Obvious but obviousness of a tricky kind

Education in England

Successful teachers



When you talk about teaching it is difficult not to sound as if you are stating the obvious.  Because….well, you are.  And yet it is obviousness of a tricky kind.

Jonathan Smith, 2000, The Learning Game.

When I started teaching, at Eton in 1977, we had little in the way of induction or training. The first lesson I taught was the first lesson I had ever taught.  New teachers found a piece of paper from the Head Master in their pigeon holes; this is it:


Teaching methods

  • Insist on good discipline:
    • Silence when you are talking
    • Hand up before speaking
    • Work handed in on time
    • Decent dress
  • Don’t ignore things if they worry you: let the boys know that you are in charge and in control.
  • Vary the lessons as much as possible. Let it be a little unpredictable, with a variety of chalk-and-talk, question and answer, reading or noting from books etc. A mistake commonly made by the beginner is to lecture rather than to teach.
  • Try to start each lesson clearly (they are silent and, if you come in, lower Forms stand up) and with a clear statement about the aims of the lessons (“today we are trying to look at one of the most important aspects of x, etc.”).
  • PRAISE IS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN BLAME. Praise as much as possible. A weak boy will improve faster if you pick out the things he does well and emphasise these. Praise individuals in public. Praise the whole class if you can.
  • Be careful not to go too fast for the average boy. On the other hand, do not underestimate potential. The aim should be to achieve a top grade for every pupil in every subject.
  • Boys are bad at long pieces of work or open-ended tasks. Avoid these by setting shorter, specific tasks as much as possible.
  • Boys respond to hands-on, practical tasks.
  • From time to time check the “in-class” notes boys have made. Are they neat? Are they organised? Insist that boys bring the notes made in previous lessons so that their notes form a coherent sequence.
  • Give frequent tests in order to see whether the boys understand what you are teaching and to help them to memorise it.
  • Make a note if a boy misses a lesson. Check to see if he caught up the notes he missed. If it was a lot, you can help by photocopying.
  • KEEP A DIARY, IN WHICH YOU LIST EACH LESSON. This will enable you to record all the things you will need to do as you go along (e.g. check Fox Pitt’s clothing, receive James Smith’s late homework, start teaching the gerund, give a test).
  • Keep a record of work handed in late so you can more easily identify persistent offenders.
  • Once you have established control, you can relax much more. Be friendly, without being too familiar.
  • Don’t allow boys to treat you casually or talk to you disrespectfully.


Be there when they arrive

When all have arrived, or the start time is well passed, explain what you are going to do. Make a map of where they are sitting. Move any boys in positions you do not like. Tell them to stay in those positions for the next x weeks. Get boys to distribute any papers, books, files, dividers and labels. Books belong to the school but should have the boys’ name written in.

Issue a syllabus sheet and any other notes you wish (it saves time if you can do any hole-punching). Now insist on silence. Go over the times of your lessons with them. Tell them the days when prep will be due in. Go over the syllabus sheet: IT IS IMPORTANT THAT ALL PUPILS HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF THE STRUCTURE OF THE SYLLABUS FOR THE TERM AND THE YEAR. If necessary, set the first homework and/or essay. Tell them which books you want them to bring to lessons (if any).

Boys in the Lower Sixth need to be told:

  • How to make notes
  • How to write essays
  • Where to find books and magazines relevant to the course


Early days

In the early days it is important to be hard of heart. Assume that boys will try to misbehave. It is a fact that, once a pattern of misbehaviour has been established over one or two lessons, it is very hard to fully recover the situation – making teaching miserable. It is easy to relax from a position of firm discipline: boys realise you are not the monster they thought you were but the respect you established in the early lessons remains. It is difficult to go the other way – from indiscipline to control. It is possible to prove this to oneself even within the context of a single lesson.

For a young teacher, acting the part of the disciplinarian is unlikely to come naturally. The important thing to remember is that it IS acting – and the better the act, the more effective you will be.  You need to have an authoritative voice.

Personality before punishments

As far as possible use personality as a way of enforcing control. The system of punishments should be used, but only after the nasty look, quiet word, or clear warning have failed. Formal punishments are the final resort. This use of personality requires self-confidence and it will only work if the boys see you as a credible figure. They have to believe that you will punish them severely if they do not react to the “early warning signs” you should be giving.

Establishing standards

From the word go, and particularly in the first fortnight of any term, you need to establish certain standards of behaviour. In particular, you must not allow boys to talk to each other if you are trying to teach. You should not allow several boys to speak at once: if they want to say something, they ought to put up their hands. Late work is not acceptable, nor is filthy clothing. Boys who are late for a lesson should be required to explain themselves. You must decide for yourself how far you are prepared to go before you actually punish a boy EXCEPT in a case where a boy is rude to you and other boys know he has been rude: such a boy must be punished if you are to retain credibility.

Never make threats you will not carry out.


This was all wise, and easier to appreciate now than it was then. 


I went straight from university to teaching via a short spell buying and selling coconut out of a railway arch in Waterloo.  I had no intention of remaining a teacher but I realised very quickly that this was the perfect job for me.  I was an obsessively keen geographer and just loved working with my subject, learning more every day.  As the years rolled by I would spend about half the school holidays reading and preparing lessons…..bliss.


I loved the acting element. Every lesson could be a show.  Every lesson could be something incredible.
I loved the fact that I could make a huge difference.  I knew how to do well in exams and I knew how to teach my pupils to do the same.  I loved the competitive element – could my classes do better than other sets?  I loved the rapport with pupils and colleagues.
Finally I loved the fact that I was part of a good system – a very good school but more importantly a very good department.  In the 1980s over 100 boys chose A-level geography in my school each year, making it the largest such department in the country.  We were a strong team who made the subject interesting and fun.


Research shows that the most important influence on pupil progress is the quality of the teacher, as opposed to things like the school type or the brilliance of the head.  We know that with a weak teacher a pupil makes 6 months progress in a year compared to the average. With a great teacher a pupil makes 18 months progress in a year – so the difference between the two is 300% (Slater, Davies and Burgess, 2009).

It is rather devastating that it is so difficult to identify good teachers at interview. A teacher’s own educational record does not correlate well with an ability to teach. This is why it is important to see applicants for teaching jobs teach classes before they are appointed.  One of my heads of modern languages was fairly quiet and rarely engaged in conversation – it was hard to see him being an inspiring teacher.  Yet in fact he was one of the most inspiring teachers his fortunate pupils would ever come across – dynamic, animated, tough, and brilliant at his own subject.  But based solely on an interview he would have failed.

Schools often ask pupils to comment on the performance of prospective teachers’ sample lessons – possibly a mistake because pupils tend to favour sample lessons for the wrong reasons.
One important finding from research is that, while all teachers improve a bit with experience over their first five years, the best teachers after five years are the ones who were already good in their first year. Teachers can be improved, but the best way of ensuring you have good staff is to appoint the best ones in the first place.


When I started teaching I was on a two-year probationary period.  The purpose of a probationary period is for an employer to determine if a (new) employee is suitable for a job and for an employee to determine if they want to stay in the job. There is no statutory limit on the length of a probationary period but, given the purpose of probationary periods, it is expected that employers will be reasonable when determining this.

Let me echo Jonathan Smith’s words: much that one can say about teaching is obvious.  But if it is so obvious why is everyone not as good as Jonathan was as an English teacher at Tonbridge?  Because implementing the obvious is difficult.  I did woodwork O-level and love DIY so I completely understand how to make a table, but I also know that making a table is very difficult, very skilful and takes years of practice to do well.  I cannot make a table.


So what does the research tell us about teacher effectiveness?


All teacher effectiveness studies suffer from a flaw identified by Brophy (1979), among others.  After reviewing the extant research on teaching he said, “The influence of context is being recognized as more and more important. [Thus] there do not appear to be any universal teaching competencies . . . that are appropriate in any and all circumstances.”  In other words, teacher A may be better than teacher B with low ability or disruptive pupils, teacher B may be better than teacher A with able and well-behaved pupils.


Nevertheless, there are some useful pointers in the research.


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Elliot Major, L. (2014), What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Sutton Trust.


This is a well-known meta-survey of over 200 previous pieces of research into teacher effectiveness.  The authors found that the two factors with the strongest evidence of improving pupil attainment were:


  • teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions
  • the quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning, the use of assessment, reviewing previous learning, using model answers, and giving adequate time to practice topics so that pupils firmly grasp the concepts.


Four other factors associated with good teaching were:


  • classroom climate – the quality of the relationship between the teacher and pupils, a teacher with high expectations but one who recognises pupils’ self-worth, a teacher who attributes success to effort rather than ability.


  • classroom management – a teacher who manages behaviour well, who makes efficient use of lesson time, whose rules are all aimed at maximising learning.


  • teacher beliefs – the best teachers know why they are doing things in the way they are. In maths teaching for example the best teachers know what good numeracy looks like and they know how children learn it.


  • professional behaviour – good teachers reflect on and develop professional practice, support colleagues and liaise with parents.


Specific practices which have good evidence of improving attainment include:


  • challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson
  • asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students
  • spacing-out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting
  • making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material


Common practices which do not improve pupil results include:


  • using praise lavishly
  • allowing pupils to discover key ideas by themselves
  • grouping students by ability
  • presenting information to students based on their “preferred learning style”
  • using re-reading and highlighting as ways to memorise material
  • ensuring pupils are active rather than listening passively if you want them to remember something
  • efforts to raise confidence and low aspirations



How does one assess teaching quality?  Coe et al suggest there are three ‘moderate validity’ methods:


1 lesson observation.  Lesson observation is used in most schools to help teachers improve.  It is also used by inspectors to gauge the quality of teaching.  If lesson observation is to be used the observers need to be trained.


Lesson observation has two weaknesses – it is quite subjective and is therefore not ideal if the results are high stakes, such as determining a teacher’s pay.  Secondly, having an adult in the room scrutinising you will inevitably affect the teacher’s performance – you are unlikely to see a ‘typical’ lesson.


2 value-added models measure progress over time.  You would never judge teachers on their raw exam results because some teachers teach subjects taken by very bright pupils (like Latin) and can expect top grades.  Another teacher may teach a bottom ability maths set and can expect relatively poor grades.


Value-added measures the progress a child makes from one year to another relative to the ability of other children who were at a similar starting point at the beginning.  So we can measure progress from Key Stage 1 (age 7) to Key Stage 2 (age 11) and so on.


Some teachers get better value-added than others but variation in value-added teacher by teacher is difficult for researchers because it requires them to obtain class lists – which is not publically available information.

The validity of value-added analysis is affected by various things:

  • the validity of the tests which measure the child’s level at the beginning and end of the chosen cycle. If the tests are badly designed, the value-added data will have less value.
  • David Berliner (2014), a professor at Arizona State University, found that individual teacher’s value-added scores were very variable according to the class they were teaching. This was because of the impact of exogenous variables such as peer classroom effects, school compositional effects and characteristics of the neighbourhoods in which students live.  Girls, for example, work harder and make more progress than boys.  So when a teacher has more girls in a class they achieve more value-added. A weak teacher with an able class may achieve more progress than a strong teacher with a low ability class.  Teachers are not the only agent affecting student achievement in their classrooms.
  • the quality of the child’s previous If the child had a brilliant previous teacher he will already be at a higher level at the start of the cycle than he ‘should be’ and this will depress the value-added score of the next teacher.  Westminster School in London sometimes has poor A-level value-added.  A-level value-added is based on progress since GCSE but in this case is hard to achieve because their excellent teachers ensure that their pupils achieve the top grades in most subjects at GCSE.
  • the size of the group being looked at. Value-added measures are not statistically significant if the group size is small. In a small class just one or two children can have a big effect on the average value-added.
  • more able children tend to get better value-added than less able.
  • another problem with appraising teachers by means of value-added measures is that this assumes that the thing which determines pupils’ learning is the teacher.  Hirsch (2016) makes the point that in English language teaching particularly, a high proportion of what children know comes from their parents.  The value-added measures are to some extent measuring the effectiveness of the child’s parents.  Teachers of middle-class children will inevitably gain much higher value-added scores.


3 student ratings.  Pupil ratings of teachers are used in increasing numbers of schools and in all universities.


Coe et al also concluded that three other methods of assessing teachers had limited validity:


1 Head teacher judgement.

2 Teacher’s self-report.

3 Analysis of lesson plans, teacher assignments and pupils’ work.




Sammons, P., Kington, A., Lindorff-Vijayendran, A. and Ortega, L, 2014, Inspiring teachers: perspectives and practices, CfBT

36 teachers nominated by their schools as being inspiring were observed to explore their practices.  17 of these were then interviewed and there was a survey of 203 pupils.

The main characteristics of inspiring teachers were found to be:

*enthusiasm for teaching.

*positive relationships with children.

*they are committed professionals who continue to learn and improve their own practice.


The main characteristics of inspiring lessons were found to be:


  • enthusiasm
  • good behaviour management
  • clear instructions
  • good lesson pace
  • gave formative feedback
  • intellectual challenge – students are stretched
  • high expectations
  • trust between the teacher and pupils so that pupils are not embarrassed to speak up
  • goal-focussed activity – they never lose sight of the aim which is making progress in the subject
  • using a wide range of teaching strategies to create variety


Other characteristics of good lessons were:


  • asking pupils questions by name and encourage all pupils to contribute
  • pupils knew what to do at the beginning and end of lessons without being reminded
  • there was a strong sense of teacher authority
  • teachers had strong subject knowledge
  • lessons were made enjoyable




Sammons, P., The EPPSE project, a lecture in Oxford, 24 May 2016


The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) project is a research study that has followed the progress of 3000+ children since 1997 from the age of 3 to 16 years.


They found that good GCSE outcomes correlate with, in rank order:


1 Schools which placed a big emphasis on learning.

2 Schools with good behaviour.

3 The amount of homework time in year 9.  25% of boys spent 1-2 hours a night compared to 32% of girls, one factor explaining the gender gap in results.

4 The qualities of the head teacher.

5 The school’s physical environment.

6 A feeling that the school valued students.


Pupils on free school meals have a less positive view of school than others: they were less happy and had less academic self-confidence.  This tended to reinforce their disadvantage.




Matthews, P., Rea, S., Hill, R., and Gu, Q, 2014, Freedom to lead: a study of outstanding primary school leadership in England, National College for Teaching and Leadership

The authors did an analysis of 20 outstanding primary schools as well as 84 Ofsted inspection reports.  The findings were:

1 The basic tenets of the best primary school heads are:

*all children can succeed – most can reach level 4 by age 11.
*primary schools determine life chances.  Children who do not reach level 4 in English and maths at 11 struggle with GCSEs.
*background should not limit outcomes.  Some schools with many disadvantaged pupils achieve excellent results.
*successful schools do the right things consistently well
*almost all teachers can be good or better.  CPD matters.
*teaching needs clear learning objectives, effective instruction for all, feedback and assessment
*school leadership is key to raising standards
*the best heads model good teaching
*the best support for teachers comes from other expert practitioners
*the quality of the curriculum makes a big contribution to the children’s interest, engagement and learning.

2 The best heads

*have a single-minded focus on teaching and learning.

*are driven, determined and committed.

*have high expectations.

*have a no-excuses policy.

*are good at communicating.

*trust and empower staff


3 What a leader needs to do depends on the stage the school is at.  An inadequate school needs rapid control of behaviour, firm action.  A requires improvement school needs to build capacity, harness good practice, raise aspirations.  A good school needs refinement – ensuring all teaching and learning is good, ensuring the needs of every pupil is met.  An excellent school needs renewal – building on outstanding practice.



Common features of outstanding teaching and learning were felt to be:

  • Stimulating and enthusiastic teaching which interests, excites and motivates pupils and accelerates their learning
  • High expectations of what pupils can do
  • Consistency in the quality of teaching across the school
  • Development of good learning habits with many opportunities for pupils to find things out for themselves
  • Highly structured approaches to reading, writing and mathematics
  • Well-planned lessons that provide for the differing needs of pupils
  • Stimulating classroom environment
  • Frequent praise and a valued reward system
  • Well-trained and deployed teaching assistants
  • A close check on learning during lessons, with effective marking and assessment
  • Clear evidence of progress




Ofsted, 2009, Twenty outstanding primary schools: excelling against the odds.

Common features of outstanding teaching in these excellent schools were:

*stimulating and enthusiastic teaching
*high expectations of what pupils can do
*they develop good learning habits with opportunities for pupils to find out things for themselves
*they have a highly structured approach to reading, writing and maths.
*well-planned lessons which provide for the differing needs of pupils
*they arrange a stimulating classroom environment
*they use praise and a valued reward system
*they use well-trained and well-deployed teaching assistants
*they closely check learning during lessons, with effective marking and assessment


Key principles of successful primary leadership were found to be:


At the start of headship:


  • Restore order and calm so that teaching and learning can take place.
  • Ensure that high expectations are set and that everyone – pupils, parents, staff and governors – is clear what they are.
  • Get the pupils and parents involved, engaged and committed so that they cannot later complain that they “did not know”.
  • Lead by example; demonstrate the behaviours you expect of others and show that you are prepared to do anything that might be asked of them.
  • Set and demonstrate high standards for teaching and learning.
  • Look early on at the curriculum, the school day and pupils’ experiences of the school.
  • Monitor and evaluate every aspect of the school’s performance.
  • Above all, gauge the ability of the staff to adopt consistent approaches in: teaching and learning, in applying policies – especially concerning behaviour – and in routines and basic practices.


