Skip to main content

What can we learn from the GCSE English debacle?

I watched some of the Education Select Committee hearing with Glenys Stacey this morning, having followed this story with great interest from the night before grades were originally released. There was already a storm brewing on Twitter when Heads had their sneak preview of results.

Ofqual have changed their policy on grading. After years of undoubted grade inflation they have decided to impose a policy of "comparable outcomes". In practice what this means is that Ofqual look at prior attainment data (KS2 SATS performance) and other factors to do with the cohort for that year and pretty much predetermine what the grades will be. They make a prediction which exam boards have to stick closely to. If the boards disagree with Ofqual, as Edexcel clearly did, they have to tow the Ofqual line.

This year, for English, Ofqual took into account KS2 data and, importantly, the lower number of candidates from schools who had entered students for the IGCSE - principally independent schools - and produced a prediction for grades to which boards had to adhere. The result was that grades fell for the first time in many years (ever?) and not just at the C/D borderline.

So let's be clear: what we now have is effectively an adjusted norm-referenced system of grading. More precisely it is described, so I have learned, as limen referencing. * Outcomes are largely predetermined by prior attainment at KS2 and assumptions about predictable progress between KS2 and the end of KS4. To me this looks like secondary school teachers are not allowed, on average, to add significant value.

I would ask whether we can be sure that the KS2 data are accurate. They are not influenced by prior attainment data from a younger age so we are depending on tests being consistent and raw marks and levels being accurate. History has shown us that KS2 marking is sometimes inaccurate. In addition, children from independent schools and from Wales do not do KS2 tests at all.

Experienced heads and heads of English report that many of their students were unfairly graded this year. They argue that they know what C grade work looks like and many "C grade" candidates were awarded Ds. Ofqual defend their position by pointing to the numbers. This year, overall, results fell by only 1.5% with a cohort missing a significant proportion of more able candidates, so they argue. Edexcel disagreed with Ofsted citing in the recently leaked letters their own statistical evidence.

We can also safely assume that the other exam boards, not just Edexcel, would have given higher grades had it not been for the intervention of Ofqual. Experienced examiners are not being trusted to do their job.

There are interesting consequences to this new era of "comparable outomes". If, generally speaking, results will not increase, then it will appear impossible for schools, on average, to show improvements in accountability measures such as Raise Online and league tables. If one school improves, it will have to be at the expense of another. On average teachers and schools will be wasting their time if they think they can improve results overall.

The analogy with athletics is often mentioned. Not allowing students to improve is like saying to a sprinter that they cannot break the world record given their previous performances. I am not sure this is a fair analogy, since noone is bothered about world records inflation, whereas there is a genuine concern about grade inflation and the alleged "race to the bottom", as Glenys Stacey put it today.

But if we are to have a kind of norm-referencing let's be honest about it and say that only a certain number can pass with the same proportion of candidates at each grade each year.

English has been highlighted in recent weeks, but languages are not immune from comparable outcomes. But with languages the cohorts have changed in size and nature so much over the years that any unfairness or inconsistency has been more masked. What we do know for sure is that languages continue to get an even worse deal than English as far as grading is concerned.

* For a detailed study of types of assessment see:


Popular posts from this blog

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…