‘GCSEs and A-Levels scrapped’ – but I wouldn’t relax just yet!

So on Wednesday the government announced that exams in England and Wales are to be scrapped in favour of ‘assessed grades’.

But does this may not necessarily mean you’ll be able to chillax for the next 6 months!

Given that this government has a track record of being reactive rather than pro-active in responding to Covid-19 – lurching from one inadequate response to another and U-turning dramatically where education is concerned, I wouldn’t bet on GCSE and A-level grades just being put entirely in the hands of teachers just yet.

Sure, that’s the message, but I’d be amazed if this scenario doesn’t develop further over the next few weeks with the education department putting in place some kind of centralised dictate that all schools and colleges must subject their students to some kind of controlled assessment which are basically just like the regular GCSEs and A-levels.

And the nature of the assessment will be set centrally, by the exam boards, who otherwise will just be laying around idle for another year (no exams means nothing to do) – I mean presumably if the government are paying these boards’ wages surely they’re going to get them to bodge something together in the next few weeks.

There will probably be some degree of flexibility over when students can sit said assessments, and probably some kind of sampling and standardisation procedure put in place, but I can’t imagine that the department for education is just going to ‘let schools get on with it’.

I mean, they haven’t done that with lockdown in general, why on earth are they going to give schools an easier-ride now and ‘trust teachers’, they only did that last year under an extreme public backlash, so it’s highly unlikely they’re just going to allow teachers the freedom to just ‘carry on and teach and assess’ as they see fit all the way through to June!

Practice Portuguese: The Best Place to Learn European Portuguese Online

I can highly recommend Practice Portuguese as the best place to European Portuguese online.

Many of the most commonly used platforms and downloadable apps for learning the language, such as Duolingo focus on Brazilian Portuguese as there are many more people seeking to learn the Latin American version compared to the European version.

HOWEVER, there are significant differences between the two, especially in terms of pronunciation – so if you learn ‘Brazilian Portuguese in Portugal then you run the risk of not being able to understand what people are saying to you and not being able to make yourself understood.

Hence if you are a newly arrived resident in Portugal or are thinking of moving to Portugal in the near future (which I recommend btw!) then you’re better off using a dedicated European Portuguese learning platform such as Practice Portuguese, which is what I use!

Course Structure

Trust me, as a professional teacher I don’t recommend any old online learning platform – but I’m happy to direct people to this site because it’s so well thought-out for those new to the language:

When starting out, you’re directed to a number of clear modules, with progress indicators, starting with ‘the basics’ and the gradually getting more complex.

There are lot more modules after this, I just don’t want to put in too many screenshots!

Videos and Podcasts for Learning Portuguese

Another feature I really like about the site is the collection of videos and podcasts which are available, again nicely organised and easy to navigate…

Being new to the language I cannot emphasise enough how useful being able to hear the language is, and being able to practice along is fundamental to gaining confidence in using it.

They even have videos focussing on gaining residency, which you’ll know is very useful if you’ve every tried dealing with Portuguese bureaucracy – attempting to speak the language goes a long way!

Discussion threads

Finally there’s a nice forum in which you can pose questions for people to answer, or just browse previous questions – which is a nice link to the lived experience of living in Portugal which you won’t get with some of the larger learning sites.

Practice Portuguese Final Thoughts

Overall I’m really enjoying using the site, it’s a very accessible way of learning European Portuguese.

I also really like the fact that it’s a relatively small scale, niche service run by two very friendly guys: Rui and Joel, which is much like what I do with this blog here!

I can recommend Practice Portuguese both professionally and personally!

The Gyaan Centre:

The Gyaan Centre is a new school for girls soon to be opened in Rajasthan, India.

Rajasthan is one of the most conservative states in India, with women and girls still being limited to very traditional roles – many girls are still married off early and then their only prospect is to be tied to their husband and household as wives and mothers.

This is reflected in Rajasthan’s extremely low female literacy rate, which is currently under 60%.

However, thanks to the new Gyaan Centre, 400 girls a year will now be provided with the opportunity to receive an education.

The Gyaan Centre, school for girls in Rajasthan, India

This isn’t a typical school, because the founders realised they would have to work within local norms in order for the school to stand any chance of success, so it isn’t just offering a ‘standard’ academic style of education of its pupils.

It is also going to be offering training in local crafts such as dyeing yoga matts to the mothers and aunts of its pupils and have a craft market aimed at the tourists who frequent the local area (or at least did before Covid-19, but no one could have predicted that!)