Five years on, a greater emphasis is detectable on:

  • The quality of the curriculum and the learning environment;
  • All aspects of assessment for learning, especially in the setting of learning objectives, marking and feedback;
  • Regular reviews of the progress of individual pupils.



Atteberry, A., Loeb, S., Wyckoff, J., 2013, Do First Impressions Matter? Improvement in Early Career Teacher Effectiveness, National Bureau of Economic Research


Using data from New York City the authors used value-added data to measure the effectiveness of over 3000 teachers of maths and English over the first five years of their career in teaching.  They found:

  • most teachers improve with experience
  • the teachers who were most effective to start with remained the most effective after 5 years. A teacher’s performance in their first two years of teaching is a far better predictor of future performance than anything else.

This suggests that it is difficult to improve a teacher and that a beginner-teacher starts with or without the attributes necessary for success – such as subject knowledge, empathy and the ability to communicate well.



Hattie, J., 2009, Visible Learning, Routledge

Hattie, J., 2012, Visible Learning for Teachers, Routledge


John Hattie is Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Visible Learning is a synthesis of more than 50,000 studies covering 240 million pupils.  Hattie compares the impact of many influences on students’ achievement and finds:

  • What doesn’t work? Reducing class size, individualized instruction, extra-curricular programmes, ability grouping, student control over learning, summer schools, using different learning styles
  • What’s neither bad nor good? Team teaching, open vs. traditional classes
  • What helps a bit? Enquiry-based teaching, computer-assisted instruction, homework
  • What helps a bit more? Cooperative learning, direct instruction
  • What helps a lot? Clear feedback to students, good student-teacher relationships, high expectations for each student, the teaching of study skills, the teaching of learning strategies

In Visible Learning for Teachers Hattie’s central point is that the most effective teachers are those who focus on the impact their teaching is having – they constantly assess their own work as well as that of their pupils. Most of the most effective teaching methods are not accidents: they are deliberate strategies adopted by teachers who are assessing the impact of their work.

The best teachers:

  • do not necessarily have better subject-knowledge than less good teachers but they do have a superior understanding of how to organize and use their subject knowledge. They are, for example, better able to combine new subject knowledge with pupils’ prior learning.  They are better able to relate their subject teaching to other subjects the students are studying.  They know where pupils are most likely to stumble.
  • they create a classroom atmosphere in which it is acceptable to make mistakes. This is important because pupils learn from mistakes only if they are not nervous about them.  They create a climate where pupils want to learn and do well.
  • they seek and use feedback about the effectiveness of their teaching so they know when interest is waning or when pupils do not fully grasp a concept.
  • they believe all their pupils can do well. They involve and respect their pupils.
  • they enable their pupils to not only do well in assessments but to develop deep understanding of the subject and a desire to succeed. They set challenging goals rather than ‘do your best’ goals.

The best teachers are passionate about teaching and learning.  ‘The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning…’

Hattie’s results suggest that school reform should concentrate on what is going on in the classroom and not on structural reforms.

Hattie is also completely right when he points out that reading his book will not make much difference to most teachers.  He says: ‘Talking is one thing; action is the other.  To put the ideas in this book…..into action requires having an intention to change, having knowledge of what successful change would look like, and having a safe opportunity to trial any new teaching methods. This often requires some specific coaching.’

Gates Foundation, 2010, Learning about Teaching: Initial findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project.

This study estimated the value-added results of 3000 teachers and also asked the students to complete surveys of their experiences in these classes.  In the classes with the most effective teachers pupils said that:

1 Teachers kept control: ‘students in this class treat the teacher with respect.’

2 Teachers care for pupils: ‘my teacher really tries to understand how students feel about things.’

3 Teachers explain things clearly.

4 Teachers raise the bar: ‘in this class we learn a lot every day.’

5 Teachers make lessons interesting.

6 Teachers allow students to speak up and share their ideas.

7 Teachers check to make sure the pupils all understand.

However, a continuation of this study (2012) found quite weak correlations between multiple measures of teacher behaviour and student test scores. For example, in mathematics, across several years, the correlation of teacher behaviour with pupil value-added scores ranged from 0.12 to 0.25. Across different classes taught in the same year by the same teacher the correlations ran from 0.16 to 0.26 – all very low.


The reason the correlation was weak was that factors other than the teacher have a big impact on pupils’ value added scores.  High ability classes nearly always make more progress than low ability, for example.  Identifying the characteristics of ‘the best’ teachers may be the holy grail, but it is extremely difficult to achieve.


Doug Lemov and pedagogy

Successful teachers do not all use the same methods with children.  However, most would agree with the pedagogical techniques described in Doug Lemov’s books Teach like a Champion and Practice Perfect.   Doug has observed hundreds of the most successful teachers in the most difficult schools in America, working out in detail what makes them so great.  He has isolated the micro-techniques which make all the difference to student learning and behaviour, such as careful routines for the distribution and collection of classroom materials.   He recommends specific drills as a way of practising these techniques.

Good teachers can become great teachers – if they practice the Lemov micro-techniques.

Many of Lemov’s techniques are used in the schools described on pages xx –xx.  All teachers should have a copy of Lemov’s books and the accompanying dvds.


Teacher training and CPD


In England there are numerous types of teacher training:


Number of trainees recruited academic year 2014/15


Post-graduate courses

Provider-led 16,986   These are universities or SCITTs (school centred initial teacher training) groups.  These are called ‘accredited providers’.

School Direct (unsalaried) 6,451 These are based in schools and pair up with universities or SCITTs.

School Direct (salaried)     2,781



Undergraduate courses  5,938


Additional Routes

Teach First              3875

Troops to Teachers 936


Total                     32 543


All types of teacher training lead to one thing: Qualified Teacher Status.  In universities the course is often called a PGCE (post-graduate certificate in education) but the PGCE gives you QTS which is what matters.


The Carter Review of teacher training (2015) found that the average quality of teacher training was quite good, although the number of different routes was confusing.  Their main concern was the absence of subject-knowledge development on some training courses – a grave omission and something which distinguishes England from countries thought to have strong teacher training like Finland and Singapore.  Teachers with a degree in a subject often lack the breadth of knowledge to cope with the national curriculum.  Primary teachers, especially, need breadth across a range of subjects.


Teacher-shortage subjects like maths and physics are often taught at secondary level by teachers with a degree in a different subject.  Such teachers need a great deal of subject-knowledge training which they often do not get at present.


Nor, the review found, is there enough emphasis on behaviour management or on child and adolescent development or on assessment methods.  Poor behaviour is a common reason why teachers leave the profession so is clearly an essential element of training.



In Beyond the Plateau (2016) Matt Hood blamed poor quality CPD for the fact that many teachers are not progressing to become the excellent teachers he claims they could be.  He argues that there are three myths that need busting.

  1. Teachers are born, not made
    Matt makes the point that successful teachers are of many types which it why it is odd to believe that it is the teacher’s inborn personality that matters. What is more, his experience shows that good training can create very effective teachers.
  2. If you know it, you can teach it
    The second myth is that if you know something you can teach it. No, you have to know how to teach a subject. Subject knowledge is not enough.
  3. Teaching isn’t hard
    No, teaching is a phenomenally hard task that takes years to master.


Compared to middle leadership, classroom teaching lacks a clear progression route to mastery; its lower status and pay progression is poorer. ‘


With these thoughts in mind he called for a new US-style institute for advanced teaching in the UK specifically for staff in challenging schools and run by successful schools in disadvantaged areas.   This would be far more effective that the current scatter-gun approach of CPD.


The question of teacher autonomy and teacher quality


When I started teaching many independent schools quite deliberately avoided applicants for jobs who had had training.  It was felt that good teachers could do the job based on their subject knowledge and pedagogy was something you could pick up as you went along.


Michaela Community School (page xx) is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  They believe that there is a specific way of teaching which is effective and that it is essential for all their teachers to teach in the same way.  So they are trained to teach in this manner.  The Michaela approach is arguably the safest – you know exactly how each teacher should be performing.  It means that you don’t have to rely of ‘outstanding’ teachers to do the job.  Outstanding teachers are thin on the ground and it is more secure to take teachers with plenty of potential but limited experience and train them in ‘the Michaela way.’  The quality of a teacher is not a permanent given.


Does this rob the teacher of autonomy?  Only to some degree.  To be a good pianist you have to be taught to read music and play the piano.  Pianists all over the world are being taught to read the notes and press the keys in a similar way.  Ultimately this releases their creativity rather than stifling it.  Michaela teachers have plenty of opportunity to express their individuality, to interact with individual pupils, to develop their subject knowledge, to delight in their pupils’ successes.


Teacher quality is not the only influence on pupils’ achievements

Chingos and Whitehurst (2012) have shown that there are two variables which determine how well pupils learn: teacher quality and the curriculum/syllabus they teach.  A good teacher asked to teach a weak syllabus may be less effective than a weaker teacher asked to teach an excellent syllabus.

In the USA some of the most successful projects designed to help young children from poor homes have been based not on teacher quality but on highly scripted, high quality syllabuses for teaching reading (Hirsch, 2016).


Independent learning – presenting pupils with complex problems and getting them to try to work out the answers – is not a good way to teach.  Pupils have to be shown explicitly what to do and then replicate it for themselves.  Highly formalised, teacher-led instruction is often the best form of teaching as Daisy Christodoulou explains in Seven Myths about Education (2014).

This is the form of teaching Winston Churchill had at Harrow:

By being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys.  They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English.  We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English.  Mr Somervell – a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English.  He knew how to do it.  He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. 

Mr Somervell had a system of his own.  He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue and green inks.  Subject, verb, object:  each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill.  We did it almost daily.  As I remained in the bottom form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it.  I learned it thoroughly.


Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence.  And when in after years my school fellows, who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams, had to come down again to common English to earn their living, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. 


So naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English.  I would make them all learn English: and then I would let all the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.  But the only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English.  I would whip them hard for that.


He went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.


Nick Gibb MP said in a speech in July 2016:

One English educationist, now residing at an American university, appeared in the TES in December arguing she would “ban” times table tests, and told the Telegraph that they have nothing to do with mathematics. Earlier last year, Conrad Wolfram wrote in the Financial Times that calculation is an “obsolete skill”, thanks to technological advances of the 21st century.

That last comment reminded me of an influential pamphlet about the future of mathematics entitled ‘I do, and I understand’. This pamphlet suggests that in the age of the computer and the “simple calculating machine”, mental arithmetic has become a thing of the past. It was written in 1967. Such a romantic view was wrong then, and I believe it is wrong today.

Five decades of research into cognitive science, as reviewed by the American psychologists James Royer and Loel Tronsky, shows that there is a positive relationship between computational automaticity and complex mathematical problem-solving skills.

Drill is a dirty word outside the army and computational automaticity is not much better.  But drill is effective and can be enjoyable in the right hands.  The crucial thing is to pitch drill at the right level…..not so hard as to be impossible, nor so easy as to be simplistic.  It needs to give pupils the satisfying feeling of conquering a tricky problem.  And to be fair drill will be much more useful for a primary maths teacher than an A-level English teacher.

Why are so many people worried about drill?  Because it doesn’t allow pupils to think for themselves, it doesn’t encourage independent learning, it prevents debate, it doesn’t do all those things education should do like develop good character and conduct.  All this is true…which is why drill can only ever be part of the pedagogy.


Digital technology

In 2012 the Education Endowment Foundation in collaboration with Durham University (Higgins, Xiao, & Katsipataki, 2012) conducted a meta-analysis synthesising 48 different studies that attempted to quantify the effect of various different technology-based programmes. The different programmes had varying effect sizes ranging from -0.03 to 1.05 (-0.03 being the only negative score which of course means a negative effect). The higher the score the bigger the effect.  8 of the 48 studies had scores above 0.5, meaning the effect was relatively large. The remainder were below 0.5 meaning the effect is quite small.  The summary finding was that overall the benefits of technology are positive but there are other types of learning interventions (such as peer tutoring) that tend to enhance learning to a greater degree.

A paper by Cambridge International Exams (Elston, 2013) shows that teachers (the people that should know) have confidence in the potential of technology. The vast majority of teachers surveyed believed that technology helps to develop skills that students need in the real world and also that technology creates more confident, engaged and motivated students. They think the main benefit of technology for them is access to a wealth of content. In addition, the ability to connect classrooms around the world was a most appealing technological outcome.

However, recent PISA results (OECD, 2015), suggest that whilst limited use of computers at school may be better than not using computers at all, using them more intensively than the current OECD average tends to be associated with significantly poorer student performance. In addition the report states that students who spend more than six hours on line per weekday outside of school are particularly at risk of reporting that they feel lonely at school, and that they often arrived late for school or skipped days of school.

The School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative in the USA (Carter, Greenberg and Walker, 2016)  conducted a study that prohibited computer devices in randomly selected classrooms of an introductory economics course at the United States Military Academy. Average final exam scores among students assigned to classrooms that allowed computers were 18% of a standard deviation lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers.  They found that students who were using their tablet or computer were sometimes surfing the Internet, checking email, messaging with friends, or even completing homework for that class or another class.

Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) found that students required to use computers are not as effective at taking notes as students required to use pen and paper.  Students who took their notes by hand tended to understand and remember the lecture better than those who had typed.  Mueller suggests that this is because the students who typed mindlessly typed everything without really listening to what was said.

A leading figure in the field of research into the efficacy of computers for learning is Anne Mangen from the Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger in Norway.  Her research helps to explain why handwriting is more effective than typing when trying to learn.  When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback are inferior to those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

Mangen (2016) also compared two groups of students, one of which was asked to read a story on a Kindle and one of which was asked to read the same story in booklet form.  Those who read the story in booklet form were better able to recall and sequence the plot than those who had read the story on the Kindle.

Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University (2011) demonstrated that if people think that they can look up a fact again later, they are far less likely to remember it. They do remember how or where to find the information, they just don’t remember the information itself.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University published a large-scale study into the effectiveness of online school courses.  They found that the results were consistently bad.  The online schools relied on students driving their own learning and often determining the pace at which they advanced – things which progressive teachers sometimes see as huge advantages.  The biggest problem identified by the researchers was the difficulty in keeping online pupils focused on their work.  ‘Academic benefits from online schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.’ (Woodworth, 2015).

So it is difficult to conclude that technology enhances learning and development. What perhaps one can say is that implementation and other practical considerations such as cost are key to ensuring technology approaches to teaching are effective. The EEF report (Higgins et al., 2012) suggests several success factors for effective implementation:

  • Collaborative use of technology (in pairs or small groups) is usually more effective than individual use.
  • Technology can be used very effectively as a short but focused intervention to improve learning. Sustained use over a longer period is usually less effective at improving attainment.
  • Remedial and tutorial use of technology can be particularly effective for lower attaining pupils, SEN pupils or pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Technology is best used as a supplement to normal teaching rather than as a replacement for it.
  • Technological benefits in terms of attainment tend to be greater in mathematics and science (compared with literacy for example).


BESA research (British Educational Suppliers Association, 2015) showed that a lack of suitable bandwidth remains a significant barrier to adoption of mobile technologies. In addition it suggested that 88% of primary schools regard the management and security of tablets as a barrier to adoption. In secondary schools the barriers, in order of significance, were found to be training and support (91%), funding (83%) and management and security (83%).



Maths mastery


In 2016 the Government announced that primary schools in England would move towards teaching maths using the ‘mastery’ principles found in east and south-east Asian countries such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea and China. PISA results suggest that by age 15 students from these countries are on average up to three years ahead in maths compared to 15 year olds in England.



How do they do it?  Asian teachers have an expectation that all pupils are capable of achieving high standards in mathematics.  Pupils progress through the curriculum content at the same pace, taught together from the front of the class and using textbooks which have been carefully designed.  Weaker pupils are supported and more able children are given work to deepen their understanding.  But they all move through the course together.   Pupils’ difficulties or misconceptions are identified by the teacher and addressed – commonly through individual or small group support later the same day.


Teaching is underpinned by methodical curriculum design and supported by carefully crafted lessons and excellent textbooks to foster deep conceptual knowledge. The course is taught in small steps each of which must be mastered before pupils move on to the next stage.  Pupils learn times tables at an early stage and are fluent in them.


Practice and consolidation play a central role. Carefully designed variations in questions builds fluency and understanding of mathematical concepts. Teachers use precise questioning in class to test conceptual and procedural knowledge and assess pupils regularly to identify those requiring intervention so that all pupils keep up.  So one of the key aspects of Maths mastery is taking the syllabus slowly – key concepts have to be practised a great deal before a student can move on.  Knowledge has to turn into understanding.


Maths mastery has been pioneered by the ARK schools in England and is now becoming widespread.




Treating teachers well.

When I went to teach at Holland Park School in the 1990s the first thing I noticed was that the staff were treated quite badly.  The staff room was a ghastly place with broken chairs everywhere, the staff loos were worse, and teachers had to pay for their own coffee at break.

Most schools have now grasped that this sort of behaviour is the road to ruin.  Small sums spent on staff welfare, like pastries in the staff room on a Monday, send a signal.  It is minor expenditure which will be repaid a thousand times over.

John Tomsett, the head of Huntington School, York, is good on this (Tomsett, 2015): the value of thank you notes, of free tea and coffee, of flowers sent to staff who are ill.  The value of a special staff lunches and celebrations.  Michaela School (page xx) has taken steps to review the workload of teachers and limit all those activities which generate limited returns relative to the time they take.  If individual teachers matter more than anything else, they need to be looked after.

Performance-related pay

Schools struggle with the performance-related pay, for three reasons.

