Sunday 2 September 2012

GCSEs: Gold Standard Fraud.

This is the Sunday Mail this morning summarising David Cameron's article in the same paper:

" Mr Cameron’s article demonstrates that he is unapologetic about the tough marking which led to  this year’s complaints about GCSE grading. "

What is going on here?

Cameron is defending exam boards defrauding pupils by changing the nature of the grading while they were doing the course.

Quite independently of any argument or discussion about GCSEs, this was unjust and unfair. Any analogy with any other process or testing or 'assay' will find that if you change the system of grading or measuring halfway through,  your process and outcome will be wrong, faulty, unfair, unjust.

Let's be clear: in the name of 'standards' Cameron is defending what is empirically and morally wrong. It is a Gold Standard Fraud.

Now to the question of 'gold standard' exams.

First: what is going on here is a battle over 'knowledge' and 'skills'. For political reasons, the Conservatives are trying to claim that people leaving school are less 'knowledgeable'. You only have to go back to Gove's speech at the first Party Conference of this government to see that what he was attempting to demonstrate was that English and Welsh children were lacking in knowledge. (He drew unfair and false comparisons between specialist science students in the USA and younger general science students in Britain, for example.)

The new Draft Primary Curricula in English and Science (I can't speak for the Maths) represent a clear shift away from education 'process' to acquiring a fixed knowledge base eg in English, inserting quite arbitrary and unproven stuff to do with 'grammar' and 'spelling'.

Now let's take a step back from this and ask ourselves the education-and-society question here. Is there any evidence that the recent generation of students leaving school, college and university are in some way deficient, or in some way unable to do the jobs being asked of them for the reason that they lack a 'knowledge-base'? In other words, is there evidence at the end of the process of education and beyond in work, that society is suffering as a result of something that went on at the time when the Tories are claiming things declined (eg through 'grade inflation', 'lowering of standards' etc)?

If not, then there is no basis whatsoever in going on about it. If not, it is just a kind of older generation moan. If not, it is just a piece of political expedience in order to lever in to the curricula what are in effect nothing more than symptoms of prejudice.

Now let's ask the question - difficult I admit - about what is the nature of modern capitalism (or indeed any improvement we might imagine could or should take place (!)) and ask what kinds of capability and outlook and aptitudes will this society need and/or flourish as a consequence?

More 'knowledge'? Or some less definable 'qualities' like eg ability to move between different 'skill-sets', ability to work on one's own, ability to co-operate with strangers, ability to research from a variety of sources, ability to make comparisons, ability to browse and select - I'm sure people reading this could add more.

Now the 'knowledge' school retort (with some justification) that  you can't 'do' these kinds of skills separately from 'knowledge', you have to 'do' these skills, ('perform' them, if you like) on the raw material of knowledge. So you can't 'browse' unless you know what you're browsing and why.

We have a kind of chicken, egg and cooking problem! You can't cook unless you've got something to cook with.

However, the key question now is: what is the lead-in to the knowledge? Is the knowledge some fixed quantity and quality prescribed by 'experts' and/or anonymous government documents? Is the knowledge determined by anonymous examiners via the questions asked on exam papers and tests? Or is there a route to 'knowledge' through a different kind of approach altogether? Led by discussion between teachers and pupils based in part (but only in part) on previously agreed knowledges?

Is it possible to construct modules of learning (not all, but some) based on pupil-led inquiry?

Yes, clearly it is.

And when that happens, is it possible to up the quality of 'inquiry procedures' that the pupils learn as they set about trying to find out about stuff that they really want to find out about?

So when Cameron talks about 'gold standard', it is quite possible that he is talking about 'dud standard'. He is talking about the same old dreary 'knowledge-base' stuff that the Victorians obsessed about and which Dickens satirized in 'Hard Times' ie the assembling of 'facts' for facts-sake.

Further - when politicians go on about 'gold standard' exams, they deliberately obscure the full nature of exams. Again, for clarity: exams profess to examine the knowledge-base. Let's call that K1. But every exam has a language and methodology through which the candidate has to express K1. This language and methodology is itself a kind of knowledge. Let's call that K2.

Anyone who goes through the exam system knows full well that how you were taught K2 was absolutely crucial as far as your ultimate grade/mark/score is concerned. We can all tell stories of 'knowing the ropes', 'playing the game', 'having the knack' and/or of 'not understanding the question', 'misreading the rubric' and the like. We can also tell stories of old, experienced, wily teachers who put us through routines that were indeed all about K2. We can tell stories of trying extra-hard with children having difficulties to get them to learn K2 while pretending that what's important is this or that aspect of K1

I don't believe that this story has even been half told. Most people talk most of the time about exams and the lead-in to those exams as if K1 was what it was all about.

When politicians talk about 'gold standard' they are deliberately obscuring what is going on here. The whole structure of private education, private tuition and crammer schools (who spend a good deal of time working out how to 'inflate the grades' of their students, by the way) is based on an enormous amount of expertise in the area of teaching K2. They study K2 in great detail, right the way through to 'how to look good at an interview for an Oxford College' (at a cost), so that people with limited K1 can do better than someone else with limited K1 but who has no K2.