This is an interesting example of how a development project has to be rooted in local culture in order to stand a chance of being a success (assuming it will be of course!) rather than just being imposed by the West, and thus being irrelevant.

It’s also a nice reminder of how students shouldn’t generalise about the level of development in any country, especially one such as India with a population of one billion people.

While India has seen rapid economic development over the past decades, gender equality lags behind, and in certain regions, such as Rajasthan it is particularly poor, hence the need for targeted local development projects such as this.

You can find out more about the school by reading this Guardian article.

This information should be of interest to any student studying the Global Development topic in A-level sociology, relevant to both gender and education.

Researching in Classrooms

The classic method for researching in classrooms is non-participant observation, the method used by OFSTED inspectors. However, there are other methods available to the researcher who wishes to conduct research on actual lessons within schools.

Classrooms are closed environments with very clear rules of behaviour and typically containing around 20-30 students, one teacher and maybe one learning assistant, and lessons usually lasting from 40 minutes to an hour.

The obvious choice of research method for using in a classroom is that of non-participant observation, where the researcher takes on the role of the OFSTED inspector.

The fact that there are so many students in one place, and potentially hundreds of micro-interactions in even just a 40-minute lesson gives the observational researcher plenty to focus on, so classrooms are perhaps some of the most data rich environments within education.

Arguably the most useful way of collecting observational data would be for the researcher to have an idea about what they are looking for in advance – possibly how many times teachers praise which pupils, or how many times disruptive behaviour takes place, and how the teacher responds, rather than trying to watch everything, which would be difficult.

And students will probably be used to OFSTED inspections, or other staff in the school dropping in to observe lessons occasionally, thus it should be relatively easy for a researcher to blend into the background and observe without being too obtrusive.

The fact that classrooms are usually organised in a standardised way (they tend to be similar sizes, with only a few possible variations on desk layouts) also means the researcher has a good basis for reliability – any differences he observes in teacher or student behaviour across classrooms or schools is probably because of the teachers or pupils themselves, not differences in the environments they are in (at least to an extent!).

There are, however, some limitations with researching in classrooms.

Gaining access could be a problem – not all teachers are going to be willing to have a researcher observing them. They may regard their classroom as their environment and think they have little to gain from an outsider observing them – although if a researcher is a teacher themselves, they could maybe offer some useful feedback about teaching strategies applied by teachers.

Teachers will probably act differently when observed – if you think back to OFSTED inspections, teachers usually ‘up their game’ and make sure to be more inclusive and encouraging, this is likely to happen when anyone observes.

Similarly, pupils may behave differently – they may be more reluctant to contribute because of a researcher being present, or disruptive students may act up even more.

Classrooms are very unique, controlled environments, with only two roles (teachers and students) and clear norms. Teachers and students alike will not be themselves in these highly unusual situations.

Finally, researchers wouldn’t be able to dig deeper and ask probing questions when part of a lesson, unless they took on the role of participant observer by becoming an learning assistant, but even then they would be limited to what they could ask if they didn’t want to disrupt the lesson flow.

It’s not all about direct non-participant observation

Researchers might choose a more participatory approach to researching in classrooms, by training to be a learning assistant or even a teacher, and doing much longer term, unstructured observational research with students.

This would enable them to get to really know the students within a lesson, and make it very easy to to ask deeper questions outside of lessons.

The problem with this would be that they would then be part of the educational establishment and students may not wish to open up to them precisely because of that reason.

A further option would be to put up cameras and observe from a distance, but this might come up against some resistance from both teachers and students, and it would be more difficult to ask follow up questions if reviewing the recordings some time after the actual lesson took place.

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Issues surrounding researching in schools

There are tens of thousands of schools in the United Kingdom, which means that observational research which focuses on just one, or a handful of schools will be unrepresentative. This is also a  problem with any of the popular documentary programmes which focus on just one school – they are very interesting as they focus on the stories of the school, and some (but only some) of the pupils and teachers, but they are never going to be representative of all schools!

There are a lot of official statistics available on schools, much of it freely available on the DFES website – information on results, attendance, exclusions are all available, as are the latest OFSTED reports, so using a mixture of secondary qualitative and quantitative data may be a good choice for researchers given that schools are ‘data rich’ institutions.

A researcher could also use official statistics to easily select a sample of schools which represent all the regions in the UK, different OFSTED grades, and/ or different school types.

However, official statistics on education can be misleading – exam results may not reflect the underlying ethos of a school, or show us the difficulties a particular school faces, and schools can manipulate their data to an extent – for example, they can reduce their exclusion statistics by ‘off-rolling pupils’ – getting parents to agree to withdraw them before they exclude them.