1 Collegiality.  School teachers work in teams and are often good friends.  They support each other.  They dislike the idea that the head of department (often a department of just two or three staff) will be asked to make judgements about the others which will affect their take-home pay.  Because of collegiality such judgements are unlikely to be impartial any way.  The head of department regards it as her duty to defend her staff not stitch them up.

2 Motivation. As Daniel Pink describes in his book (Pink, 2009), teachers are not motivated by money.  They are motivated by the drive for autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Autonomy means allowing staff choosing for themselves the best way of achieving targets set by the school. Trying to control people too much lowers motivation.

Mastery means doing work which is demanding, which produces complete engagement, which stretches people in a way that produces a sense of focus and satisfaction.

Purpose means having a strong sense that what you are doing is worthwhile and important.

3 Bureaucracy. If performance-related pay is to be fair it requires carefully constructed systems, reliable appraisal and a great deal of discussion.  What do you do about the teacher who does little outside the classroom but gets great exam results?  Or the teacher who got brilliant results with one class, poor with another?  PRP is complicated and schools lack the resources and time to set up appropriate systems.


Things which don’t work

Here a few things which I have been told teachers should do but which don’t, in my experience, work…

1 Group work
Group work doesn’t always work for three reasons. Firstly, it assumes that children are capable of sitting in a group and seriously discussing something with limited adult supervision (if there are, say, 28 children in groups of four the teacher cannot supervise seven groups simultaneously). Boys in particular do not generally want to do school work – it is something which has to be forced upon them by the personality of the teacher or by pressure. The learning output from group work is always limited for boys.
Secondly, in any group there is quite often one person who is prepared to have a stab at doing the work. As soon as that person is identified and takes a leading role, the rest of the group just copy her. It might be claimed that the great thing about group work is that children learn from each other, but they don’t….they learn to disengage and then to chat or just cheat.
Thirdly, in a group of four sitting in a square one pupil is facing the teacher, wherever she is standing, and the rest are not. One pupil always has his back to the teacher. This makes control and communication much harder.

2 Double desks
One consequence of the need to do group work is that schools buy double desks (two children sit side by side): it is easier to organise group work if you have double desks. One double desk is also cheaper than two single desks. It takes up less space, so classrooms can be smaller. But double desks allow children to see each other’s work so they permit copying (cheating). Many less able or lazy children are able to conceal their weakness by copying, especially when the teacher sets tests.  This is why it is better to buy single desks and, if you must, push them together.

3 Differentiation and individualised learning
Ofsted used to be  keen on differentiation. Teachers were encouraged to plan different types of work and different types of question for different pupils according to their analysis of a child’s ability (defined by key stage 1 and 2 tests or GCSE results) and special educational needs (nearly a quarter of boys in school are classified as having special educational needs).
The problem with this approach is that it prevents whole-class teaching. It is a throwback to the mixed ability teaching of the 1980s which most people now know does not work. Individualised learning – giving each pupil in a class of 25-30 their own programme of work – is less effective than whole-class teaching.
The second problem is that differentiation generally implies that the teacher expects less of some pupils than others. But all the research into effective schools across the world shows that the distinguishing characteristic of the most successful systems is a belief that EVERY child can do well if they try hard enough. According to the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey, differentiated teaching is not common in high-performing south-east Asian countries. This is because it reinforces the performance gap between high and low attaining pupils.  Individualised learning and differentiation is one reason why the bottom 20% of boys in England do so badly – less is being expected of them.


Of course it is not sensible to offer whole-class teaching to a very mixed ability group – especially in a subject like maths. This is why setting by ability is so important. But once setting has been put in place, whole-class teaching backed by rigorous testing and retesting for those fail is the most effective system. The key to successful teaching is high expectations of ALL pupils unconstrained by target grades.

4 Independent learning
In the past Ofsted has discouraged teachers from talking too much. Well of course a long lecture can be dull and it is hard to maintain discipline if a class is bored. But in fact some of the best teachers are more than capable of delivering high-impact, motivating chalk-and-talk and more able and motivated children LEARN FASTER this way (as they do at university).

Independent learning means working on your own. That is a good idea IF you are motivated and have the knowledge-base to work with – which many children don’t.  Independent learning too often means going through worksheets and not learning very much.

5 Powerpoint
Powerpoint presentations have their place but they suffer from common weaknesses.  If every teacher uses them (and many do) the focus is on the screen and not the teacher – and this makes Powerpoint dull.  If the Powerpoint is merely a summary of what the teacher is saying (as is often the case) then the pupil switches off and neither the teacher’s words nor the words on the screen sink in. The old-fashioned system of writing on a board can be both more creative and more engaging.




The best teachers love their subject and have excellent subject knowledge (the two go together).   It is the reason that some schools are happy to appoint an excellent graduate in a subject like Physics even if they don’t have a teaching qualification.  They are classified as ‘unqualified’, even though they may possess the most important qualities needed to teach well.  Good subject knowledge matters not only because at the top of the ability range you need to be able to stretch pupils but also because teachers with good knowledge tend to make lessons for younger children more interesting.  They have more substance to be interesting about.


Secondly, they need to have the right personality.  Teaching is partly acting and acting ability helps greatly.  The Harris Federation gives teacher trainees sessions with a voice and body language coach to help them be a powerful presence in the classroom.  Above all you need to be able to control a class, because without good discipline nothing worthwhile can be achieved.  So that means good teachers are those whom pupils will respect – and slightly fear if necessary.  They are completely in control of what’s going on around them.   Pupils know the teacher will notice if they are misbehaving or if their work is incomplete or copied from another child and will take action – punish the child, perhaps, or require the work to be redone.


But the best teachers are not disciplinarians.  They are a velvet hand in an iron glove.  Pupils come to know, over time, that they are warm and generous.  But they are not to be messed with.  Discipline had to come first.


There are other personality traits that matter too.  Good teachers are very hard working, putting a huge effort into preparing lessons, marking work and giving extra time to children who need it.  They are able to manage stress.  They are passionate about their school and their pupils, keen for all to do well.  They are driven by the moral imperative of teaching – the opportunity to transform lives.


They are highly organised, because switching in a few seconds from one class to another, keeping track of individuals, remembering which extra duties they are down for, managing record-keeping and databases – all this requires good organisation.


Teachers need to have certain classroom skills.  This is why all ‘unqualified’ teachers need some training, both before they start and throughout their two years of teaching.  They need to be shown how to deliver a lesson with pace and interest, how best to ensure good behaviour, how to use digital resources effectively, how to make use of pupil data, how to mark work and record those marks, how to write reports, how best to teach tricky concepts, how to ask questions of pupils in the most effective way, how to identify and teach pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.


Finally, they need to have high expectations of their pupils.  This is a characteristic of all the best teachers.  They are determined that every pupil will master their subject.  This attitude sets the scene for everything which follows.  Pupils who produce unsatisfactory work must be made to redo it until they achieve a good level.  Pupils will be regularly tested to see whether they have understood and learnt the work; those who do badly will be retested.  Excellent teachers believe that it is pupil effort and teaching quality which determine how well a child does, not the ability of the child.  The less able children will get there in the end.


Two huge caveats to all the above.  There are plenty of successful teachers who tick few of the boxes above.  I was taught A-level history by a man who never left his armchair and who merely lectured to us.  He would be condemned by contemporary lesson observation – yet he was most successful.  Pupils loved him and worked hard for him.  He sent a regular stream of historians to Oxbridge.  His personality, subject knowledge and reputation counted for more than his teaching methods.

Secondly, how you teach does depend on the age of your pupils and the subject you are teaching.  The challenges of teaching 5 year olds are different from those of 15 year olds.  A secondary maths teacher has more issues with pupil understanding than an English teacher.  A good design and technology teacher has different qualities to a French teacher.  A PE teacher requires skills that a chemistry teacher may not.  To some degree.








The speech she could have given


In schools today we can see origins of our divided society.  The top half of pupils are able, hardworking, and often have the support of stable families.  Most of these children go to good schools, whether Academies, maintained schools, grammar schools or private.  They get good GCSEs and A-levels and go on to one of our excellent British universities.  40 per cent of school leavers now go to university.  They are a success story and the improvements the Conservatives have made to our schools over the past six years has greatly increased the number of such pupils.

But for the bottom half of our children the picture is much less good.  Compared to other countries we have a long tail of underachievement and wasted opportunity.  Far too many children in England learn little at school after the age of eleven compared to countries like Japan and Sweden.  Last year only 54 per cent of pupils gained five GCSEs grade A* to C including English and Maths.  For pupils on free school meals the figure was 33 per cent.  These are not results of which we can be proud.

What is more, this summer 36 per cent of those who passed a GCSE only achieved a grade C – a bare pass.  I know that for some a grade C is an achievement.  But equally for many children this bare pass is well below their true capabilities.

These children are not concentrated in a limited number of bad schools.  They are in fact found in the majority of schools, wherever you look in the country.  So it makes sense for us to focus on this group – the tail of underachievers. Half the student population.  If we are going to move from being a low-pay, low-productivity country to a high-pay, high-productivity country we cannot have half our workforce ill-educated.  We cannot tolerate a situation where half of our children derive little benefit from their secondary schooling.  They must be the priority.


I have therefore decided that we are going to take three steps immediately.

1 For many disadvantaged children, and especially boys, the gap in achievement is already apparent at nursery age.  They start behind and never catch up.  So we will prioritise policies to increase the scope and quality of care and education for children aged 2-4.  More Early Years teachers must be trained because we know that if children can be got to a good level by the age of 5 their life chances are hugely improved.

2 We also know that for many children academic subjects like maths, French and English, important as they are, do not provide the motivation they need if they are to make the most of school and college.  This is why I have decided to accept in full the recommendations of the Sainsbury Review and introduce new, streamlined, high-quality vocational courses for students aged 16-19.

We have been talking about vocational education since 1945. But sadly it was largely just that – talk.  There is a strong social mobility argument for focusing spending on the Further Education colleges that will be delivering the new vocational courses: this is where the group who most need and will benefit most from extra investment can be found.  And remember this is not a small group.  It is fully half of our young people.

3 Finally let me say that the most important influence on a child’s performance at school is their individual teachers.  It does not matter whether a school is a comprehensive, grammar, state or private.  What matters is the teacher standing in front of your child.  So policy needs to be focussed on the recruitment and retention of excellent teachers. There should be incentives to get good teachers into the most challenging schools.  These teachers should have access to a generous house-purchase scheme.


This is the priority for my Government.  To ensure that all children, regardless of how wealthy they are or where they live, receive a good education.  To enable all children to make the most of their talents and interests.  We will turn the spotlight on the neglected 50 per cent.




Too much of the debate about education is about structures: are Academies a good thing or not? What about free schools? How schools must help prevent Islamic fundamentalism. AS levels and A-levels…coupled or decoupled? Are the accountability measures fair? What about the Ofsted inspection regime?

These are the things which can pre-occupy government ministers and the media.

Less is said about the actual content of lessons – what is taught and what we want inside the brains of 11 year olds, 14 year olds and 18 year olds.

But I am interested in what pupils actually know. I am interested in the fact that so many of my A-level geographers thought Africa was a country, that my RS GCSE pupils did not seem to know what was meant by the crucifixion – what it was, what its significance was to Christians, despite the fact that the crucifixion was a principle component of most art in Europe up to the seventeenth century and was indeed at the centre of most European’s lives before 1945.

In some respects children in this country know less than they used to and that is not an accident…. it is the result of decisions taken by people who should know better.

What are schools for? They are there to help students make a living after they have left. But they also teach pupils those things which make life worth living, like literature, art, music, drama and sport. For most these subjects will not lead to a job but they are just as important as those subjects which do.
Most heads think it’s a good idea to teach subjects because that’s the way mankind has classified knowledge and has done so for a reason. Most teachers have taken a degree in a specific subject. It is just a pity that teacher training in England has given so little emphasis to subject knowledge. If you compare teacher training with the training of doctors or lawyers you can immediately see the contrast: with doctors and lawyers there is a huge emphasis on subject knowledge. It should be like that for teachers too.

If you believe in subjects that leaves two further questions:

1 You can’t teach all subjects so which are you going to leave out? For children up the age of 16 the government and universities have more or less defined the list of subjects which should be taught and that leaves little room for anything else.

Beyond 16 there is plenty of subject choice within A-levels, Pre-Us, the International Baccalaureate and vocational qualifications like BTECs (agriculture, health and social care, business, construction, engineering and many others). This diversity of choice post-16 help motivate students.

2 How much time are you going to spend on each subject? The danger with so many subjects is that you spend too little time on each. Schools who try to satisfy everyone by teaching a long list of subjects like art, music, dance, drama, PE, design technology and computing for just one hour a week may be doing no-one a favour. It is hard to have a sense of momentum on less than two periods a week on two different days.

Good secondary schools devote much more time than usual to maths and English. They rightly regard these as fundamental academic subjects which have to mastered before most (not all) other subjects can be handled properly. The reward for their approach is that all their pupils are good at maths and English by the age of 14. The price they pay for spending so much time on maths and English is that other subjects cannot be taught until Key Stage 4.

Crying wolf
In 2010 there was concern that schools were encouraging pupils to take subjects which were of little value to universities or employees. The 2011 Wolf Report, written by Professor Alison Wolf from King’s College London, found that thousands of vocational qualifications taken by young people were a ‘negative qualification’ – in other words they actually harmed a pupil’s prospects of going to university or gaining a job! In response to her findings the Government removed funding from these courses and removed the other incentives which had encouraged schools to offer vocational alternatives to GCSEs. In government league tables there had been a raft of generous ‘equivalences’ where, for example, a vocational ICT course was worth the equivalent of four GCSEs. These equivalences were often far easier than the GCSEs they were supposed to be the equivalent of. These equivalences were reined back after the Wolf Report.

The Russell Group of 24 leading universities produce a useful guide for schools in which they state that some A-level subjects were more useful than others if you want to keep your options open in terms of admission to Russell Group universities. These facilitating subjects are Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, modern and ancient languages, English Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy and Ethics.
The Government was concerned that increasing numbers of pupils were studying non-facilitating subjects and this was especially true of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. In order to influence this they created a new performance table measure called the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) which gives the proportion of a school’s students passing GCSEs in English, maths, sciences including computer science, history or geography and an ancient or foreign language.
A further measure called Progress 8 was introduced for schools in 2016 based on students’ progress measured across eight subjects: English; mathematics; three other EBacc subjects (chosen from sciences, computer science, geography, history and languages); and three further subjects, which can be from the range of EBacc subjects or can be any other approved qualification.

In 2010, just 22 per cent of pupils were entered for the EBacc, and only 15 per cent achieved it. GCSE results in 2015 showed those proportions had risen to 39 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. So this was a remarkable example of a performance table tweak having a huge effect on what was being taught in English state schools.

The EBacc was given extra punch in 2016 when the floor standard (the standard a school had to reach if it was to avoid intervention by the Department of Education) was based on schools’ results on the Progress 8 measure. The EBacc performance measure was a nudge. The EBacc element of Progress 8 is really compulsion.

A national curriculum
The 2010-15 and 2015-2020 Governments both declared their determination to encourage school-age pupils to study certain subjects rather than others. The 2011 National Curriculum Review stated:
The National Curriculum should embody rigour and high standards and create coherence in what is taught in schools, ensuring that all children have the opportunity to acquire a core of knowledge in the key subject disciplines.
For maintained schools the 2014 National Curriculum subject requirements are as follows:

Key Stage 1 age 5-7
English, maths, sciences, history, geography, religious studies, art, music, computing, design and technology, physical education

Key Stage 2 age 7-11
The same but add foreign language (ancient or modern)

Key Stage 3 age 11-14
Add citizenship, sex education. Languages must now be modern.

Key Stage 4 age 14-16
English, maths, sciences, computing, citizenship, religious studies, sex and relationships, physical education

So the 2010-15 and 2015-2020 governments saw a hierarchy of subjects up to the age of 16 as follows:

Vital: English and Maths – double weighting in Progress 8
Very important: Physics, chemistry, biology, computer science
Quite important: history, geography, languages ancient or modern
Less important: art, music, design technology, pe, re, dance, media, sociology, business etc.

Why did they believe this?

In the case of English and Maths they are subjects a knowledge of which is helpful for the study of other subjects and for most jobs. Employers like the CBI have consistently bemoaned the lack of basic literacy and numeracy of school leavers and graduates.

Mathematics has had particular emphasis. This is because the PISA tests show that British schools are well behind schools in East Asia in numeracy. Not only has the content of the compulsory maths GCSE been increased but extra maths has been added the syllabus of other subjects such as the sciences, design and technology and geography. Ministers in the DfE have been keen to see students continue with maths in the sixth form. A new course called Core Maths, the equivalent to an AS level, has been introduced for those who are competent at maths but not good enough to take the full A level.

In the case of the ‘very important’ and ‘quite important’ subjects, these are those which, according to the Russell Group of good universities, keep most options open in terms of university degree choice. The Government has been concerned that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to take these subjects and this reinforces their disadvantage. They are also subjects which are perceived as being more demanding than some of the alternatives.
The Government also places a particular emphasis on the contribution some subjects can make to the national economy. This is why the sciences are in the ‘very important’ group.

Modern languages

Overall numbers taking modern languages have been falling for some years. Spanish numbers have grown but not as much as French and German declined. We know that this was partly the result of the decision taken in 2004 to make mfl optional at GCSE. It is partly because mfl is perceived to be a harder subject than some of its competitors (even though standards have fallen further in mfl than in other subjects since the 1980s. A-level French is about the same level as the O-level was then).

