Colleges Actively Diminish the Responsibility of Students

In their never-ending quest for OFSTED pacifing statistics, colleges and schools infantilise those who should be preparing to move into adulthood.

The independent and responsible students, that everyone in education claims to want to produce, are self-motivated, either by the learning they gain from hard work or by the promise of qualifications at the end of their courses. They have learnt from failures in the past that hard work pays off. But, with external examinations two or three times a year and the introduction of rewards, for meeting minimum standards instead of genuinely good acts, we make them more dependent on short term and external sources of motivation.

Declining Responsibility

OFSTED, the UK government watchdog for education, despairs that even the oldest students show little independence and responsibility for their learning, while at the same time congratulating schools on their rewards schemes and the efforts they make to stop disaffected students from failing despite themselves. Chocolates, certificates and extra trips are used in the attempt to buy responsible behaviour, in the mistaken attempt that unearned compliments are somehow a more clever way to manipulate children than the old fashioned idea of just deserts. But of course, withholding a promised reward is itself a punishment that worryingly displaces more desirable motivations.

The Withering of Internal Motivations

Even sixth formers seem to require external motivations to get up in the morning, now that reward systems are being extended to the over-sixteens. Is it really necessary to give certificates to everyone who is not misbehaving, just to try and encourage a few young people who would be better off out of education?

The governments now plans to force all under-eighteens to stay in education or formal training. This will, naturally, make things worse. Volunteers will value the education they get more than they would as conscripts, even if they would have volunteered anyway, nibbling away

At the moment, the once fearsome mock exams, used for decades to motivate students mid-course, are now a waste of time. More than ever, the refrain "is it important?" is heard, meaning "do these marks go towards my final grade?". The proliferation of externally set exams means that class tests are seen as unimportant even by bright students, so they lose their power to motivate. Low scores are seen as par for the course, since no preparation was done.

The Result

The govenrment's focus on reducing the embarrasingly large number of NEETs (youths not in employment, education or training) will work against the policy of producing ever more motivated and independent young people. The pressure on schools and colleges to stop teenagers from learning their own lessons from their choices and behaviour, since it risks the school's league table position, is counterproductive.

The best lessons will never come from a government initiative delivered in a classroom.

Read more!


Engineering Diplomas Only Partially Accepted by Universities

With both Oxford and Cambridge reporting that they will accept Advanced Engineering Diplomas for students entering their Engineering degree programmes, the top Russell Group Universities now have a unified response to the Government's flagship education policy. But it is not accepted without reservations, as
… it is essential that the diploma sufficiently equips candidates with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish on our courses and we want to be fully assured that they are sufficiently robust and challenging academically. Our member universities are in the process of assessing the academic rigour and general suitability of the diploma as a route to higher education.
In fact, although the Advanced Diploma will be considered worth three A Levels, anyone applying for Engineering degrees at a decent university will need to take A Levels alongside it.

Cambridge University says that "Students wishing to apply with this qualification must also have an A-level in physics", and Bristol University, for example, is equally blunt: while some Faculties will accept Diplomas as full qualification for entry, "Mechanical Engineering [will need an] Engineering Diploma grade A, plus A grades in A level Maths & Physics."

Ed Balls,the UK Schools Secretary, has said the the Diplomas will become "the qualification of choice", and Schools Minister Jim Knight believes that this
&hellip statement recognises that the diploma is a demanding qualification and that students who work hard and achieve highly in their diploma will be able to study at any university they choose.
I don't think A Level Physics will be replaced by the Diploma any time soon.

Read more!


'Coasting Schools' Attacked in the Latest Ministerial Balls-Up

The Government is tilting at windmills again with a ministerial attack on imagined weak schools. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has decided it is time to tackle good schools for not being good enough. The press release says
Ministers are taking action after analysis shows that one in seven pupils do not progress a whole attainment level in English between the ages of 11 and 14. Until now ‘coasting’ schools have often missed out on focused attention and have been hard for parents to identify because of apparently satisfactory results.
This is appallingly wrong-headed for two reasons.

The Limits of Testing

First, it is in the nature of the tests that some pupils are awarded the wrong level. If everyone advanced by a whole level in their understanding, then the limited reliability of the tests would mean that a third will get the wrong level (or, about one in six would appear to have stood still for three years.)

A year ago The Primary Review, an independent two-year long enquiry into primary education in England, reported in its research survey Assessment Alternatives for Primary Education that
Regardless of the consistency of individual test items, the fact that a test has to be limited to a small sample of possible items means that the test as a whole is a rather poor measure for any individual pupil. This is because a different selection of items would produce a different result. Wiliam (2001) estimated the difference that this would make for the end of Key Stage tests in England. With a test of overall reliability of 0.80, this source of error would result in 32 per cent of pupils being given the wrong level.
This made a big splash at the time, for example here in the Guardian.

'Value Added' Scores

Second, the coasting schools will be identified if they meet any of a list of criteria given in the same press release, including if
  • The school’s Contextual Value Added (CVA) score is significantly below average;
  • There has been little or no improvement in the school’s progression rates over several years;
So a school that is consistently doing well needs a kicking if pass rates don't go up year on year, or if that school's particular challenges don't feature in the CVA ranking model. OFSTED, England's schools inspectorate, themselves say that categorising schools on the basis of CVA scores is "meaningless", as described by the BBC news item last August:
… in an example OFSTED gives it may appear that a school with a CVA of 1,009 is doing better than another with a CVA of 992.