Schools are potentially very convenient places to conduct research – because the law requires pupils to attend and teachers/ managers need to attend to keep their jobs, you can be reasonably certain that most people you want to research are going to be in attendance! You have a captive audience!

However, school gatekeepers (i.e. head teachers) may be reluctant to allow researchers into schools: they may see research as disruptive, fearing it may interfere with their duty to educate students.

Schools are also highly organised, ‘busy’ institutions – researchers may find it difficult to find the time to ask questions of pupils and teachers during the day, meaning interviews could be a problem, limiting the researcher to less representative observational research.

The researcher will also need to ensure they blend-in, otherwise they may be seen as an outsider by teachers and students alike, which would not be conducive to getting respondents to open up and provide valid information.  

Reality TV School Shows – How Valid are They?

Reality shows featuring schools have become common place on British T.V. over the last decade.

One well-known example is the ‘Educating’ series, which started in Essex in 2011, then visited Yorkshire in 2014, and then another three series, with the latest airing in 2017.

Each series followed one school through an entire year, with cameras going into lessons, and interviews with several students, teachers and managers.

Another example which is more a creative work done in conjunction with the children, is ‘Our School’ on CBCC…..

In research methods terms this method is a combination of ‘non-participant observation’ and semi-structured interviews, and these sources shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because real life educational researchers rarely get access to one school for an entire year, so there is a rich vein of data here.

However, these are not works of sociological research, they are documentaries, produced for entertainment purposes and for a profit, so we need to be cautious about how useful they are.

Practical issues

Given the problems of a researcher gaining access to a school, having these shows done for us is great, as someone else has already gained access!

Theoretical issues

Representativeness may be limited – it’s likely that only schools which are doing OK will agree to take part – schools in special measures probably wouldn’t.

Also, these shows tend to focus on the dramatic cases of students – rather than the ‘normal’ ones!

Validity may be an issue – both schools and teachers may well act differently because they know there are cameras present.

Having said that, we do get something of an insight into the stories of a limited number of students.

However, if the data is not valid, there’s little point!

Ethical issues

These documentaries do seem to be done with the co-operation of the students – so I guess this gives them a voice.

I’m not convinced the teachers would be that happy about this as a whole – maybe quite a lot of railroading by the SLT?

Researching Pupils in Education

Educational researchers might reasonably expect to have to conduct research with pupils at some in their careers, given that they are at the centre of the education system.

This post outlines some the challenges researchers may face when researching pupils in the context of education. It has been primarily written for students of A-level sociology.

Why you might want to research pupils?

The whole education system is based around the pupils. Without them there are no teachers, no OFSTED, no exams, no system! So it makes sense to ask them their opinions on education from time to time!

Pupils tend to have lower status than staff in the system, so giving them a voice is ethically sound!

Schools and pupils want to portray themselves in a good light, so the portrayals they give of their institutions may not be accurate.

Failing students often don’t get a voice, they probably don’t want to talk about education, and so finding out what they think about education might be especially valuable.

The problems of researching pupils

If conducting research within schools, senior leaders and teachers may select which students researchers get to collect data from, possibly selecting some of the better behaved students to portray the school in a positive light.

Once they have gained access, pupils may be reluctant to open up to researchers because they are not used to interacting with any adults other than their parents and teachers.

Younger pupils will be less able to grasp the meaning of key concepts such as social class, or even ‘occupation’, so researchers will have to think carefully about how they might operationalise concepts so that students can understand them.

The reading ability of younger learners may mean that questionnaires will not be a suitable method of investigating their attitudes, so interviews or observations will probably be more appropriate methods, and these tend to be more time consuming.

Speech codes may be a barrier to a researcher gaining trust and understanding from certain groups of students.

Younger pupils may not be able to fully understand the purpose of the research, so it may not be possible to gain fully informed consent from them.

The attitudes pupils have towards the power structure of the school may influence the validity of the data the researcher gets. A pro-school student may be reluctant to criticise the school, whereas anti-school students may do so even if their criticisms are invalid. The later is a criticism that has been made of David Gilborn’s research on Teacher Racism.

Given the general status of children as ‘vulnerable’ researchers need to take special care that students will not suffer any unnecessary harm (such as stress) during the research process.

Because of their vulnerability status, there are going to be gatekeepers to get through in order to research pupils – probably both parents, and teachers, before any research with pupils can take place.