There has also been problems with the teaching methods used in schools. Teachers adopted methods used when teaching English as a foreign language, where the focus is on speed of acquisition and spoken language. Teaching in the target language has been a mistake because it frightens off many pupils and doesn’t make use of their knowledge of English. There has been too much focus on ‘speaking in a café’, too little formal grammar, almost no translation English to French, far too much rote learning of phrases giving a false impression of competence.

A-level syllabuses have been boring, with little or no study of literature. Much was intellectually poor and dull. The ALCAB (A-level Content Advisory Board) report spells it out:

The panel identified weaknesses in the current AS and A level:

(a) The regulatory requirements are of such a general nature that they do not require awarding organisations to prescribe topics which require students’ direct engagement with material relating to the society of the countries where the language of study is spoken.

(b) The study of cultural topics is only an A2 option and general topics predominate, some of which are studied and restudied at GCSE, AS and A level. Despite examples of good practice by awarding organisations and inspiring teaching, this can make the current syllabus rather dull and uninspiring, particularly at AS level.

Notwithstanding examples of good practice by awarding organisations in this area and of inspired and inspiring teaching, such arrangements have contributed for some students to a repetitive and hence rather dull and uninspiring learning experience, less stimulating than is provided by other related subjects at GCE, such as English, history and classics.

The result of this diminution of content has been an impoverishment of students’ curiosity-driven learning. Cognitive stimulus is largely restricted to practical language learning, together with what teachers may bring to the subject over and above the requirements of the qualification. Hence, the cognitive challenge at GCE in modern languages is met only inconsistently. That challenge is to communicate increasingly complex messages, necessitating the use of more complex structures to connect ideas about increasingly complex material. The panel believes that this weakness makes the qualification less rewarding and less engaging for high-achieving students. That, together with perceptions of severe grading, can discourage students from selecting a modern language A level.

(c) The language of study tends to be conceived principally in terms of its immediate practical use and in isolation from the student’s competence in other languages. There is therefore no encouragement to develop a more searching understanding of linguistic systems.

Dull, dull, dull. The revised GCSE and A-level syllabuses aim to turn this round but it may be too late. The decoupling of the AS from the A-level is likely to hit mfl more than other subjects because the gap between GCSE and A-level is greater: the AS was a useful stepping stone. Furthermore, the decoupling is encouraging schools to offer just three A-levels in year 12 rather than four AS-levels. Mfl was often the fourth choice for pupils so this change might result in further decline.
Finally, almost everyone who teaches mfl finds the grading is harsh and unpredictable. At A-level many able candidates who gain A* in their other subjects fail to do so in their language option.

Computer Science

Computer Science is the fastest growing GCSE subject and is backed by the Government through the Progress 8 measure because of concern about the lack of skills in the digital economy.

The 2014 reform to the national curriculum incorporated coding into the syllabus for the first time. The aims of the revised national curriculum are spelt out:

The national curriculum for computing aims to ensure that all pupils:
• can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation
• can analyse problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems
• can evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems
• are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology
The previous ICT curriculum was withdrawn and replaced by ‘the more rigorous’ computer science curriculum.
The Key Stage 3 computing syllabus is as follows:
Pupils should be taught to:
• design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems
• understand several key algorithms that reflect computational thinking [for example, ones for sorting and searching]; use logical reasoning to compare the utility of alternative algorithms for the same problem
• use 2 or more programming languages, at least one of which is textual, to solve a variety of computational problems; make appropriate use of data structures [for example, lists, tables or arrays]; design and develop modular programs that use procedures or functions
• understand simple Boolean logic [for example, AND, OR and NOT] and some of its uses in circuits and programming; understand how numbers can be represented in binary, and be able to carry out simple operations on binary numbers [for example, binary addition, and conversion between binary and decimal]
• understand the hardware and software components that make up computer systems, and how they communicate with one another and with other systems
• understand how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system; understand how data of various types (including text, sounds and pictures) can be represented and manipulated digitally, in the form of binary digits
• undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals, including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users
• create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital artefacts for a given audience, with attention to trustworthiness, design and usability
• understand a range of ways to use technology safely, respectfully, responsibly and securely, including protecting their online identity and privacy; recognise inappropriate content, contact and conduct, and know how to report concerns
With the strong push given to computer science by its inclusion in the EBacc, the upward swing of computer science is set to continue. It is just a pity that so few girls opt for it at GCSE or A-level.

Design and technology

In terms of status in the school curriculum design and technology has come and gone over the past 30 years. In July 2016 87 MPs wrote a letter to the Prime Minister:

The UK face a number of challenges:
An annual shortage of 69,000 trained engineers
Only 6% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female
We believe that the answer lies in the recently improved, scientific and academic Design Technology GCSE.

As you will be aware, the content for the new Design and Technology GCSE has recently been finalised, ready for September 2017. The new curriculum is a vast improvement on the previous qualification; having been designed over years in partnership with businesses; it is a robust, science based, academic, valuable option for GCSE.

Secondary schools are judged on pupil’s GCSE grades in EBacc subjects. Its exclusion from this important qualification is reducing the incentive for Design and Technology teaching.

As a result of schools being judged on their EBacc results, many of them are pushing their students – particularly ‘academic’ students – to do as many Ebacc subjects as possible; more than the minimum five. The result is that D&T is being squeezed into a single or double option box, to compete with subjects like Photography and Dance for a single place among student options. This is a problem in any case but would be tragic for the new D&T GCSE – which is academically rigorous and sits comfortably alongside the EBacc subjects.

They were quite right to mention Photography and Dance because in the end it is all about space in the timetable. DT is a great subject, but it is being crowded out.

The EPQ: an original piece of work

The Extended Project Qualification is growing quite fast in English sixth forms. It is, of course, based on the International Baccalaureate dissertation – the idea that students will choose a topic of their own, receive instruction from a teacher into research methods and how to present a report, and will research their chosen topic independently. The report may be in words (5000) or in the form of film or other artefacts.

The EPQ is worth half an A-level in terms of UCAS points but its value goes well beyond that. The EPQ is an opportunity to do some original work, a chance to show a university that you are capable of independent research, and it is a way of demonstrating enthusiasm for and knowledge of a degree subject that is not taught at school, like medicine or astronomy.

Having completed the EPQ the student is required to present their research to others, so ensuring that oral skills are connected to knowledge.

Post-16 professional and technical courses

The size of the English intermediate technical education sector is extremely small by international standards. Partly because of this our workforce is under skilled and productivity is up to 36% below that of France and Germany.

There are 20,000 vocational qualifications available post-16 at the moment. This is confusing and many of them are of limited value.

The 2016 Sainsbury Review of post-16 vocational education established that the 20,000 will be replaced by just 15 courses devised and managed by an employer-led Institute for Apprenticeship.

The 15 are:

agriculture, environmental and animal care
business and administrative
catering and hospitality
childcare and education
creative and design
engineering and manufacturing
hair and beauty
health and science
legal, finance and accounting
protective services
sales, marketing and procurement
social care
transport and logistics

All courses will include elements of English, maths and digital skills.

If this can be funded and if teachers can be found to teach it will be the most important educational reform of the 2015-2020 government.

Teaching skills in the academic curriculum

The National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 and maintained schools were required by law to deliver it. There was, over time, a gradual reduction in the subject content and its replacement by skills and experiences. For example, the 2007 KS3 history curriculum prescribed less knowledge than a list of skills:

Pupils should be able to:

A identify and investigate, individually and as part of a team, specific historical questions or issues, making and testing hypotheses
B reflect critically on historical questions or issues.
C identify, select and use a range of historical sources, including textual, visual and oral sources, artefacts and the historic environment
D evaluate the sources in order to reach reasoned conclusions

The document this comes from was written by Mike Waters, Director of Curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 2005-2009, who stated that

The aim is to develop a coherent 11-19 curriculum that builds on young people’s experiences in the primary phase and that helps all young people to become successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens.

In 2012 Waters gave an interview to the ATL in which he said that education ‘doesn’t have to be about this endless transmission of information. The point is to encourage activities and learning experiences that involved less the transmission of knowledge but focused on conceptual understanding.’

The Royal Society of Arts has developed a new secondary curriculum for the 21st century called Opening Minds which concluded that there were five essential skills which should be the basis of the school curriculum:
Managing information
Relating to people
Managing situations
These competences are broad areas of capability, developed in classrooms through a mixture of instruction and practical experience: children plan their work, organise their own time and explore their own ways of learning.
Subject boundaries are less defined than in traditional curriculum teaching, with schools often integrating the teaching of several subjects together into modules or topics, where competences can be developed through the exploration of common themes. (RSA website)

In the schools which have adopted this approach, the focus of the curriculum is projects, not subjects. Take the UCL Academy in Camden. In 2013 went on a trip to visit this hugely expensive new school, run by one of the UK’s top universities. The online prospectus stated:
The first year in the Academy is a year in which students adapt to the unique learning environment which the Academy offers, and prepare themselves to take on the responsibilities for developing their own programme of study in the years ahead. Students develop a wide variety of skills essential for effective learning.
Students study the International Middle Years Curriculum at the Academy as a model of learning which encourages cross-curricular learning through Big Ideas, an international focus and book ended by Entry and Exit Points, where Big Ideas and concepts are introduced and reviewed.
The school had its first Ofsted in 2014 and was found to be ‘Requires Improvement’.

I taught an A-level called critical thinking. I did it because I thought that critical thinking sounded like a good skill that all educated people ought to have. But I soon realised that this subject was in fact completely bogus. There were a set of rules which one learnt and then applied to the information provided in the exam questions. These were not rules that could be generally applied outside this specific exam.
What this told me was that it was very hard to teach thinking skills outside the context of a subject. If we teach pupils to think critically about, for example, the causes of the Second World War, this does not mean they can think critically about climate change or alternative energy options. Critical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge.
Adults with good thinking skills have developed them by knowing a lot…..not by learning thinking skills. That the most reliable basis for 21st century skills is possession of wide-ranging knowledge across many subjects.
Time spent on teaching thinking skills or competencies rather than subjects carries a high opportunity cost – the pupils are not doing something completely useless, but nor are they using the time as well as they could. Time spent on activities supposed to promote transferrable skills is time not spent learning knowledge that would really build transferrable skills.

Teaching soft skills in the co-curriculum

Soft skills like good manners, how to speak well, determination, initiative, leadership, team-work, kindness, optimism and self-motivation are all crucially important to a person’s prospects in work. These should be taught through the academic curriculum and the co-curricular programme. There is no need to have a separate curriculum just for them.
The co-curricular programme is essential. Because pupils need a broad, holistic education, at Harrow I developed a diploma which developed into a qualification accredited by Edexcel. It was a way of making a point and nudging the pupils to get involved.


Minimum requirement

1 Academic results: achieve both:
9 GCSEs A*-C
4 AS-levels A-C

2 Cultural activity: one of
GCSE Art or Music or AS Photography
Grade 5 on an instrument or singing
Speaking part in a play or significant
non-speaking contribution to a play
Sing in a choir or played in an orchestra for a term at least

3 Physical activity: two of
School team for 5 terms (can be more than one sport)
Duke of Edinburgh Silver completed
Drill Competition competitor
Endurance Event Competition competitor
Long Ducker: 10 miles, 200 lengths
swimming or 10,000 metres rowing

4 Communication: two of
Pass Lower Sixth literacy course
Debating team
House Public Speaking team
Article or creative writing in School magazine
Read lesson in Chapel
Helped do a House Chapel Service
or Thought for the Day
Helped to write House website
A finalist in a school lecture competition 

5 Service to others: two of
Community Service : one term minimum
Conservation : one term
House Monitor
Raised £100 for charity
In charge of a society or activity for at least one term
Hold Bishop’s licence to administer Communion
Another type of service recognised by House Master
Tour Guide for prospective parents

6 Developing a skill: two of
Young Enterprise team member
AS Critical Thinking
Worked on school farm for a year
Contributed to an art exhibition
First Aid course
Life Saving course
Cookery course
Canoeing course
Duke of Edinburgh Silver
Engineering Education Scheme
Extended Project
Cadet Force for two years
Pass Driving test or a2om certificate of driving awareness

7 Work experience for at least 5 days

Every year I had hundreds of applications to Harrow from bright boys coming from some of the highest achieving schools in China and Hong Kong. These were boys who would go to top universities in the world without my help. So why did they apply to a British boarding school? Because of the soft skills. We taught them to challenge teachers with questions, something they would never do at home. We taught them to perform musically and on the games field. We taught them to operate in teams. And we gave them leadership opportunities.

This is what British boarding schools do.

Finally, I must acknowledge that for many pupils the co-curriculum turns out to be rather more important than the exam-driven academic curriculum. All those hundreds of boys I taught who went into the army on the basis of a successful experience in the cadet force. Those, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Mike Lesslie, who went into acting or script-writing on the back of school plays. Those who became professional musicians, classical or rock (an average of two a year from Harrow). Those who spent much of their adult lives singing in a choir or playing the church organ. The boys who became vets because they enjoyed the school farm (just a few cows really). Professional sportsmen like Matthew Pinsent, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Gary Balance and Nick Compton. Professional artists and photographers inspired, not by exams, but by the spirit of the Art Schools.

Lucky the boarding schools that can offer these things in such quantity.

Private Business: learning for learning’s sake

At Eton it is called Private Business, at Winchester it is called ‘Div’….. a time when students meet in small groups with one teacher for a tutorial and discussion.

This is what the Winchester website says about Div:

Every boy meets in his Division for one period every day. His Div Don therefore sees more of him than any other of his teachers, and it is the Div Don who takes him through courses which are designed to foster in him a love and respect for learning for its own sake. Thus for the first three years Div follows a chronological structure which encompasses History and English Literature (which are not offered for GCSE), Ancient History, History of Art, History of Science and Religious Studies.
In Sixth Book (the sixth form), Div can lead almost anywhere, according to the interests of the boys in the group and the Div Don himself, covering an extremely wide range of history and literature, from Ancient Egypt to the Gulf War, from Plato to Shakespeare, from the history of Cricket or Mathematics or Science to the fugues of Bach or the plays of Tom Stoppard. Opportunities to deepen aspects of the broad knowledge he acquires through Div are afforded through the Task Time, when under the supervision of his Div Don, he will write regular essays based on private interest and research. He will often be asked to offer a presentation to his Div.

Div is the hallmark of a Winchester education.

So these tutorials are an opportunity to teach without the burden of exams. Their success depends on the ability of the tutor to capture the interest and imagination of the tutees and this is often possible because the tutor will select topics they are themselves interested in. It is not a million miles from General Studies, which many schools had before AS-levels intervened, but the differences are the small group size and the fact that the tutor is personally responsible for the general progress of his or her tutor group – the tutor and tutees have a closer relationship than that of a normal teacher and his class.

Cultural capital

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds may miss out because their parents are less likely to take them to museums, theatres and art galleries, less likely to have books in the home. The schools described in this text all make an effort to fill the gap. The best teach the pupils what they are going to see before they go and expect them to write about what they have learnt afterwards.
Leaders of Tomorrow is an enrichment mentoring program designed to raise the academic achievement of children and young people, particularly those of African and Caribbean heritage, in south London. Lindsay Johns, a volunteer, describes it as follows:
Our mission is to help young people achieve their academic and social potential, to broaden their cultural horizons beyond the limiting confines of SE15 and to try and help them develop a fully-functioning moral compass.
With a weekly vocab slot, a focus on reading aloud and the importance of good communication, inspirational guest speakers from all walks of life, regular trips to the National Theatre, the Young Vic theatre, the British Museum, the Tate, the Globe theatre and other cultural arenas, along with visits to Oxford and Cambridge and to empowering leadership conferences in America, we aim to get our young people out of the debilitating spiral of the poverty of aspiration which can afflict so many in inner-city environments.

Lindsay believes that efforts to make education more “relevant” to black people can be both patronising and harmful. The western literary canon should be taught to everyone. Several of the good schools we visited make a point of requiring all pupils to take part regularly in a Shakespeare play.

Gender and subject choice

It is remarkable, given that almost all children are taught in mixed-sex schools, that gender stereotypes still influence subject choice in the way they do.
For example, looking at UK A-level entri es in 2015:
Male          Female
Physics 28500         7787
Computing 4927      456
Economics 18651     8924
French 3176              7152
English 25173          64326
Psychology 13758   43256
Sociology 7569        24689

Only Geography and Chemistry seem to avoid the gender bias.

Source: JCQ
For a range of subjects there is a very clear sense that they are ‘female’ or ‘male’. The absence of girls from Physics and Engineering must, one assumes, mean that both girls and the career of Engineering are missing out in the same way that the teaching profession needs more men.

Conclusion: what should Key Stage 3 pupils be taught?

1 I like the idea that people have knowledge in their heads rather than in a computer. Deep learning and creative thinking come from the firm assimilation of existing knowledge. You cannot think about things if you don’t have information in your brain to think about.

Is it not better to have a poem in your head rather than on a screen?

2 Skills should be taught through existing disciplines. Team work is best taught through playing sport or debating. If you want to teach students to think analytically, why not do that through teaching history?

3 Teach Maths and English to a higher level at the top end than we have been achieving in recent years. Have a focus on these two important subjects. All should be taught the basics of functional Maths and English – useful Maths and good standards of writing ability. Key Stage 3 and 4 pupils must be forced to read one decent novel a fortnight and to learn ten poems a year.

4 Pupils must be taught how to speak well.

I raised this point in a governors meeting at an inner London state school. The parent governor – an Afro-Caribbean mother – agreed – she said that her son spoke in text-speak and she couldn’t understand a word of it. But the staff were not so easily convinced because they were worried about appearing racist and felt that promoting received pronunciation was discriminatory.
5 Teach physics, chemistry, biology, British history and world geography as defined by the new National Curriculum.

