Archive | August, 2013

Should we scrap GCSEs? – Western Mail Article

29 Aug

Below is the article I wrote for the Western Mail in response to their education correspondent, Gareth Evans, arguing Wales should scrap GCSEs.

The Western Mail’s Education correspondent made a somewhat controversial statement recently when he argued that we should scrap GCSEs. The call came following this year’s results where the exams sat by pupils in Maths and Science were very different to those sat by pupils the previous year, as were the way in which they were marked. This change has made it impossible to make comparisons of year-on-year standards.

I have sympathy for the case being made by Gareth Evans. I am sure that many teachers would welcome, as he put it, a release of the pressure valve placed on them and their students as a result of these exams. Equally, there would be financial benefits to this proposal that could help address the continued underfunding of our schools.

It wouldn’t be an unconventional approach. Finland, often held up as a shining example of how an education systems should operate, do not set mandatory exams for pupils until 17-19 years old.

There would be trepidation about travelling this path at present. There are clearly concerns about changes to GCSEs making annual comparisons difficult. Pupils, parents, teachers , higher education institutions and employers all need to know that there is a standardisation to GCSEs and what you get does not need to be asterisked by a date.

The Welsh Government was right to support the retention of GCSEs. While assurances about the consistency pupils can expect need to be secured, especially in light of the dip in Science and Math pass rates caused by the 2013 changes, the respect that the GCSE qualification continues to have remains high. However, we should not refuse to look at how our qualifications may look further down the line and that includes questioning exactly how and why we test students at key stage 4.

The article has been published today but I can’t see a link online. I’ll try to post it when it is there.


Two Years In Post

28 Aug


This week marks two years since I started with NUT Cymru. To say they have been eventful is an understatment. I started on the day of the 2011 GCSE results and a lot has happened since then.

To celebrate I baked some chocolate pecan brownies for the office. I know it really should have been carrot cake. Perhaps for the 5 year anniversary


Results Day

23 Aug

Yesterday was the 6th GCSE/A Level result day since I started working for NUT Cymru. You can almost set your clock by the media coverage. Standard photo of girls, usually with blonde hair, jumping for joy with their results on the front page of newspapers; TV coverage of some pupils opening their results to the inevitable straight A grades; stock questions on “are teachers letting children down” or “are the exams too easy” depending on an increase/decrease in the pass rate. This BBC article is quite good at highlighting the language of results day, for which I am sure I am equally guilty of employing.

Getting back to yesterday, three things that stood out with regards to this year’s GCSE results:

Narrowing the gap with England

It has been noted that the gap in attainment of top grades between Wales and England has narrowed. In Wales the percentage of those gaining A*-A remained at 2012 levels of 19.2%. Due to a decline elsewhere the gap with rest of UK narrowed, from 3.2% in 2012 to 2.1.

On the positive while results have dropped in England we can take heart in Wales that we have kept a consistency in our achievements and that pupils reaching the highest standards have not failed to repeat the great results of 2012.

Now, I’ve never been one to set the standard of our education system by its comparison with England, however tempting that can be. Our education systems are increasingly diverging under devolution and in the very near future will be almost unrecognisable from one another. By any indicator is it becoming more and more complex to compare the two.

That said, I certainly don’t think that narrowing the gap as a result of a decline across the border is worth celebrating. We should certainly welcome the success of achievement in Wales, and as stated the fact that we have shown a consistency in results while the rest of the Uk have not is something of a positive, but we want to narrow the gap by our own merits.

Results in Core Subjects

This has possibly been the focal point of the GCSE results in Wales. Most news outlets lead with this as their main reports yesterday, perhaps rightfully so.

The tale of the tape was that English A*-C grades were down from 60.9% in 2012 to 59.6%; Maths A*-C grades down from 55.5% in 2012 to 52.8% while the biggest drop came in Science where A*-C grades fell from 57.3% in 2012 to 51.2%.

On the face of it this could be alarming. Wales is seeing a decline in standards in the core subjects. However the reality is very different. There are a combination of factors that have contributed to these results.