"However, that would be incorrect," [OFSTED] says in new guidance to schools about the use of data. "In both cases, the range between the upper and lower confidence limits includes 1,000, so both schools are achieving average outcomes; their performance is about as expected."

The guidance adds: "No meaning can be attached to an absolute CVA value, and any ranking of schools by their CVA values is meaningless."

Homework for Ed Balls

Ed Balls needs to visit schools, not to "target" them (a rather aggressive term for what should be a supportive programme), but to study some maths. It is a shame that Mr Balls learned enough arithmetic at school to manipulate figures, but did not make a sufficient study of how to handle anything but the simplest data.

Read more!


How to Recruit a Physics Teacher

Plenty could be done to relieve the Physics teacher shortage, but no-one in power really wants to solve the problem.

The Problem

A recent open evening at my college produced plenty of potential students to start Physics A Level next year, but there was a distinctive pattern in their origin: very many of them were currently at two schools on the other side of town and these talked enthusiastically about their current Physics teacher. However, there were hardly any from the very large comprehensive just a few hundred metres up the road (or indeed from several other close schools.)

Without being able to talk to those non-attenders, I cannot be sure, but one likely reason stands out. There is no Physics teacher at the school, and there hasn't been one for years.

Now, this is by no means uncommon. A major report on the supply and retention of Physics teachers published in the summer by The Centre for Education and Employment Research said
it was possible to predict with 84% accuracy whether a school would have any physics specialists, essentially from whether it had a sixth form, its region, whether it had specialist status in science, engineering or technology, and the ability of its pupils as indicated by GCSE results.

Few schools with high ability children, low eligibility for free school meals and low special needs were without a physics specialist, but this was true of over half those with poor GCSE results and a high intake with special needs. Of the school types, grammars, voluntary controlled and faith schools tended to come off best, and small schools worst.
My area has secondary schools up to age 16, with a sixth form college for the 16-18 age group. One school with a sixth form in a town close by has a full complement of Physics teachers, as does my sixth form college, though I think that each of the local 11-16 schools has few or none. I say 'I think', because it is difficult to find out without contacts in the schools: they don't exactly advertise the fact on their websites, especially now most of them offer 'separate sciences', including GCSE Physics. It would be embarrassing. What they do claim, however, is that they have no science teacher vacancies. I am suspicious of this practice, though, since the secondaries with sixth forms elsewhere in the county are content to publish a staff list complete with their specialisms (Biology, Chemistry or Physics) instead of the generic Science Teacher label. See my previous post on this problem: Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics.


Physics teachers, naturally, can make good use or their rarity. As most schools in the country are in want of a Physics teacher, they can pick and choose their school. A large proportion of Physics teachers want the intellectual stimulus of some A Level teaching and a good working environment, leaving 11-16 schools, especially in large urban areas where behaviour can be a problem, in a difficult position. The same report adds that
…turnover and moves to other schools were somewhat higher for physics specialists than for teachers in the other core subjects. The main driver of wastage in physics is retirement, which contributes a quarter of the total turnover and half the wastage. Nearly three times as many physics leavers as biology leavers were aged over 50. Some of the retirements were normal age, but most were premature, often stemming from a sense of dissatisfaction. About half the physics teachers were resigning to go to other state schools. The main reasons were promotion, re-location and wanting to get away from their present school.
This picking and choosing means that school are in a stiff competition for these people. But they often do not compete, so their pupils lose out.


In many other industries the shortage would be eased but matching the rewards to the importance and difficulty of recruitment, but as national pay bargaining with the unions rules out differential pay, schools must be imaginative:

  • Create 'Physics and Maths' posts and the associated training courses, to allow teachers to avoid having to teach the other sciences. Biology teaching is not very popular with Physics graduates - a quarter of Physics qualified trainees abandon physics to teach Maths.

  • Offer posts with responsibility. These come with extra money, and can be tailored to keep the burden low.

  • Make more use of the discretionary payments that are already allowed for recruitment and retention purposes, but which are rarely used.

  • Bite the bullet, and advertise higher salaries for Physics teachers willing to teach in schools that cannot otherwise attract applicants. This should encourage the small number of teachers spread out more evenly and according to demand.

  • Lastly, encourage more Physics graduates into teaching by moving to a fully differential pay structure.

Why are the first three points not used more often to ease shortages?

I suspect head teachers are keen to believe that all science teachers should be able to teach all the sciences. This is obviously untrue, but is a popular conceit (I have only come across one non-Physics colleague who could understand Newton's First Law of Motion, for example, despite that topic being an integral part of the balanced science curriculum taught by non-specialists to all 11-year-olds).

The final two points provide the only reliable medium to long term solution for the the crisis. However, the educational establishment, such as it is, has followed the tradition of being politically rather left of centre, and there is a strong feeling that all teachers should be treated equally. The leftist teaching unions, which have a strong interest in solving the problem of chronic specialist teacher shortages, reject the dilution of their power in national pay bargaining negotiations, are the main stumbling block on the way to ending the crisis in state schools, even the new City Academies which have flexibility in their pay awards.

Independent schools can already compete financially for teachers - how many of these schools are short of a Physics master - so extending the market in teachers to state comprehensive could reverse the long decline in specialist Physics teacher recruitment.

Read more!