6 Teach Big History as explained in David Christian’s book and website – how the universe evolved, how planets developed, how life evolved on Earth, how agriculture and then cities and civilisations evolved.

7 Pupils need a good grasp of Christianity – Bible stories including the parables, the essential vocabulary of church buildings and worship – as well as other religions.

8 And a good knowledge of a few European composers and their work.

9 Pupils should be taught either French or Spanish to a higher level than we are reaching now.

10 Pupils should be taught how to draw and paint…from life. Abstract painting can be banned because it is too easy or too difficult for a teenager depending on your point of view.

As Winston Churchill said:

Art done properly is a tough discipline which teaches concentration …. When I get to heaven I intend to spend a considerable portion of the first million years in painting and so get to the bottom of the subject.

11 Design and Technology is important including how to use tools like a saw, a hammer, a screwdriver, as well as computer-aided design.

12 How to use a computer, touch type and code.

13 Physical fitness, how to swim, the enjoyment of sport and the skills of team sports such as cricket and netball.

14 PSHE as defined by the National Curriculum.

It is hard to fit much else in. Of course pupils should be taught life skills, such as being organised, good time keeping, resilience, an understanding of the fact that hard work usually produces results, being nice to others, moral values – but with good teachers in good schools these will come as a by-product of good classroom teaching and extra-curricular activity.

Above all, know that the curriculum is already full. If people want to add something to the timetable, like citizenship, then point out that if that is taught the children will have less time something else, like history or English or maths. If you add something, something has to be taken away.

We only have so many hours in the day. Teach established subjects. Teach them well and teach them to a more advanced level than we have been.

Exams in English schools


Exams are an essential element of a child’s education.  One reason is the tremendous value of committing knowledge and information to the long-term memory.   For most children, carrying what they have learnt in school into adult life depends in large measure on them being forced to memorise it.  A typical average ability 16 year old boy can reel off 200 or so words in French three months before he sits the GCSE.  On the day of the exam that figure has grown to 1000+ – all driven by fear of the exam.

Exams put pressure on children, and that is their great virtue.  Girls are more likely to want to please the teacher and are therefore more motivated during the course.  Boys do not especially want to please teachers – in my experience of teaching boys, 80% are relatively idle during the term but most make a big effort preparing for exams.

Exams are the essential building block of motivation.  Ask any teacher who has had to teach an unexamined course to 15-year olds, as many schools used to do with Religious Studies.  It was a hapless task, and almost all now insist pupils take the RS GCSE as a way of improving pupils’ attitude in lessons.  Anyone who thinks that exams are a bad thing has never taught a class of teenage boys.  Exams work because they make pupils work.

The age at which pupils are required to be in education or training in England has risen to 18 so why do we need exams at all at age 16?  Because in the English system we typically drop down from ten GCSE subjects to three or four A-levels at that age.  On average one of those A-levels is a subject not done at GCSE, so most pupils drop about seven subjects at the age of 16.  It is vital that, having studied these seven subjects for up to twelve years, pupils be examined in all of them in order to consolidate what they know and measure their progress.

I have quite often heard people who should know better say ‘other countries don’t have GCSEs’.  They are wrong.  If you look at the highest performing countries there is a range of models.

For example, in the lower secondary years in Japan students study Japanese, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, Fine Arts, Foreign Languages, Health and Physical Education, Moral Education, Industrial Arts and Homemaking. In the third year of lower secondary (age 15) they take a national examination in Mathematics and Japanese. Their schoolwork across other subjects is formally assessed by teachers in order to be awarded the Lower Secondary School Leaving Certificate. This is their equivalent of GCSEs.

Singaporean students typically take between six and 10 subject examinations at either O Level (after five years of secondary schooling) or N Level (after four years).

Exam results are the necessary qualification for moving to the next level.  We do not want pupils embarking on A-levels unless they have a GCSE performance which suggests they might achieve something worthwhile.  We do not want students embarking on a medical degree if they cannot get an A grade in Chemistry – they would be too likely to fail.

The alternative to exams is continuous teacher assessment.  In England in recent years we experimented with teacher assessment and it was disastrous.  Many teachers hated it because they came under huge pressure to get good marks for all pupils (where do you think grade inflation came from?) and because these ‘controlled assessments’ were intensely dull.  The academic year became dominated by dreary teacher-assessed coursework.

Pupils in successful countries take exams.  They force children to place the knowledge they have been presented with into the memory.  Once in the memory new things start to happen in the brain – like analytical thinking and the creation of links between different bits of knowledge.  Educated people know things and the reason they know things is not simply because ‘they have been taught it’.  Far too many children are taught things but know nothing.  The essential step in the process is commitment to memory.

Of course exams cause anxiety and distress but those who think children should never be challenged in this way are the enemies of good education.  Teenagers, and especially boys, have to be driven to succeed.  Exams are that driver.


Exam Boards

In England we have an unusual state of affairs whereby more than one exam board offers GCSE and A-level exams in each subject. Ministers have been worried about this because the various exam boards compete with each other by offering easier syllabuses, easier questions and more generous grading.   Ofqual has to try to stop this happening.


Why have we got multiple exam boards?  They arose because in the nineteenth century schools and universities decided that they wanted external exams.  The government wasn’t offering to set them up so the universities stepped in as follows:

1857 Oxford Board

1858 Cambridge Board

1858 Durham Board

1902 London Board

1903 Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool combined to run the Joint Matriculation Board.


After 1987 exam boards merged and there was a gradual disengagement of the universities; Edexcel, for example, was taken over by Pearson from London University in 2003.  Today there are three main exam boards in England.


A future government could decide to run all exams itself or might demand that each subject qualification is run by just one exam board.  This is opposed by those who fear the loss of competition might drive out innovation.  There would be concerns about politically motivated fiddling with exams by governments and anyway governments themselves may well balk at the idea of running something as complex and politically sensitive as an exam system.


Grade inflation

Between 1990 and 2012 there was grade inflation at both GCSE and A-level. The proportion gaining A*/A at GCSE rose from 11% in 1990 to 21% in 2015.  The equivalent figures for A-level were 11% and 26%.

This was caused by a number of things.  There were several exam boards in competition with each other for customers and, in what was later described as a race to the bottom, they competed by offering ever-easier exams.  The exams regulator foolishly introduced a system of modules whereby the exam was broken up into parts and each part could be taken at any point and resat as many times as was needed.  So whereas the A-level had once been, say, three long papers sat at the end of two years now it was six papers, three of which would probably be sat in Year 12 and resat once or twice in Year 13.

Teacher-assessed coursework was another reason for grade inflation.  By 2012 many GCSEs were available where 60% of the marks were for coursework.  Coursework is much easier to manage than examinations – the teacher is always able to help candidates gain better marks.  A judicial enquiry into the 2012 English GCSE results revealed that a huge proportion of candidates who did badly in the written exam did well in coursework and many did just well enough in the coursework to tip them into a C grade.

And finally, as exams mature they become better resourced and teachers become better at teaching the course.  Nevertheless, there was an element of self-deception about the rise in grades during the Blair-Brown years as the Government talked about the improved grades as evidence of rising standards.  But standards were not rising.


Standards in English schools

Between 1918 and 1951 pupils aged 16 took a School Certificate started overseen by the Secondary Schools Examinations Council.   The School Certificate Examination was usually taken at age 16 with performance in each subject being graded as Fail, Pass, Credit or Distinction. Students were required to gain six passes including English and mathematics in order to obtain the certificate.

Some students who passed stayed on at school to take the Higher School Certificate at age 18. In 1951 these Schools Certificates were replaced by O-levels and A-levels.

Before 1965 only the top 20% of the ability range (those in grammar schools and independent schools) took O-levels and went onto A-levels, the rest (those in secondary modern schools) leaving school without qualifications.  In 1965 the more vocational Certificate of Secondary Education was introduced for 16 year-olds; if the O-level was for the top 20-30% of ability, CSEs were for the next 40-50%.


With the advent of all-ability comprehensive schools in the 1970s it became clear that a system which required schools to divide the population into two – O-level or CSE – was unsatisfactory.  40% of those taking O-levels failed and many of those taking CSE could in fact have managed O-levels – so students in both groups were being misclassified by their schools.  In 1986 O-levels and CSEs were merged to create the GCSE – the General Certificate of Education.


The GCSE is designed to be accessible to the bulk of the school population.  For this reason some of the questions have to be easy so that the least able can gain some marks and thus a grade.  It is not fair to compare the easiest questions in a GCSE with an O-level – they are designed for different groups.  However it IS fair to compare the hardest questions at both GCSE and A-level with those set in the past and this can be done by looking here: 1974 Exam Papers  and then looking at current past papers on exam board websites such as http://www.aqa.org.uk/exams-administration/exams-guidance/find-past-papers-and-mark-schemes.


Such a comparison shows that some subjects have been dumbed down at both GCSE and A-level, most obviously modern foreign languages and sciences.  The hardest questions in a subject like history are not very different.  Indeed, when the first GCSE results came out in 1988 more academically selective schools saw their results shoot up – the GCSE was much easier.


PISA research in 2013 found that England was the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement was more literate and numerate than the youngest adults: adults aged 55 to 65 performed better than 16- to 24-year-olds at foundation levels of literacy and numeracy.


The main problem with English schools is the long tail of underachievement.  In 2015 54% of pupils gained five GCSEs grade A* to C including English and Maths.  54% is a low figure – after all, a C grade in a GCSE is not a great achievement for many pupils.  For those on free school meals the figure was 33.1%.


In 2015 69% of all GCSEs were passed at grade C or above but 37% of those who passed only achieved a grade C – a bare pass. So many pupils are scraping by.  Even these figures flatter the ability of the students because gaming and teaching to the test push many up to a C grade.


The reformed GCSE Maths and English are tough but the comparable outcomes approach to grading preserves the numbers who ‘pass’: the % mark required to get a grade 4 (the equivalent to a C in old money) is now quite low.  So the true tail of under-achievement in England is longer than we think.



Governments require vehicles to pass mandatory exhaust emission tests before they can be sold but several times it has been found that some who had passed the test before they left the factory gave off much more pollution in normal road use. The  Volkswagen emissions scandal, emissionsgate, erupted in 2015 when the United States Environmental Protection Agency found that Volkswagen had intentionally programmed diesel engines to activate certain emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing.   The manufacturers had designed engines which were polluting but which could nevertheless pass the test.

After about 2008 schools in England  started talking about a private company called PiXL (partners in excellence) which perfectly legitimately taught strategies to ‘game’ the system.  For example, they told schools to identify all their year 10 pupils who were likely to gain a C in maths but a D in English.  They then encouraged the schools to cram them for an early sitting in maths.  Having passed maths in Year 10 or early in Year 11 they then used the Year 11 maths lessons for extra English.  This policy maximised the number of pupils gaining C grades in both Maths and English.  This focus on the C/D grade boundary was itself a result of the government’s own ‘floor standards’ which required schools to get their pupils five GCSEs grade A* to C including English and Maths.

Another example of gaming was the discovery by PiXL that lower ability pupils were more likely to pass English if they took the international GCSE rather than the conventional GCSE.  One reason for this was that the iGCSE retained coursework and marks for an spoken English test.  Following their discovery huge numbers of less able students were transferred to the iGCSE.

Gaming of the sort sponsored by PiXL gives an illusion of progress.  I would never blame schools for using their methods – I would do the same – but where gaming works it produces an improvement in pupil’s grades without improvement in knowledge or skill.

Another example of gaming has been those schools gaining extra time for students by requesting ‘reasonable adjustments.’  JCQ (the Joint Council for Qualifications) agree the so-called access arrangements.  In the past candidates have gained extra time for minor problems, such as ‘exam phobia’, for which the evidence was limited.  Perfectly able candidates have used word processors in exams because it was ‘their normal way of working.’

A final example of gaming was the European Computer Driving Licence, an IT qualification which the government foolishly agreed should have the same value as a GCSE.  It was relatively easy and could be taught, according to some people, in a weekend.  For this reason it became immensely popular, with all year 11s taking it in some schools.

Gaming is the inevitable result of high stakes accountability – if exam results matter greatly, people will always look for short-cuts to success.  But gaming reduces the validity of a qualification – you may think that a pupil who scrapes a C/4 (pass) in English is quite literate but you would be wrong.

Gaming is an example of Campbell’s Law: the more a social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.    

Teaching to the test

In 2010 I was short of a religious studies GCSE teacher in my school so I put myself up to teach the subject, for the first time.  An analysis of past papers soon revealed that some topics came up more often than others and certain specific questions came up more often than others.  Being short of time and anxious to prove my competence I was therefore encouraged to teach to the test by focussing on those areas.  My pupils did well enough, but I knew if they had received a different exam based on other parts of the syllabus, the parts I had deemphasised, their results would have been different.  

Teaching to the test may or may not be gaming, but it is something which produces results which can flatter pupils.  It gives a false impression of their knowledge across the whole syllabus or domain.

Exam reform in England, 2011-18

Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) was set up in 2010 and Glenys Stacey was chief regulator from 2011 to 2016.

In 2011 Ofqual announced their hostility to modules (independently graded exam papers): it was impossible to grade fairly if there are many routes to one qualification through modules.  In any one year exam boards were being asked to rank students, some of whom had taken all the modules in one sitting, others of whom had spread them out over several years.  Some had taken a module once, others had taken it four times.

Then they announced their concern about coursework.  Some was never moderated (ie checked by an independent person) including the crucial English GCSE speaking and listening module. Teachers admitted to Ofqual that they had been under pressure to influence their pupils’ results.

With exams you normally like to have a range of marks so that everyone doesn’t get the same grade.  But coursework marks were often bunched at the top end of the scale – which meant that the coursework did not contribute to the necessary range at all.

Further analysis by Ofqual revealed that much coursework didn’t measure what it claimed to.  For example, fieldwork in Geography was supposed to measure the ability to collect and analyse data but in fact it measured little more than an ability to follow instructions given by the teacher.

Coursework in GCSE mathematics and science was also felt by most teachers to be of limited value and burdensome to administer.

At the same time employers and universities were complaining about the quality of their 18-year-old employees and undergraduates: their English and maths were poor, they lacked initiative and they appeared to have gained good exam results by spoon-feeding.

The Department for Education shared this concern about low standards, about the way in which pupils were stacking up marks by taking modules every six months over a two year period, by sitting and then resitting of modules, and by the generally low level of some syllabuses.  There was particular concern about A-levels: the content of modules taken in year 12 were long forgotten by the time the students arrived at university.  The modular system meant that at no point did students know the whole syllabus.


So between 2011 and 2015 a number of decisions were taken by the Department of Education and Ofqual that amounted to a radical shake-up of the whole system. 

1 They scrapped January exam sittings so halving the number of times a pupil could sit exams.

2 They scrapped modules.  The AS-level exam was decoupled from the A-level so that the A-level was now linear – all A-level papers are sat in one go at the end of the course.

3 They told schools that the first sitting of a GCSE would be the only one which would count for performance table measures.  This discouraged early and multiple sittings of an exam.

4 In English GCSE the speaking and listening would no longer count towards the main grade (but it would be reported as a separate grade).

5 Coursework was scrapped in all public exams unless it measured something important that could not be measured by an exam.  In A-level sciences the only element of practical work now assessed by the teacher is the student’s ability to select the right equipment, use that equipment and log the results.  At GCSE and A-level the results and meaning of the experiments are assessed in the written exam with questions worth 15% of the total marks.

6 All GCSE syllabuses were rewritten by panels of teachers and subject experts under the control of the Department for Education.  The focus was on raising standards to the levels being achieved in the highest performing areas, such as Singapore, especially numeracy.   Mathematics GCSE became significantly harder.  Subjects such as geography, physics, chemistry, biology and design technology contain more maths.

7 In the past several GCSE subjects were tiered – that is, there were easier papers which could only lead to lower grades or harder papers which allowed candidates to access the full range of grades. The problem was that too many pupils were put in for the wrong tier, including fairly able pupils taking the lower tier.  So Ofqual greatly reduced the number of tiered exams.

8 In 2017 England started the process of moving from alphabetical GCSE grades (A* to G) to numerical grades (9 to 1). They did that because the old alphabetical scale had things wrong with it but it would be hopeless moving from one alphabetical system to a different alphabetical system….that would have been very confusing.  The old alphabetical system was broken for three reasons. First, because of grade inflation too many students were getting A grades. By ‘too many’ we mean so many that the more selective universities were unable to use GCSE grades to distinguish between applicants. All the many applicants they had to choose from had similar grades. Secondly, the introduction of the A* grade was supposed to allow universities to distinguish the outstanding from the very good, but even this grade had suffered from grade inflation. Anyway A* is a pretty silly grade.  Finally, the alphabetical grades divided those passing the exam into four: C, B, A and A*. This was not discriminating enough, so the new numerical system divides them into six: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.  The alphabetical system divided those failing the exam into four- D, E, F and G, which was too many for relatively few candidates so this was reduced to three number grades, 3, 2 and 1.

9 All A-level syllabuses were rewritten by panels of university staff so that they were a better preparation for university degree courses.  Universities should no longer be able to complain that students came up to university unprepared.  The sciences introduced more mathematics, the geographers more fieldwork and more physical geography.  The modern linguists produced a syllabus which included more literature and more about the culture of the country whose language was being studied.  In maths the syllabus was arranged so that all students took the same papers rather than choosing from options.