Firstly, there has been an increase in the number of 15 year olds that have sat the exams early. This has played a significant role in depressing pass rates. The poorer performance of young entrants relative to the appropriate GCSE age group, and the increase in their numbers, has ensured a lower overall success rate. Secondly, but equally importantly, is that there has been an active decision to both make the exams harder and to mark them more harshly. This has, as the WJEC reported to BBC Radio Wales on results day, had the consequence of making the A*-C grade far more difficult to achieve in the core subjects. Knowing this, it is therefore completely expected that results should be down.

What is most important with this in mind is that we do not simply compare and contrast core subject results this year with those of previous years. To do so would be misleading. We may find, and I would argue it is very likely the case, that individual pupil performance in these subjects has not seen a great, if any, change over the course of the past year. Had the exams in 2013 been taken and evaluated on the same standard as those in 2012 for example who is to say the pass rate would not have seen an improvement.

This year’s core subject results should therefore be seen in isolation and judged on their individual merits, establishing a new baseline (assuming future exams take the same approach) rather than being compared to previous outcomes.

Overall Pass rates

The overall pass rate in Wales remained at the same level in 2013 as it was in 2012. (98.7%). While the A*-C pass rate fell very slightly by 0.1% to 65.7%. These are figures that we can be proud of and show that pupils in Wales are achieving high standards in their qualifications.

However, I think there’s a case to be especially pleased with such a small percentage drop in A*-C when the above factors regarding core subjects are taken into account. For an almost negligible pass rate decline to have been achieved when English, Maths and Science saw a -0.5%, -2.7% and -6.1% decrease respectively as a result of a combination of externally imposed factors, is actually a quite remarkable achievement and shows how well the performances across other subjects has been.


In Conversation With…..

19 Aug

I’m excited that the blog will soon be taking on a new direction. I’ve decided to start a new section of audio blogs. These audio blogs will vary in length but I’m thinking typically around 20-30 minutes of myself in conversation with various people who have something interesting to contribute to the education debate here in Wales. Hopefully this will encompass teachers, politicians, journalists, academics and anyone else who can spark a debate.

The aim of these pieces will be to have a public debate around a range of education topics and to get to know the views of some of the key people in Welsh education.

I’m pleased a few people have already agreed to take part and hopefully I’ll be lining up a few more in the coming weeks with the aim of posting the first audio blog in September sometime. Please let me know if you have suggestions of people you’d be interested in hearing from.


Performance Related Pay: Why Money Motivation Won’t Work in Schools

5 Aug

“He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money” – Benjamin Franklin

You have to admit Michael Gove may not have much credibility when it comes to education but one thing he does do well is spin. Very few politicians have managed the two basic principles of propaganda quite like the English Secretary of State for Education; make the lie big and keep it simple. Nowhere has he made a bigger play of it than on performance related pay for teachers.

Pay as you play

If you believe Michael Gove the performance related pay will drive up standards; improve the quality of teaching; create a fairer pay structure; support school leadership and reward the best teachers. It all sounds pretty straightforward and appealing doesn’t it? The only flaw in this offer to parents, and for the record it’s one Gove is acutely aware of, is that there’s no evidence that any of these benefits will, or can, be delivered by the policy. On the contrary, performance related pay will undermine all of these aims.

The Teacher

So why are teachers concerned with these plans? After seeing the Westminster Government slash the terms and conditions of teachers pensions, forcing them to pay more, work much longer yet receive significantly less for that dedication, it is hardly surprising further interference in pay contracts will be of concern.

The fact is teachers know the disastrous implications this proposal will have on the quality of education in schools across the UK. Educational attainment is based on teamwork and collaboration. That is the cornerstone of best practice in every leading nation in the world. Imposing a system where each teacher in a school is pitted against the next in a fight for better wages will stifle, if not stop altogether, peer-to-peer support. The usual support for pupils across, and within departments, will be inevitably replaced by isolated working based on a race to the next wage increase. Each teacher that receives a pay rise will do so, performance related or not, off the back of a colleague being told they will be held under inflation for another year. With only so much money in school funds, and with decreasing budgets at that, irrespective of excellent practice there will always be teachers missing out on deserved pay rises under this regime. The detrimental impact on the ethos, culture and atmosphere within schools will be immeasurable. Schools, already under huge pressures in terms of workload, stress and targets, will be operating in environments where cooperation is impossible and tensions are unbearable.

