The underlying malaise in Wales is one of a civil society that has lost its voice. Devolution has bred complacency”.

A look at the end of 2014 school year assessments reflects this fragility. Media coverage of these results has been inadequate. Our school performance continues to struggle in UK and international terms. This year’s painfully insightful OECD review of Welsh schooling is borne out. We still lack a long-term vision 15 years on, are weak and confused on assessment and our less able are taught worse than elsewhere.

I can raise only one and half cheers for Wales school improvement in 2014, unlike the media pack which, aping a barely adequate teacher, overstated progress and misconstrued data. Western Mail, BBC and ITV overpraised and under-analysed. There is a growing trend (not only in Wales), where the August exam results coverage descends more each year into human interest stories encapsulated in quotes from braying headteachers and acres of images of whooping teenagers (mostly leaping girls).

This year’s Welsh media coverage recalls Garrison Keilor’s satire of Lake Woebegon, where “all the children are above average”.

The interpretation of exams stats this summer has been more “noise than signal”, as Nate Silver puts it. The ‘A’ levels were greeted as some sort of triumph. The Western Mail talked of an ‘impressive surge’ in top grades and referred overall to ‘our upward trajectory’. Given that top grades (A*-A) had fallen every year since 2009, no comparisons were made over the longer timescale and from a depressed base. But the main indicator of national performance, the rate of actual success in gaining a pass grade, across A*-E, got little attention in Wales. That is because it actually fell, as it did UK wide. Too much was made about ‘narrowing the gap with England’. Mr Gove had actually set out to make achievement levels lower there! And it was left to the England-based TES to provide devolutionary context about the increase in the very top grade: “Despite A-level students in Northern Ireland and Wales having still been able to take resits in January, they were outperformed by their English peers in terms of the proportion of A* grades achieved.”

A week later GCSE coverage characterised performance overall as something even more joy-bringing than the ‘A’ levels’ ‘significant improvement’. The bald facts are these:

  • A*-C pass rates were up 0.9% up on 2013. That is 0.1% up since 2011, the previous high since devolution.

  • The overall pass rate of A*-G fell in the annual period by 0.2%.

  • English language results were up but Maths’s were well down.

  • Science did well; Modern Foreign Languages continue to implode.

As with ‘A’ levels, the focus on achievement standards in respect of all learners, by the media, the professionals, unions and the government was sacrificed for exaggerated headlines in both the press and the BBC about ‘top grades’ and narrowing UK national gaps. ITV were a tad more measured. But there is a further twist to the tale. Nobody truly knows the results at GCSE as yet. That’s because all the August figures touted are based on entry not cohort. What really counts is how well the whole student population has performed (after all, we pay for every student in our taxes), not simply those entered for individual exams. And the really important  story was about GCSE English and Maths, core PISA comparator areas. As you missed it, read on.

The Minister, Huw Lewis, redirected any media spotlight on the slide in Maths A*-C (down by 2.2% overall, down on top grades also and now 12.4% lower than England’s results; our kids are 20% more likely to fail in Maths than over the border) by extolling the achievements in English, up by 0.6% against 2013, allowing for early entry adjustment. Lewis’s contentment was actually just one huge sigh of relief. The spectre of another summer fiasco about English as in 2012 had been averted. The turbulence of unprecedented volatility in modules sat in January 2014 had all been seemingly smoothed out quite miraculously How? The Minister had orchestrated what he called broadly comparable results to the previous year. The key word is ‘comparable’. He had instructed the application of a mechanism for levelling off results year-on-year which is called “comparable outcomes”.

“Comparable outcomes” works like some wondrous exams combine harvester on the yearly crop (the scripts). At the touch of a button, the lines between ‘grades of wheat and actual wheat and chaff’ can be adjusted. So much for more rigour. The media  failed to report the application of this mechanism. English results in England actually dropped by 1.9 percentage points and volatility across schools there was considerable (enough to force ASCL, the Heads’ union, to initiate a formal inquiry {but not including Wales}). England renounced “comparable outcomes” fixing in 2013.

Our Minister then bravely commented about an absence of volatility in ‘his’ English results. But ITV had produced valuable footnote information on results day to gainsay notions of stability school-by school in WJEC English, compared to 2013:

  • 13.7% of centres saw an decrease of over 10 percentage points

  • 15.1% of centres saw an increase of over 10 percentage

English results are all over the place this year. 1 in just over 7 of our schools plummeted in English. Even more schools surged forward unexpectedly. 10 percentage points is an exceptional amount of volatility in one school year. Lewis may have succeeded in magicking more out of his ‘national crop’, but his comparable outcomes mechanism works as a blunt instrument that could not hope to differentiate between the parcels of fields that we call exam centres/schools.

And the overall effect of Maths dropping significantly and clear volatility in English? I deduce that a lot of Band 4/5 schools will be struggling so much on the main performance judgement criteria of ‘5 A*-C including Maths and English’ that they will be named and shamed again when the December bandings tables are trotted out. These schools were least equipped to cope with chaotically late syllabus and assessment changes enforced by our government.

What did the media make of all this? Nothing. And the teaching unions? Apart from the ATL, not a word. In rushing to bring out the bunting they all ignored actual data. ITV decided not to follow up their sterling work earlier this year on turbulent English unit tests. BBC offered no in-depth analysis and The Western Mail preferred to accentuate the positive. Gareth Evans, its Education Editor, went to awkward lengths to do so in a telling article headlined “Why no specialist journalist wants to write negative stories”. Evans, the brightest and best of his genre, commented: “Welsh education deserves a break and to see so many schools excel really was a welcome boost”. Is this the role now of our media, to engage in happy snapshots and boosterism?

Statistically, with so many schools struggling this year in GCSE Maths and English, all cannot have won prizes. Let’s put it more broadly and simply; if several of the larger LEAs are claiming 4% rises against a national uplift this year of 0.9%, many others must have done worse than last year. If GCSE A*-C are up 0.9% but 0.2% down on A*-G, could the media not do the maths for the fall D-G? Or don’t we care about about those less able children’s standards? OECD’s report rightly lambasted Wales for letting down these kids.

Framing some broad analysis around the preposterous Government target for 2015 for GCSE success of 65% A*-C including Maths and English/Welsh First Language (2014 is going to turn out a country mile away from that, not even reaching 54%) would also have been intellectually more respectable. Leighton Andrews dreamed up that most inadvisable of targets (TES had warned: “He shoots for the moon”) and Lewis has cleaved to it. When PISA 2015 is published in 2016 our ignominy could exceed our incompetence. We will remain The Slow Learning Country.

Liberal Democrat Lord Thomas of Gresford recently complained in The Lords: “The press and media in Wales allow a dominant Labour government to get away with it……..One wonders whether the politicians and the Welsh media are too closely aligned and too ready to exchange roles.”

Publicly funded schooling cannot improve without searching external scrutiny and challenge. It also needs trade unions in creative tension with the government and not indulged by the media. It certainly does not profit from an innumerate and deferential media, prone to cheerleading. If devolved is not the same as intelligently involved, everybody loses, starting with the learners.

Terry Mackie is director of educational consultancy EmpathiCymru and former head of school improvement and inclusion for Newport council.

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