For both A-level and GCSE the reformed specifications were quite detailed.  Ofqual ensure that exam board syllabuses faithfully reflect these specifications – if they do not they are sent back to be revised.

10 In 2016 the Sainsbury Review looked at vocational qualifications for pupils aged 16 and above.  It recommended that the chaos of 20,000 existing qualifications should be reduced to 15, each run by just one awarding body.


How reliable are public exams in England?

Exams sample a pupil’s knowledge and are thus liable to all the same weaknesses as all sampling.

Every year many schools experience some exam results which are obviously wrong and have to be adjusted on appeal.

There are enough errors in any year to make us concerned.  In 2015 at GCSE 5.6 million subjects were sat and 62,000 grades lifted on appeal.  At A/AS level 2.4 million subjects were sat and 28,600 grades lifted on appeal – a small number in relative terms, a large number in absolute terms.  There is some evidence there are not enough good markers.

JCQ is managing efforts to recruit more good markers.  If schools realise that marking is excellent training for those teaching reformed exams the number of markers may rise.

In 2014 Ofqual researched the quality of external exam marking and found that it was generally good.

They found that most markers were experienced and well trained.  They found that the use of ‘item-level’ marking (each marker marking just one question) increased accuracy.  They found that screen-based marking also increased accuracy because seed answers (standard answers which had been marked by the chief examiner) are injected into the set of answers at regular intervals to check the marker is accurate and consistent.

In 2015 many of the problems identified by schools were not in fact about bad marking, they were about grading.  This was true of the Cambridge Assessment iGCSE 0500/0522 English.  Here there was a sudden increase in the number of candidates, mainly lower ability candidates from state schools.  When the cohort taking an exam changes dramatically it is liable to make grading harder because an exam board can no longer rely on the ‘comparable outcomes’ approach.  Relying on examiner judgement, which is what teachers do every day when marking work, is in fact not as reliable as we would like to think it is.  All the research shows this: different experienced examiners give the same script different marks.   Cambridge Assessment made the problem worse by setting papers which generated a small mark range: the difference between each grade was small so very similar candidates achieved different grades.

In general terms the key to a good exam is the question setting and the mark scheme.  The questions have to be such that students at each grade identify themselves: easy questions for the less able, very hard for the most able.  The mark scheme has to be very clear so that markers know exactly what mark they should be giving.  Poor marking is often the result of a poor mark scheme.

In 2016 Ofqual reformed the remarking/appeals system

Ofqual conducted experiments to test a number of different remarking methods in order to find the most accurate, concluding that the current system of remarking was no better or worse than the alternatives but could be improved further.

They found that remarkers were usually generous so requesting remarks often yields a result.  This is unfair on candidates who do not appeal. From 2016, therefore, exam boards may only raise a mark on appeal if the original mark is not one an experienced examiner could have given – it is an ‘unreasonable mark.’

This brings us to the concept of marking tolerance.  It has long been the case that for longer answers there is an accepted range of possible marks.  If three good markers mark an A-level history essay the range of possible marks might be 16, 17 or 18 out of 25.  So there is a three mark tolerance for this type of essay answer. Remarkers do not necessarily use tolerance when deciding whether in their judgement a mark could reasonably have been given, but the concept is nevertheless relevant to their work.


Differences between different exam boards are a source of unfairness

Ofqual does a good job trying to ensure that all exam boards are working to the same standard for any given subject.  However, it is an imprecise task when one is comparing completely different exam questions.  We have been plagued over the years by exam boards competing for market share by ‘dumbing down’ – easier syllabuses, easier questions, more generous marking, more generous grading.  The situation has improved since 2011 as Ofqual has taken a harder line.  The situation will improve further from 2015 as the reformed GCSE, AS and A level specifications bring exam boards into line and Ofqual makes a big effort to ensure that syllabuses and sample papers are all of a similar standard.

None of the above issues may be as profound as the issue of inter-subject comparability

Some subjects are easier than others.  The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at the University of Durham has been publishing materials about this for many years.  For example, if you look at the average GCSE grade of pupils getting an A grade in an A-level, you find it is lower for some subjects than others.  The ‘hard’ subjects include Latin, Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, modern foreign languages.  So pupils taking these subjects get lower grades at A-level than they would have done had they taken the ‘easier’ subjects.  At present there is no requirement for exam boards to align subjects by degree of difficulty (partly because degree of difficulty is so hard to define).

The problems with having ‘harder’ and ‘easier’ subjects at both GCSE and A-level are:

  • not all users (universities etc) will have the knowledge to discriminate between them.
  • performance tables don’t discriminate so if some subjects are ‘easier’ they will become more popular for no very good reason.  And then schools which do lots of easy subjects appear better than they are, misleading parents and Ofsted.
  • the UCAS tariff doesn’t discriminate – all subjects are given the same points score.  This is a problem for degree subjects like law where admissions tutors might accept any A-level subjects.
  • we don’t want to choke off ‘difficult’ subjects such as modern languages and sciences which the nation needs.  We know there has been particular concern about modern languages at A-level in recent years, partly perhaps because of the number of native speakers taking these A-levels.  (This is a particular problem with Mandarin where most of the students sitting the A-level in the UK are Chinese.)  Science bodies have shown that pupils with any given set of GCSE grades tend to get worse science A-level results than they would in other subjects.
  • at school level, teachers of easy subjects might get more pay and promotion than teachers of harder subjects simply because their results look better.
  • pupils kid themselves that they are ‘best’ at the subjects in which they get the highest grades and make university subject and career decisions on this basis.

There are a number of things which could be done.  You could simply publish the inter-subject comparability data to the users (universities etc) and leave them to adjust their offers accordingly.  Some countries, such as Hong King and Australia, adjust the grades of optional subjects using a formula which relate the scores achieved in compulsory subjects to those achieved in options.  You could continue as now but publish a SECOND grade which is adjusted.  You could continue as now but publish a rank as well as the grade.

But the fact will remain it is very difficult to compare the ability required to do well in subjects like Art and Physics.  They require very different skill sets.


Grading by using comparable outcomes


One important objective of Ofqual is to maintain grade standards over time, ensuring that the scripts being graded this year would have got the same grade had they been set, marked and graded last year.  This is another way of saying that they want to stop grade inflation because it undermines confidence in the system.

It is not simply a matter of saying ‘over 80% is an A grade’, because this year’s papers may be slightly harder than last year, in which case the 80% rule would be unfair on this year’s candidates. So examiners take a close look at the scripts from last year which were just below and just above each grade boundary and compare them with this year’s scripts.

Nor is it simply a matter of saying ‘x% of candidates got an A grade last year so we should give the same % an A this year’. After all, the candidates work this year might be better – over time, teachers become more skilled at teaching a given syllabus, or schools might start diverting weaker students to other subjects where they have a greater chance of success. Or it might be that candidates get worse because schools start putting much younger children in for an exam (as some schools did with GCSE in recent years) or because the best students have moved away to other subjects or qualifications (such as the Pre-U, an alternative to A-levels).  We know that some bright children found the unreformed GCSEs rather undemanding, which is why independent schools put them in for the iGCSE, instead – so some of the best students were removed from the group taking GCSEs.

Where a new syllabus has been introduced, it is quite possible that it will be slightly easier or slightly harder than the previous syllabus. But because the new syllabus is different from the previous version it is not as easy to simply compare this year’s scripts with last year’s. Furthermore, experience tells us that results often dip when a new syllabus comes in because teachers are less used to it.  This is called the sawtooth effect and Ofqual research shows that the effect normally last three years.  This is potentially unfair on candidates, so when a new syllabus starts Ofqual asks exam boards to operate on the ASSUMPTION that the grade distribution this year will be very similar to last year if the cohort is similar.  This is comparable outcomes.

The way they have checked whether this year’s GCSE cohort is similar to last year’s is by comparing their Key Stage 2 tests scores in maths, English and science. If this year’s cohort is similar to last year’s Ofqual expects there to be a similar grade distribution in any given subject.  However, it is not a firm requirement – if an exam board can prove to Ofqual that standards really have risen this year, then it can give higher grades. And of course it only applies to the grade distribution for the cohort as a whole, not to individual candidates! A child who did well in KS2 but was lazy for the next five years would still do badly at GCSE.

Of course the use of KS2 data could be criticised as the basis for this comparison – it is five years old and most pupils in independent schools do not take KS2 tests so the data for them is missing.  From 2018 onwards Ofqual will do comparable outcomes by making use of National Reference Tests – tests taken in English and Maths by 18,000 children shortly before they sit the GCSE itself. Marks in the National Reference Tests will be aligned to the new GCSE grade boundaries in maths and English Language. The same test will be used every year so it will be possible to see whether standards in Maths and English have really risen or not.

So for example, if in 2018 55% of students get grade 4 or better and in the NRT 55% got 38 marks or better, this means 38 can be set as the minimum mark for grade 4.  SO if in the next year’s NRT 57% got 38, the proportion getting a grade 4 in the GCSE could rise to 57%.  In reality, because of the sawtooth effect, the NRT may not be used much before 2020.  Furthermore, the results of the NRT will not be used without other evidence to support a rise or fall in the number of higher grades.  Examiner judgement and the results of the Key Stage 2 tests for any given cohort will also play a part.

Does the NRT have any bearing on subjects other than maths and English?  Probably not, although further statistical work will need to be done on that.

Comparable outcomes only works for subjects where there are large groups of students and the make-up of the cohort is similar from one year to the next.  It cannot be used for very small subjects or where the cohort has changed, as happens quite often.

600,000 children sit GCSEs every year. In 2015 5.6 million GCSE subjects were sat….11 million exam scripts. Human judgement is central to the grade achieved by every child, but with such huge numbers a statistical framework which acts to ensure fairness from one year to the next is needed.


           The Good and Cresswell effect

When judging performance, we are more likely to favour performance against an easier challenge than against a more testing one. This was the conclusion that Good and Cresswell came to when they studied how examiners rated the work of students facing different levels of difficulty in question papers.

Their conclusion was the following:

“The awarders tended to consider fewer candidates to be worthy of any given grade on harder papers or, alternatively, that more candidates reached the required standards on easier papers.” (Good & Cresswell, 1988)

If judgement alone was used in monitoring the standards of examinations, whenever a hard question paper is set performance will appear to have declined, whereas whenever an easier question paper is set performance will appear to have improved.

The allocation of grades is based on a combination of Ofqual’s statistical recommendations based on comparable outcomes AND examiner judgement.

Raising the bar

One method used by the DfE since 2010 to raise standards in England is to raise the bar in terms of performance measures (how schools are judged) and floor standards (the minimum acceptable level below which action will be taken).  Floor standards have been raised for both primary schools (Key Stage 2 tests) and GCSEs.  In 2016 primary schools needed 65% of pupils to have met the national standard in all of reading, writing and maths. Floor standards at GCSE are based on the Progress 8 measure.  Floor standards post-16 are based on measures of attainment, progress, retention and destinations.

Up until 2017 the DfE had regarded grade C/4 as the pass grade for GCSE.  From that year the new grade 5 (a high C, low B) will be used in performance tables for the EBacc measure and is designated a ‘good pass’.

Floor standards have a political purpose: during a period where government wishes to make all schools become Academies, raising floor standards drives more and more into that net.

Raising floor standards at GCSE on the assumption that this may encourage more schools to improve is in direct contradiction to the principles of comparable outcomes grading.  Comparable outcomes means that the same proportion of pupils nationally will always fall below the pass grade each year.

What are grade descriptors?

GCSEs and A-levels have grade descriptors for each subject. These give “a general indication of the standards of achievement likely to have been shown by pupils awarded particular grade.” Here are part of the grade descriptors for Art GCSE:

To achieve Grade 8 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate independent critical investigation and in-depth understanding of sources to develop ideas convincingly
  • effectively apply a wide range of creative and technical skills, experimentation and innovation to develop and refine work
  • record and use perceptive insights and observations with well-considered influences on ideas
  • demonstrate advanced use of visual language, technique, media and contexts to realise personal ideas


To achieve Grade 5 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate competent critical investigation and understanding of sources to develop ideas coherently
  • apply a range of creative and technical skills and some experimentation and innovation to develop and refine work
  • record and use clear observations to influence ideas
  • demonstrate competent use of visual language, technique, media and contexts to realise personal ideas


Until recently these grade descriptors were used for grading exams.   If you can imagine applying these to art portfolios, you will see the difficulty with grade descriptors!  Everything hinges on the meaning of words such as ‘effectively’ and ‘in-depth’.   So now they are merely used to guide teachers as to the approximate meaning of each grade.

So how are exams graded?

Some grade boundaries are defined by EXAMINERS’ JUDGEMENT. To identify the boundary mark for each of these JUDGEMENT GRADES the procedure followed by the exam boards is as follows:

First, taking a sample of A-level scripts whose marks are believed to be close to, say, the A/B grade boundary, a group of experienced examiners look at the scripts starting with those with the highest mark and working down. They try to agree on the lowest mark for which there is consensus that the quality of work is worthy of an A rather than a B. This is called the upper limiting mark.

Next, taking scripts which have marks which are a bit worse than the upper limiting mark and working up from the bottom, they identify the highest mark for which there is consensus that the quality of work is not worthy of the higher grade. The mark above this forms the lower limiting mark.

The chair of examiners must then weigh all the available evidence – quantitative and qualitative – and recommend a single mark for the A/B grade boundary, normally within the range of the two limiting marks.

The chair of examiners makes the recommendation to the officer of the exam board with overall responsibility for the standard of qualifications. That officer may accept or vary the recommendation and will subsequently make a final recommendation to Ofqual. Ofqual may approve it or give reasons why they are not happy with it.  In the latter case the exam board must reconsider and produce a final report.  Ultimately Ofqual can direct an exam board to prevent it setting what it believes to be unjustifiably high or low grade boundaries.


A-levels are graded by establishing the ‘correct’ mark for the bottom of A and bottom of E as described above and the range between those two is divided equally into four creating the B/C, C/D and D/E boundaries. So the bottom of grades A and E are determined judgementally using two elements:


  1. ‘Comparable outcomes’: the proportion of the cohort who achieve an A and E should be similar to the previous year.
  2. Examiner judgement: the quality of the scripts at these grade boundaries. They compare scripts from last year that were on a grade boundary with this year’s scripts.


The B/C, C/D and D/E boundaries are determined arithmetically.

In the first years of the reformed A-levels (first exam 2017) the A* will be set using the comparable outcomes method: the proportion getting an A* will be roughly the same for each subject every year but can be slightly increased or decreased if the GCSE results of the previous year’s cohort suggests it was stronger or weaker than this year’s cohort.

Of course if the cohort taking an AS or A-level is very different to that taking it in the previous year, the comparable outcomes method is harder to operate. If a group’s GCSE results tell us that they are different from the previous cohort, then examiner judgement (the quality of the scripts) plays a greater role. Similarly, if the cohort size is small statistical predictions are less reliable and examiner judgement plays a bigger role.


For the first award of GCSE grades 1 to 9, and where the size and nature of the candidature in a subject allows, grading will be based primarily on statistical predictions. Examiner judgement will remain as part of the process, but because of the reforms to each subject, and the move to a new grading scale it will be less reliable than in normal years.

So broadly the same proportion of students achieve a grade 4 and above as previously achieved a grade C and above in the subject.  Broadly the same proportion of students achieve a grade 7 and above as previously achieved a grade A and above in the subject.  Broadly the same proportion of students achieve a grade 1 and above as previously achieved a grade G and above.

Grades 2, 3, 5 and 6 are awarded arithmetically so that the grade boundaries are equally spaced in terms of marks from neighbouring grades. Grade 5 is positioned in the top third of the marks for an old grade C and the bottom third of the marks for an old grade B.

Grade 8 is awarded arithmetically such that its grade boundary is equally spaced in terms of marks from the grade 7 and 9 boundaries.

Across all subjects (as opposed to within each individual subject) close to 20 per cent of those awarded a grade 7 or above will be awarded a grade 9.  However, the proportion of grade 9s awarded in each subject will vary depending on the overall proportion of grades 7 and above awarded within the subject; a formula will be used to achieve this:

Percentage of those achieving at least grade 7 who should be awarded grade 9 = 7% + 0.5 x percentage of candidates awarded grade 7 or above.


So the award of grades is complex and well thought-through, but has a degree of arbitrariness about it:  some grades are determined arithmetically and all are affected by the grade distributions used in previous years.

If grades are a bit arbitrary why do we use them? Because it is easier to make them comparable over time than raw scores. Raw scores will vary from year to year depending in part on the level of difficulty of the papers set. Grades on the other hand are assigned on the basis that a grade B this year should mean something similar to a grade B last year. The main problem with grades is really the cliff-edge effect: the difference between one grade and another is just one mark. But it is also the difference between going to university and reading medicine or not….so it affects students’ lives quite dramatically.

How might the cliff-edge effect be overcome? The answer could be to publish more information. Instead of universities being just given students’ grades they should be given details of how close they were to a higher grade boundary or the students’ rank in the list of all those taking an exam. Given that all such data is now held digitally, neither of these things would be difficult. Incidentally, the merit of giving ranks is one of the arguments for having just one exam board offering each subject. Ranks are not impossible if you have multiple exam boards, but much more difficult.


The two basic types of grades


Norm-referenced grading simply means that every year you give a fixed proportion of candidates any given grade – 10% get an A, 25% get a B and so on.  This method has two great advantages – it tells universities and other people who are selecting the best students where each student is in the rank order, and if the percentages getting each grade are fixed from one year to the next there can be no grade inflation.