Researchers will have to work within Child Protection legislation – they will need criminal record checks in advance, and ensure that no personal data collected is shared.

It is highly unlikely that researchers would be allowed to spend any time alone with students today, like Paul Willis was able to do for 18 months back in the 1970s! So Participant Observation as a method is probably out of the question today.

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How has Coronavirus Affected Education?

The most obvious impact of the 2020 Coronavirus on education was the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams, with the media focusing on the chaos caused by teacher predicted grades being downgraded by the exam authority’s algorithm and then the government U-turn which reinstated the original teacher predicted grades.

While it’s fair to say that this whole ‘exam debacle’ was stressful for most students, in the end the end of exam period cohorts ended up getting a good deal, on average, as they were able to pick whichever ‘result’ was best.

It’s also fair to say, maybe, that most of the students who missed their GCSEs and A-levels didn’t miss out on that much education – what they missed out on, mostly, was the extensive period of ‘exam training’ which comes just before the exam, which are skills that aren’t really applicable in real life.

However, in addition to the exam year cohorts, there were also several other years of students – primary and secondary school students, and older students, doing apprenticeships and degrees, whose ‘real education’ has been impacted by Covid-19.

This article focuses on some of the recent research that’s focused on these ‘other’ less newsworthy students.

This post has primarily been written to get students studying A-level sociology thinking about methods in context, or how to apply research methods to the study of different topics within education.

Research studies on the impact of Coronavirus on Education.

I’ve included three sources with lots of research: the DFE, The NFER and the Sutton Trust, and then a few other sources as well.

The Department for Education (DFE)

The DFE Guidance for Schools resources seems like a sensible place to start for information on the impact of the pandemic on schools.

The Guidance for the Full Opening of Schools recommends seven main measures to control the spread of the virus.

This guidance suggests there is going to be a lot more pressure on teachers to ‘police’ pupils actions and interactions – although ‘social distancing’ is required only dependent on the individual school’s circumstances, and face coverings are not mandatory. So schools do have some discretion.

All in all, it just looks like schools are going to be quite a lot more unpleasant and stressful places to be in as various measures are put in place to try and ensure contact between pupils is being limited.

The National Foundation of Education Research (NFER)

The NFER has produced several mainly survey based research studies looking at the impact of Coronavirus on schools.

One NFER survey of almost 3000 senior leaders and teachers in 2200 schools across England and Wales asking them about the challenges they face from September 2020.

The main findings of this survey are as follows:

  • teachers report that their students are an average of three months behind with their studies after missing school due to Lockdown
  • Teachers in the most deprived schools are three times more likely to report that their pupils are four months behind compared to those in the least deprived schools.
  • Over 25% of pupils had limited access to computer facilities during lock down. This was more of a problem for pupils from deprived areas.
  • Teacher anticipate that 44% of pupils will need catch up lessons in the coming academic year.
  • Schools are prioritizing students’ mental health and well being ahead of getting them caught up.

The Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust has several reports which focus on the impact of Coronavirus, specifically on education. The reports look at the impacts on early-years and apprenticeships, for example.

A report by the Sutton Trust on the impact of the school shutdown in April noted some of the following key findings:

  • Private schools were about twice as likely to have well-established online learning platforms compared to state schools, correspondingly privately schooled children were twice as likely to receive daily online lessons compared to state school children.
  • 75% of parents with postgraduate degrees felt confident about educating their children at home, compared to less than half of parents with A-levels as their highest level of qualification
  • 50% of teachers in private schools said they’d received more than three quarters of the work back, compared to only 8% in the most deprived state schools.

Research from other organisations

  • This article from the World Economic Forum provides an interesting global perspective on the impact of coronavirus – with more than a billion children worldwide having been out of school. It highlights that online learning might become more central going forwards, but points out that access to online education various massively from country to country.
  • The Institute for Fiscal studies produced a report in July focusing on the financial impacts of Coronavirus on Universities. They estimate that the sector will have lost £11 billion in one year, a quarter of income, and that around 5% of providers probably won’t be able to survive without government assistance.
  • This article in The Conversation does a cross national comparison of how schools in four countries opened up. They grade their approach. It’s an interesting example of how some social policies are more effective than others!

Final Thoughts

I’ve by no means covered all the available research, rather I’ve tried to get some breadth in here, looking at the impact on teachers and pupils, and at things globally too.

By all means drop some links to further research in the comments!

Sociological Perspectives on the 2020 Exam results fiasco

What a mess this years exam results were!