Aside from this, scrapping national pay structures with its clear career progression, will have a major impact on the ability of the sector to attract the best individuals to the post. The lack of certainty about career opportunities and a united approach within schools will certainly lead to many who would have a lot to offer teaching pursuing different avenues.

Far from raising standards this approach will drive down performance and attainment putting student needs behind the long, or perhaps more appropriately quick, march to privatisation that is really at the heart of Michael Gove’s reforms.

The Head

The policy will lead to some 25,000 schools across England and Wales having to negotiate pay policies with their staff as an ongoing practice. This is a huge bureaucratic burden for head teachers, governing bodies and local authorities. Many of which will not have the expertise or capacity to do so. This is not even considering the very difficult task of determining the factors of what equates to “good performance.” Is it exam results? Is it exam results relative to location? What about those working in challenging areas of high deprivation or behavioural concerns? And so on. There is no easy answer to this question.

School leaders responsibilities will become even further removed from the classroom, putting accountancy and business manager as more prominent roles on the headship agenda than educationalist, with students increasingly seen more as consumers and markets rather than individuals.

Still if that’s what parents want?

In July this year the NUT published a poll conducted by YouGov that showed only 25% of parents thought schools should set their own pay structures, this in contrast to the 60% supporting the continuation of existing pay models. Despite the smoke and mirrors that is being presented by those behind these plans the truth is very few people actually want the widespread push to de-regulation that we are seeing through the changes to pay structures.

The Evidence

What does the independent evidence say I hear you ask? The Education Endowment Foundation, part funded by Michael Gove’s very own Department for Education, argues the actual average impact of performance related pay “has been close to zero.” They are firm in the view that this will simply not raise standards. The OECD, a body whose research is regularly quoted by the Westminster coalition, states;

“A look at the overall picture reveals no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance related pay schemes”

The paper does however argue that the overall pay of teachers in comparison to a nations GDP does impact standards. The better paid the profession overall the better the system. A view that undermines the Treasury’s insistence on cutting pensions entitlements. The OECD’s bottom line is that;

“Countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform.”

As shown by American psychologist, Frederick Herzberg’s, ground breaking ‘Two Factory’ theory money is not the primary motivator for employees. Teachers are no different in this. In fact they are probably even less motivated by money having gone into public service with a desire to improve the life chances of those pupils they help develop. Echoing what the OECD says above it is professional empowerment that will create sustainable improvements in educational standards. Sadly, therein lies the crux of the problem in this policy. These reforms are systematically weakening the very aspects that have proven to support high achieving systems in other countries around the world. The big truth about Gove’s big lie is the only performance driven by performance related pay is poor performance.


Carrot Cake and Dirt; Cefn Mably Farm – Old St Mellons

1 Aug

The Place


Given the nature of the business you would hardly drop in to Cefn Mably just for a drink or slice of cake. The many, many children running around doesn’t make for a relaxing atmosphere. However, those of you who are parents will find it an ideal day out.

Between the farm petting zoo, outside parks, pony rides and indoor soft play area it is an absolutely great place to take a young child. Even if, like the Gryffalo, they are still building up the courage to get close to the animals.


This was far closer than the Gryffalo managed on our last visit. 

An added treat for parents is the really nice food available in the day and a well stocked farm shop.

The Hot Chocolate

I didn’t have a hot chocolate on this occasion as it was a pretty warm day, made even warmer by chasing the Gryffalo through soft play tunnels.

The Carrot Cake


I’m pleased to say that this cake lived up to its appearance.

The icing, which generally is a real make or break for any carrot cake, was very creamy. The cake was served very chilled, which often isn’t the case, and made the icing even more refreshing. The cake itself was moist and had a spiced yet subtle flavour.

All in all a really nice piece of cake.

The Rest

Yes I love carrot cake, but the Gryffalo is not quite as fussy on flavour. Turned my back on him for a second and he had a mouthful of dirt