We use norm-referencing all the time in our day-to-day lives.  For example, my car may get 40 miles to the gallon, but I only know how good that is by comparing it with other cars – some of which are more fuel-efficient, some less.  We compare our results with others.

Norm-referencing has distractors because it appears to create winners and losers.  You may be a pretty good classicist but if 55% of the other candidates are even better than you your grade may be depressed.  You are ‘below average’ and however good you are that makes you feel like a loser.
Another problem with having a fixed % of students getting each grade is that it does not tell you what each student actually knows.  After all, half the students taking a subject might be very good at it (as would be the case with GCSE Latin or A-level Further Maths for example) but under the fixed % system some of these very good students might only get a C grade just because a proportion of the candidates were even better.

So another problem with the fixed % system is that is has the potential to be demotivating.  Individual students and indeed whole schools might well feel that there is little point in striving to do better because under this  system it is so much harder to achieve improved grades – you can only improve if other people or other schools do relatively worse.


The alternative is called criteria-referenced grading where the exam board starts by defining what candidates must know in order to achieve any given grade.  Normally there will be an attempt to define this in words and there may also be a minimum mark needed for each grade.  This system has the advantage that if all candidates perform very well, all can achieve a high grade.  In the case of subjects which normally only taken by fairly able pupils, such as Further Maths, Latin or Greek, this seems only fair.

A form of criteria-referenced grading is what we have used for public exams in the UK in recent years, but the system has suffered from grade inflation as candidates have been better and better prepared.  If too many students gain a high grade, universities can no longer select the best students using public exam grades – they have been forced to create their own special tests.

Furthermore, it is not easy to define on paper what any given grade should look like – the grade descriptors are highly subjective.


Our current system uses both norm-referencing and criteria-referencing.  It is based on criteria-referencing to the extent that examiners have to judge the quality of scripts, but the comparable outcomes approach to grading has introduced a greater element of norm-referencing.



Reliability of an assessment


Reliability of an assessment is a technical term used by examiners.  It means the extent to which the assessment consistently and accurately measures learning.  When the results of an assessment are reliable, we can be confident that if we repeated a test with the same or similar pupils tomorrow it would provide similar results.  If you weighed yourself on a set of scales you would hope that if you repeated the weighing five minutes later the result would be the same – that is reliability.

Factors which can affect reliability include:

  • The length of the assessment – a longer assessment generally produces more reliable results.
  • The suitability of the questions or tasks for the students being assessed.
  • The phrasing and terminology of the questions.
  • The state of mind of the students – for example, a hot afternoon might not be the best time for students to be assessed.
  • The design of the mark scheme and the quality of the markers.
  • The consistency of the methods used to turn marks into grades.

     Measurement error

In fact if a pupil takes the same or very similar exam several times they will not get exactly the same score every time.  In 2013 quite significant numbers took both the GCSE and iGCSE in English;  one third of them got the same grade in both, one third got a higher grade in the GCSE, one third did better in the iGCSE.  Because both qualifications are supposed to work to the same grading standard, all candidates should have obtained the same grade in both.  The fact that they didn’t was partly due to measurement error, a rarely-discussed characteristic of all exams.

The measurement error might have been caused by the fact that the two exam papers contained different questions and students may have been better prepared for one than the other.  Or because all students have good and bad days. Or because of slight differences in the harshness or leniency of markers.

In public exams we transform marks into grades.  The line between one grade and another (the cut score) is always slightly arbitrary.  Many candidates have marks close to a grade boundary.  The margin of error certainly means that some candidates who one day got a grade B might on the next day get an A.  The use of marking tolerances in long-answer papers like History A-level means that two IDENTICAL scripts can legitimately be given different marks and thus different grades.

The message for pupils is: try to avoid being near a lower grade boundary.

The message for universities and others selecting young people is: try to obtain evidence beyond one set of exam results.  Oxford and Cambridge universities are of course the most selective universities in the UK.  They typically use a range of measures to select students: GCSE results, AS-level results where they have them, A-level results, pre-test results such as the BMAT test for applicants for medicine, the school reference, the student’s own personal statement, a sample of written work submitted by the student, and two interviews.  This is sensible, if expensive.

The message for Governments is: if you are going to use test and exam results for school accountability purposes, employ an expert in statistics to calculate the margin of error so that decisions are not made on the basis of inconclusive data.


        Sampling error

Whereas measurement error applies to the mark achieved by individual pupils, sampling error applies to errors that arise from the selection of a sample of particular students or schools for the purposes of measurement.  For example, the PISA tests sampled 20,000 15-year olds in the UK in 2015.

In the 2015 UK General Election and the 2016 UK referendum about membership of the EU most polls, even those taken on the day of the vote, were wrong.  In 2015 few predicted a Conservative victory.  In 2016 most predicted a victory for Remain.   The polls are based on a sample of the voting population, carefully chosen of course but only a sample.  The poll results had a known margin of error (say plus or minus 2%) which in both cases was fundamental to the outcome as both the General Election and the Referendum results were close.  But the British public were not given this data.  Both polls were, incidentally, affected by what is called social desirability bias – a tendency for people to give an answer which they felt was more socially acceptable.  Many Conservative voters (‘shy Tories’) felt it was more socially acceptable not to admit to voting Tory as did many EU Brexiters.

In education sampling error applies where people quote aggregate test scores from a sample of students, such as the PISA tests measuring a sample of 15-year olds.  Sampling error is more likely if the sample is small or, of course, if the sample is unrepresentative of the whole.  With PISA this happens when they try to draw conclusions about sub-sets of their sample, such as the performance of different ethnic groups or of private schools: here the sample size is small and much more prone to error.

Sampling error can also apply to conclusions made about individual schools.  It is dangerous to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of a school by looking at the exam results gained by just one year group in one particular June because that sample year group may not be typical of all year groups in the school.  This is especially a problem for small school where the very bad performance of just two or three children can distort results.


Validity of an exam

Validity is a technical term used in the world of exams which has a specific meaning and should not be confused with the normal use of the word.  Validity in exams is not about the exams themselves, it is about the validity of the inferences you can make from the exam results.  The validity of an assessment is the extent to which it measures what it was designed to measure. 


For example, a test of mathematics should measure mathematical ability and not the ability to read English so a maths exam with lots of English text will reduce its validity as a test of maths.


In recent years in England university Physics departments complained that students coming to them with good grades in A-level Physics were not ready to take an undergraduate degree in Physics because their maths was too weak.  A Physics A-level should measure your ability to do Physics at a good level.  But because of dumbing down much maths had been stripped out so the qualification lacked some validity.


One of the difficulties examiners have is deciding how long a set of exams should be.  An exam only samples a pupil’s knowledge, but if the sample is too small the less likely it is to test all the various domains of subject content.  Examiners rather pompously call this construct under-representation.  It makes the exam less valid.


An example of construct under-representation was the French oral pupils took for GCSE French in recent years.  The oral was supposed to test the ability to speak in French but the way it was designed allowed pupils to rote learn a selection of phrases and spout them out to the examiner.  The test did not really measure their ability to speak French.


There is a link between reliability and validity.  For example, if the purpose of a design technology course is to measure the ability of students to make products out of wood, metal or plastic with technical skill and imagination you are going to have to rely on a good deal of coursework to make the assessment valid.  But coursework of this sort, spread over many weeks with the teacher giving greater or lesser degrees of help is a less reliable form of assessment.

On the other hand, insisting on highly consistent assessment conditions to attain high reliability will result in little flexibility, and might therefore limit validity.  If all DT students have to make the same product, for example, the assessment will not measure imagination.

The ten things you need to do to ensure all pupils do well at school


This issue has been extensively researched in the UK and the answer is known.  Most head teachers know the answer from their own experience and reading but some find it harder than others to implement what they know.

The answer is:

1 Good discipline

Without good discipline little else can be achieved.  Fortunately most children and parents want good discipline.  Good discipline needs firm leadership from the head.  In schools where discipline is poor the head has to:

*lay down clear rules which relate to behaviour in the classroom, behaviour in the corridors and public areas, behaviour on the way to and from school.

*assume that pupils will misbehave so all staff need to know the rules and sanctions and apply them fairly and 100% of the time.  Many staff may be needed to patrol common areas during break and lunchtime.

*temporarily exclude pupils whose behaviour is disrupting others.

*see parents of all troublesome children.

*have agreed routines for many things such as movement between classes, queueing for lunch, going into the classroom, standing before the lesson starts, what to get out of your bag before the lesson starts, how to end a lesson, how to present work, how to hand in work, how a teacher will mark work, what to do if an adult comes into the room, how to address staff, how to wear uniform etc.

*have agreed sanctions.

*have staff specifically responsible for the most troublesome pupils.

*provide support for staff who find discipline is a problem.

2 High expectations of every child.  

Every child must be expected to behave well and work hard.  Every child must be expected to pass every GCSE and A-level.  So there has to be regular questioning in class, marked homework and testing to ensure the teacher knows whether pupils are keeping up with these high expectations.  The school invests in tracking individuals and groups.

Expectations should not be limited by target grades.  Schools must be ambitious.

If a pupil is NOT keeping up with expectations then there will always be a response.  The response will depend on the circumstances but will include:

*restests in the case of bad test marks.

*homework repeated after school on any day where homework is late or of poor quality.

*seeing parents.

*extra tuition.

*pastoral assistance to pupils who are being held back by emotional or family problems – which will never be an excuse for poor behaviour or poor work.

But there will also be plenty of rewards and praise for good work or for improvement.

The curriculum should be stretching, especially for the more able.  That means studying hard texts in English literature, learning to read music in music lessons, doing life drawing to a good standard in art, making demanding pieces in product design.

There must be systems which ensure teachers set marked work following a homework timetable.

Teachers who cannot manage this should be helped and, if they cannot improve, moved on.

3 Good English  

Many big-city pupils do not speak English at home and/or they have parents with a limited vocabulary.  But good English is the sine qua non of success in most school subjects and

most urban jobs.  So all pupils coming to secondary school without Level 4 English must have extra lessons, abandoning other subjects where necessary.

4 Good teachers

Good schools spend time thinking of ingenious ways of attracting and retaining good staff.

Good teachers tend to have good subject knowledge, they are enthusiastic about their job and their subject, they plan lessons well, they check learning in lessons, they test pupils and mark work regularly. They set high expectations, command genuine respect and have the authority to create a scholarly space that allows pupils to achieve.

5 Regular testing

Pupils have to learn how to commit work to memory.  They must all have good notes and revision guides.  They must be tested on the term’s work every three weeks or so, generally across a year group for any one subject.  The results should be send to parents and put up in a public place.  Pupils who do badly should be set the target of improving their ranked position and given help so that they do.

6 Emotional commitment

Pupils must believe that the school is a good school and they are proud to be in it. They must like their teachers while knowing that they are strong on discipline.  They must want to work well to please the teacher.  They must be taught that good exam results are perfectly possible and lead to a better job and better life.  They must see the point of it all.

7 Cultural capital

Children from disadvantaged homes may not see much of the world.  So they must be forced to visit museums, art galleries, classical music concerts, plays, lectures….and write about these experiences.  They must be forced to read.

8 Parental involvement

There needs to be very good involvement with parents – regular reports on their children, visits to parents who appear to be invisible, newsletters, invitations to events, routine parents’ meetings.  Parents should be explicitly told which rules they should insist on in the home and how to help their children do homework.

9 Extra-curricular activity

Sport, debating, music, drama, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme – things which help develop lifelong interests and friendships and which provide something good about school for those who find academic work entirely burdensome.  The key is to find ways of compelling all pupils to be involved in something every term.  Tutors have a role to play.

10 Collaboration

Most good secondary schools now benefit from being part of MATs or loose federations of local schools where they draw on each other’s strengths.  Strong departments help weak ones.  There is a sense of responsibility for the whole area – no school stands alone.


And of course there is a number 11 – good heads.  They are the people who make sure that numbers 1-10 happen.






Ten reasons for independent schools to be optimistic in 2016


1 Independently educated students get better degree results and higher salaries.

HEFCE research in 2015 found that of independent school pupils 82% got 1sts and 2:1s, compared to 73% for state school students.

Research by the Social Market Foundation found that by the age of 42 a privately-educated person will have earned £194,000 more than a state-educated person.

2 Parents want what we offer.

ISC research shows that parents want what ISC schools offer, including good behaviour, a focus on non-academic achievement and the explicit development of ‘soft skills’.  Research published last year showed that one reason for the pay difference described in 1 above was the possession of non-academic skills such as articulacy, assertiveness and imagination.   In 2016 ISC will be publishing research into soft skills and their significance.

3 Overseas franchises are booming.

In 2016 the number of overseas pupils in ISC school franchises will exceed the number of overseas pupils being educated in the UK.  ISC schools now run fifty satellite schools abroad and are part of a global network looking beyond the UK for partnership and inspiration.

4 Boarding school numbers are growing.

Boarding numbers rose for the first time for a while in 2015 and there are signs of a resurgence in this sector.

5 Exam results will be excellent.

In 2015 over 60% of GCSE/iGCSE entries were graded A* or A as were half of A-level entries.

A third of those taking the IB Diploma obtained 40 or more points.

ISC’s analysis of A-level value added showed it was well above the national average.  Pupils in our schools get the best results in the right subjects.

HMC/GSA research showed that 2015 was the best-ever year for entry to Russell Group universities and this trend is likely to continue.

6 Getting to grips with pastoral problems.

In 2015 ISC schools looked even more closely at the most effective strategies for reducing stress and dealing with the fallout from social networking.  Meanwhile some issues are causing schools and pupils fewer problems that they were five years ago: illegal drug use, alcohol misuse, smoking, homophobic bullying and sexual health.

7 The number of children in receipt of means-tested bursaries is growing.

A third of pupils at ISC schools are educated on a reduced fee and £370 million is being spent this year on bursaries.  The amount is rising every year, opening up our schools to pupils from a wider range of backgrounds.

8 ISC schools have survived the recession.

Outside London it has been tough but in 2015 overall numbers grew despite the economic conditions.  ISC schools educate about 6% of GCSE pupils and 14% of A-level pupils.

9 Partnerships with state schools are blossoming.

93% of ISC schools identified some form of school or community partnership and 2016 will see more and more progress in this area.  In 2106 we will publish details of many of the most successful projects on a new Schools Together website.

10 Fees are under control.

In 2015 fee increases were low – amongst the lowest ever recorded.  The signs are that in 2016 fee increases will be low again, made possible by very low inflation.  Meanwhile house prices have continued to rise in areas round all the best state schools, making access to these state schools more expensive than a good fee-charging school. For example, Tiffin School, a selective state in Kingston achieves excellent GCSE results – but the average house price in £714, 982.

Pupils are uniquely stressed these days

When I read of head teachers claiming that their pupils are ‘more stressed than ever’ and suffering mental illness on an unprecedented scale, several thoughts occur…..

1 My parents were at school during the Second World War, their fathers out of the country for 6 years fighting the Nazis.  Were they not ‘uniquely stressed’?  If not, why not?  Come to that, what about the 18 year olds actually fighting the war?  Is there an issue with our pupils lacking resilience?

2 Schools have been dealing with problems such as anorexia amongst girls for many years; this, at least, is not a new phenomenon.

3 If you send a questionnaire to pupils or staff asking them if they are stressed, most will say they are more stressed than ever.  I have done it.

4 When I started teaching in boys’ schools we did not take much notice of mental health issues.  Now we do, employing counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists.  So the problems are much more visible.   Take ADHD – in the past pupils who could not focus were classified as ‘naughty’ and brought into line.  Then the problem was medicalised and given a name.  So now schools refer pupils to psychiatrists for a diagnosis, they are placed on a special needs register and given drugs.  It is more visible.

5 This is part of a more general trend towards treating every pupil as an individual.  Schools often say that their aim is ‘to develop the potential of every individual child’.  Every maintained-school child is classified by age, gender, ethnicity, ability, parental income and special needs, and exam results are broken down accordingly.  Teachers are expected to differentiate between different children when teaching them.  We care more about individuals.

The tendency to claim that school children are uniquely stressed is accompanied by similar claims about adults.  The number of work-related cases of stress in the UK  in 2014 was 444,000 according to the Health and Safety Executive, up from 428,000 two years earlier.  This epidemic has been accompanied by the growth of a vast stress-management industry which promotes the use of mindfulness, breathing techniques, massage, meditation and Zumba classes.  The NHS prescribed 53 million packs of antidepressants last year.  This despite the fact that work hours have never been shorter, working conditions better,  holidays longer, living standards higher than at any point in the past.

The medicalisation of stress is acting to increase the number of patients suffering from it.  It creates an attitude of learned helplessness and encourages pupils to think that school is damaging their health and makes adults think work is bad for them when the opposite is true.  Stress is an emotion which enables us to cope with the many challenges of school, work and life.  It is a valuable part of our make-up.

But if we assume that pupils today are ‘uniquely stressed’, what might be the cause of that?

Not exam pressure.  There is no more exam pressure now than 20 years ago (unless parents and schools are causing it).  It has never been easier to gain high grades, never easier to get into a good university, never easier (for the top 80%) to get a job.  Key Stage 3 tests have gone, GCSE resits have gone, GCSE and A-level modules have gone – so the number of exams being sat has been greatly reduced.

It might be caused by online social media.  All the research so far suggests that social networking is both highly addictive and damaging to teenagers’ well-being [i] [ii], a bit like cigarettes.  Social networking feeds into the natural narcissism of adolescents [iii]  but interestingly, it is also linked to low self-esteem.[iv]  Social networking allows children to create identities which allow them to be more rude, more sexy, more adventurous and indulge in inappropriate behaviour. [v]  Sherry Turtle explains in her book Alone Together that the more connected you are online the more isolated you feel.[vi]  Social media provides an unparalleled platform for social comparison and envy.[vii]

Excessive internet use is also linked to a reduced ability to empathise with people and poor communications skills including difficulty in interpreting facial expressions.  [viii]  At Cornell University Michael Waldman, Sean Nicholson and Nodir Adilov have shown links between screen use and the development of autism. [ix]  Cyberbullying is rife. [x]

If this is the case, then the solutions are plain enough:

1 Tell parents that they must not allow their children to have a smartphone before they are 16.  A basic mobile is enough.

2 Tell parents they must not allow their children to have a Facebook account until they are 16.  Yes, some responsible parents do this!  If the whole school community can establish this as a priority, providing parents with the school support they need, it can happen.

3 Tell parents they must not allow their children to have a computer, tablet etc in their bedroom.  The computer will be in a public place so its use can be monitored.  The computer will have security software and the parent can see exactly what their children have been doing.

4 Tell parents that their children must not be allowed to use a computer/tablet/video game for more than two hours a day.

In November 2015 Kate Winslet announced that she was banning her children from taking their devices to restaurants or having them at night. She places a big emphasis on playing board games, climbing trees, playing I-Spy on ling car journeys – anything other than endless attention to their smartphones.

Susan Greenfield (2014) makes three other recommendations:

1 Eat together as a family, no devices at the table.

2 Read young children stories.

3 Go outside into the natural environment.

How bad is stress?   We all know the answer to that – some stress is good, too much stress is bad.  Some stress is good because it is part and parcel of being motivated.  Hard to imagine boys doing well in an exam if stress hadn’t motivated them to revise.  Stress is part of life and experiencing stress while at school is preparation for that.  Too much stress is bad – it diminishes enjoyment and prevents people from functioning effectively.  So we need a balance, as in most things.

[i] Greenfield, Susan, Mind Change, 2014 . Professor Greenfield shows that social networking is enabling teenagers to create a fantasy image of themselves.  Our identity used to be generated internally; now identity is constructed externally as the fragile product of the continuous interaction with ‘friends’.

[ii] Mauri, M, Cipresso, P, Balgera, A, Villamira, M, Riva, G, 2011, Why is Facebook so successful?  Research which shows why Facebook is addictive.  Social networking releases dopamine into the brain.

McAfee, 2010, The secret online lives of teens.

[iii] Buffardi, L, Campbell, W, 2008, Narcissism and social networking wed sites.

Twenge, J, Konrath, S, Foster, J, Campbell, W, Bushman, B, 2008, Egos inflating over time: a cross-temporal meta-analysis of the narcissistic personality inventory. 

[iv] Tiggemann, M, and Miller, J, 2010, The internet and adolescent girls’ weight satisfaction and drive for thinness. 

[v] Kidscape, 2011, Young people’s cyber life survey.

[vi] Turkle, S, 2012, Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other.

[vii] Krasnova, H, Wenninger, H, Widjaja, T, Buxmann, P, 2013, Envy on Facebook: a hidden threat to users’ life satisfaction?

[viii] Engleberg,E, Sjoberg, L, 2004, Internet use, social skills and adjustment.

[ix] Waldman, M, Nicholson, S, Adilov, N, 2006, Does television cause autism?

[x] LeBlanc, J, 2012, Cyberbullying and suicide: a retrospective analysis of 22 cases.

Tim, nice-but-dim

In June 2015 the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published research by Dr Abigail McKnight from the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics suggesting that middle-class parents support their children so that even less intelligent middle-class children do quite well in life.

17,000 children born in a week in 1970 took an intelligence test when they were 5 (British Cohort Study).  When they were aged 42 their income was recorded.  Less intelligent middle class children were earning more than more intelligent lower income children. In the post-war period the number of good white collar jobs grew faster than the size of the middle-class workforce and this enabled working class children to obtain middle class jobs.

The theory is that this is no longer happening, so for able working class children to have upward mobility some middle class children will have to have downward mobility.  The fact that middle class children do not generally experience downward mobility is the ‘glass floor.’ Dr McKnight suggests there are 2 main pillars supporting the ‘glass floor’: More advantaged parents securing educational opportunities to help their children overcome lack of ability and overtake their more gifted but poorer peers by:

*investing time and resources in education to help children showing early signs of low attainment to recover and achieve good qualifications and even to enter higher education – a major stepping stone to a professional job

*providing better careers advice and guidance – this is likely to be important in explaining why parental education has such a big impact on their children’s earnings even controlling for qualifications and schooling

*placing a high value on polish and ‘soft skills’, such as self-confidence, decisiveness, leadership and resilience

*prioritising school choice, with more advantaged parents able to move house to be in the catchment area of a great state school, invest in private tuition to coach their children to pass the 11+ in selective areas, or give their children a private education

More advantaged parents securing advantages for their children into the labour market that are unavailable to less well-off parents by:

*helping their children into employment through informal social networks

*securing informal and unpaid internships

*investing in their children’s ‘soft skills’ which are highly valued in employment recruitment processes.

Chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, said: “No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want. But Britain is a long way from being a meritocratic society when the less able can do better in life than the more able. “It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top.  This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling. “It’s a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain. The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them.”

There are a number of issues with this research, as you would expect of something coming out of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics.

1 Middle class children overcome any lack of ability by working hard and indeed working harder than some brighter children from lower income homes. I have taught many dim pupils from wealthy homes, not least at Eton in the 1970s and 1980s when the school operated an admissions system based on registration with the school before the child turned one.  After the child’s first birthday it was too late.  For eight years I operated this admissions system, meeting the parents of the nought-year olds and then subjecting the child (average age four months) to a series of demanding tests which I am sorry to say failed to nail down their intelligence.  On this basis future Etonians were selected and, unsurprisingly, when they shipped up aged 13 the spread of ability was as wide as could be. But as the years I passed I noticed two things.

Firstly, less intelligent pupils who worked hard (nearly all my pupils worked hard) achieved good exam results.  This was not because of extra tutoring or resources – they just worked hard.  All my pupils had to do well, so if they failed a test they had to retake the test as many times as it took for them to pass.  In this way the material was driven into their brains. When pupils come to a private school they often take an entrance exam called Common Entrance.  Once I reached senior management I started to correlate Common Entrance results with GCSE and A-level results and found that the correlation was poor.  The Maths papers at Common Entrance correlated a bit, but generally the correlation was poor.   Every few weeks at the various schools in which I taught pupils were given an effort grade and an achievement grade.  What did correlate with GCSE and A-level results were the effort grades.  So we could say with complete certainly that results depend in part on intelligence, of course, but in good measure on effort.  All teachers know this to be true.

The Report acknowledges this: ‘Children in private schools work hard to achieve good exam results…’  It is these exam results which enable them to go to good universities.

The second thing I noticed was that some of the least intelligent boys I taught did really well in life.  Some were saved by the fact that before 1990 they were not encouraged to go to university.  They went straight into a job, and that was often the army.  In the army they learnt to be organised, they were taught leadership, they grasped hard work.  They developed skills that were going to be valuable to them when, after seven or so years, they left the army. There are many paths to success and it doesn’t help to suggest that children who are found to have a lower IQ score at age 5 should not expect to do well in life.  The basis of this Report is the assumption that children with poor test scores at age 5 are ‘less likely to have successful careers’ and children with high test scores aged 5 ‘are more likely to have highly successful careers.’  This is, fortunately, a false assumption.

2 When the scores of the cognitive tests taken at age 5 were examined, children from middle class homes were found to do much better than children from lower income homes.  37% of children from social class I had test scores in the top quintile at age 5 compared to 8% in social class V.

3 Women are considerably less likely to be in high paid work than their male peers whether high attaining or low attaining at age 5.  This crucial fact reminds us that the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s obsession with social class conceals other things which have a huge impact on social mobility such as gender, ethnicity and geographical location.  Social mobility is multi-faceted.

4 Intelligence is not fixed, so just because you do badly in a cognitive test aged 5 that does not mean you are dim.  Your brain is still developing.  By making a bit of effort you can become more intelligent.  Indeed this research shows that dim children of middle class parents seem to have improved their mathematical ability by the age of 10.  Their brains have developed.

5 The research acknowledges that middle class children develop superior social and emotional skills when compared to children from lower income homes.

6 The research only looks at people born in 1970 but concludes with recommendations applying to children born since 2000.  This is always a problem with research of this sort.   Education moves on, the jobs market moves on, the quality of parenting moves on – and that begs the question whether it is sensible to apply lessons from forty years ago to the current generation of children.

7 The report talks about children from better-off families ‘hoarding’ opportunities.  This implies that they are doing something wrong doesn’t it?  People who hoard are normally felt to be greedy.   But in fact all they are doing is working hard to achieve good results.

If you really want to help children from lower income homes achieve their potential you have to be sure that your analysis is right.  I have helped set up a state school in a disadvantaged part of London in order to try and improve the exam results and university entry scores for that area.   So far (it is early days) we have been very successful.

The way in which you achieve good results for disadvantaged children is to have high expectations – of all of them.  This is the main reason why countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan do better than the UK and USA.  We attach too much importance to measured intelligence.  We give pupils of lower ability unambitious target grades, we put them in for unambitious public exams, we are accepting of mediocrity.  But in the Far East there is an assumption that all children can do well if they work hard.  So less able children are given extra lessons, they are held back if they have not mastered a subject, and they are retested until they prove that they are capable of moving onto the next level – which most are.

The best way to help a pupil from a low income home is to make them to work hard, in the knowledge that they will succeed if they do.  There are two ways to do this:

*very strict discipline of the sort Michael Wilshaw demonstrated at Mossbourne, or Dame Sally Coates at Burlington Danes– very good behaviour, insistence on high quality work.  This requires a strong head teacher who is able to ensure that all teachers are operating to the same high standards and it requires regular testing so that both pupils and teachers who are failing to live up to the high standards are quickly identified.

*excellent teachers who are able to inspire their pupils to work hard using the methods described, for example, by John Tomsett.

That is how you do it.  Regular testing with consequences which flow from the results.  In England pupils who achieve good exam grades in sensible subjects go to good universities.  Most people who go to good universities have a good salary by the age of 42.  Research which obscures this simple fact is missing the point.

GCSEs are a great thing

Exams are an essential element of a child’s education because of the tremendous value of committing knowledge and information to the long-term memory.   For most children, carrying what they have learnt in school into adult life depends in large measure on them being forced to memorise it.  A typical average ability 16 year old boy can reel off 60 or so words in French three months before he sits the GCSE.  On the day of the exam that figure has grown to 300+ – all driven by fear of the exam.

Exams put pressure on children, and that is their great virtue.  Girls are more likely to want to please the teacher and are therefore more motivated during the course.  Boys do not especially want to please teachers – in my experience of teaching boys, 80% are relatively idle during the term but most make a big effort preparing for exams.

So exams are the essential building block of motivation.  Ask any teacher who has had to teach an unexamined course to 15-year olds, as many schools used to do with Religious Studies.  It was a hapless task, and almost all now insist pupils take the RS GCSE as a way of improving pupils’ attitude in lessons.  Anyone who thinks that exams are a bad thing has never taught a class of teenage boys.  Exams work because they make pupils work.

The age at which pupils are required to be in education or training has recently risen to 18 so why do we need exams at all at age 16?  Because in the English system we typically drop down from ten GCSE subjects to four A-levels at that age.  On average one of those A-levels is a subject not done at GCSE, so most pupils drop about seven subjects at the age of 16.  It is vital that, having studied these seven subjects for up to twelve years, pupils be examined in all of them in order to consolidate what they know and measure their progress.

Exam results are the necessary qualification for moving to the next level.  We do not want pupils embarking on A-levels unless they have a GCSE performance which suggests they might achieve something worthwhile.  We do not want students embarking on a medical degree if they cannot get an A grade in Chemistry – they would be too likely to fail.

The alternative to exams is continuous teacher assessment.  In England in recent years we have experimented with teacher assessment and it has been disastrous.  Many teachers hate it because they come under huge pressure to get good marks for all pupils (where do you think grade inflation came from?) and because these ‘controlled assessments’ have been found to be intensely dull.  Instead of getting on and teaching a course as they would wish, the academic year becomes dominated by dreary teacher-assessed coursework.

GCSEs have been reformed.  January exams and resits have been scrapped, so halving the number of exams for many students.  Exam ‘modules’ are dead.  Grade inflation is being turned back.  New syllabuses are being produced in every school subject to make them more relevant and demanding, bringing our courses up to the level of the best in the world.  More stretching questions will be introduced, there will be less teaching-to-the-test, coursework will only be allowed when it is obviously better than a written exam as a way of measuring a child’s knowledge and ability.

GCSEs are designed to be taken by the full ability range so some of the questions have to be easy.  Journalists pluck out those easy questions and make them represent the standard of the whole GCSE – they undermine confidence in our most important national qualification with a lie.

Pupils in successful countries take exams.  They force children to place the knowledge they have been presented with into the memory.  Once in the memory new things start to happen in the brain – like analytical thinking and the creation of links between different bits of knowledge.  Educated people know things and the reason they know things is not simply because ‘they have been taught it’.  Far too many children are taught things but know nothing.  The essential step in the process is commitment to memory.

Of course exams cause anxiety and distress but those who think children should never be challenged in this way are the enemies of good education.  Teenagers, and especially boys, have to be driven to succeed.  Exams are that driver.

School improvement by scale

The number one problem in English education is the underachievement of the bottom 30% of pupils, especially white boys.  Our top end of pupils are excellent by international standards but the difference between the best 30% and the worst 30% is greater in England than in most developed countries.  What is more, in England children’s exam performance correlates more closely with their parents’ social class than almost anywhere in the world.

Attempts to solve this problem can be found at different scales.  At the national level the social class problem is being tackled by means of the pupil premium – a grant for schools taking ‘disadvantaged’ children.  For example, the 2015-16 grant is £935 per pupil for Years 7-11 children who qualify for free school meals, including those whose family income falls below about £16,000 a year.   Some schools appear to be having much more success than others with such disadvantaged pupils.

Also at the national level are measures designed to reduce the level of child poverty (a term which is itself subject to much debate).  Measures such as lifting the minimum wage and increasing employment would come under this heading.

Also at the national level the government has tried to improve the supply of good teachers in disadvantaged areas by means of Teach First, which recruits good graduates to work in difficult areas for two years.  This has been successful, but in fact a high proportion of pupils who do poorly at school are not in schools in problem areas.  Very large numbers of schools with good overall results have a tail of underachievers.

At the local level governments of the past ten years have focussed on transferring responsibility for schools from local authorities, who were thought to have been ineffective in many cases, to Academy sponsors – businessmen and educationalists. The first schools to be transferred were the lowest achieving and unsurprisingly they improved.  Two Academy chains seem to have had a good deal of success in the past five years; otherwise it is too early to assess the success of this policy.

Also at the local level the government has encouraged the best schools to become Teaching Schools and to manage teacher recruitment and training across local clusters of schools through School Direct or School-Centred Initial Teacher Training groups.  These groups are building their capacity at the same time as some university teacher-training courses are losing theirs.  There is as yet inadequate evidence that this is working – it might work, but it is early days.

At the school level the government requires schools to be inspected every few years and given a grade by Ofsted.  If a school receives a less-than-good grade then the frequency of inspection rises and if a school is inadequate it can be taken over by an Academy chain.  Ofsted is used to implement government policy; for example, schools have been told that they cannot get a top grade if their pupils do not take the EBacc GCSE subjects – maths, English, science, history or geography and a modern foreign language.

The government sets minimum standards for individual schools which, if they are not met, can also result in the school being taken over by an Academy chain.  This may mean that the school’s governors are dismissed and the head teacher replaced.

*the floor standard for primary schools is currently 65% of children get to level 4 in English and maths by age 11, for secondary schools 40% of children get five GCSEs graded A* to C including English and maths at age 16.

*from 2016 this will be succeeded by a new measure called Progress 8 which measures the progress made by every child between the age of 11 (when they take Key Stage 2 tests in maths and English) and the age of 16 when they take GCSEs.  There are other accountability measures but this is the main one.  The measure looks at the pupil’s eight best subjects including maths, English, the three highest point scores from any of the EBacc qualifications in science subjects, computer science, history, geography and languages, and three others.  Schools will fail on this accountability measure if their average progress score is significantly below that achieved by other schools with similar ability pupils.

*in 2015 a new accountability measure was announced – coasting schools Now 60% of pupils must get 5 GCSEs graded A*-C including English and maths at secondary, and 85% must get Level 4 in English and maths at primary. If schools fall below that and have lower than average rates of progress of pupils, then they be called coasting.  A school will need to fall into the definition of coasting for each of three years in a row to be categorised as coasting.

At the level of the classroom we know that a good teacher can achieve 18 months progress for children in a year while a weak teacher will only achieve 6 months progress.  This is why schools have not only introduced more lesson observation, training and appraisal systems in recent years but have also, in many cases, embarked on performance-related pay.  An analysis by Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major in 2014 looked at over 200 pieces of research and concluded that the two teacher qualities with the strongest evidence of improving pupil attainment are the teacher’s subject knowledge and the quality of their instruction.

So measures to improve schools are operating at a variety of scales, from national-level policies down to the individual classroom.  Of course these are overlapping – attempts to improve the performance in the classroom may be driven by central government’s accountability measures.  If we cannot recruit good teachers to teach the least motivated pupils there is little chance that the nation’s social mobility will be improved.