First of all students get awarded their results based primarily on an algorithm, which adjusted center predicted grades up or down depending on how their historical results records.

Then those results were scrapped in favour of the original teacher predicted grades, awarded several months ago, unless the algorithm grade was better!

And finally, amidst all that chaos, BTEC students just get forgotten about with the publication of their results being delayed.

Unfortunately there isn’t a ‘total balls up’ perspective in Sociology, as that would most definitely be the best fit to explain what occurred, and I’m not sure that any one perspective can really explain what’s going on, but there some concepts we can apply….

Marxism

A basic tenet of Marxism applied to education is that the education system tends to benefit the middle classes more than the working classes, and especially the 7% of privately schooled kids compared to other 93% who are educated in state school.s

The algorithm which was used to adjust teacher predicted grades benefitted those from higher class backgrounds more than from lower class backgrounds.

You’ll need to follow the Twitter threads below for the evidence…

The Power of Popular Protest

However, students protested…..

And as we all know, the algorithm was overturned, and we ended up with teacher predicted grades being the basis for results (unless the algorithm gave students a better result of course!).

So in this case the system did try to to screw the working classes, but popular protest managed a small victory.

NB – it’s worth pointing out that Independently schooled kids probably still have better results on average than working class kids, so while this may feel like a victory, it’s maybe no big deal really?

Labelling Theory

I think there’s an interesting application here in relation to teacher predicted grades – clearly teachers have exaggerated these as much as they can, because the results on average are nearly a grade up compared to last year – which is a great example of teachers positively labelling their students in terms of giving them the highest grades they might have achieved.

It kind of shows you that, at the end of the day, teachers are more positive about their students than negative.

For one year only, we’ve got results based on labels, the projections in teachers’ heads rather than being based on objectively measured performance. In some cases over the next year we are going to see the limitations of labelling theory – just because a teacher says someone is capable of getting 5 good GCSEs doesn’t mean they are going to be able to cope with A levels rather than BTECs at college.

Keep in mind that some of the teacher predicted rates are going to be utter fantasy, and not every case is going to end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy – there are going to be a lot of failures at A-level as thousands of over-predicted students can’t cope.

Probably less so at universities – they need the money from tuition fees, so they’ll probably just lower their standards for this cohort.

Functionalism

You may think that this has no relevance, HOWEVER, the system hasn’t collapsed, has it?

There was a bit of a blip, a few people got upset and protested, and now this year’s students have ended up with much better results than last year’s students based on teacher predicted grades which are clearly about as exaggerated as they can get away with.

And now we’re all heading back to college and university and things are going to go back to the ‘new normal’, without anything very much changing, despite the fact that so many flaws have been revealed in how the exam system works.

I’d say this whole fiasco has been a pretty good example of a system coping well with a crisis and coming out the other side relatively unscathed.

Postmodernism and Late Modernism

The extent to which these apply is a bit of a mixed bag….

The government certainly showed a high degree of uncertainty about how to award results, resulting in wide spread chaos, which certainly seems to fit in which the postmodern perspective.

However, that’s about as far as it goes I think…. students and parents alike showed an utter contempt for being ruled by an algorithim, which is one of the primary mechanisms of social control in post/ late modern societies (via actuaralism) – and yet when its workings are brought to light, people resisted – they wanted justice and meritocracy rather than this bizarre way of managing selves.

Also the fact that people actually seem to care about their results and want a sense of justice isn’t really postmodern – it’s a very modernist concern, to be interested in one’s education and future career, and I get the feeling that rather than kicking back and enjoying their postmodern leisure time, students have just been generally worried about their results and their future.

So there’s been a high level of uncertainty and fear/ worry, that’s quite postmodern, but the fact that people actually care about education, that’s more modernist….

Is it this year’s Scottish Exam Results that Have No Validity, or just the System Itself?

Now that the Scottish exam results have reverted back to those based on teacher predictions, students have done MUCH better than previous years, around 10-12% improvement, or over a grade compared to previous years.

To put this in a chart – here’s what it looks like: The middle column is what the results were last year, the last column is what they now are, with the government’s U turn.

2016-19 Ave2020 SQA moderated2020 teacher predictions
national 578.681.188.6
higher76.578.988.8
advanced higer80.484.992.8

To display this graphically – we’ve leapt from blue to yellow, while even with moderation (red) that kind of increase is just about feasible, even if unlikely.

It is highly unlikely that this year’s students on average would have achieved 10-12 % points higher than the previous year’s students, had they sat their exams, had there been no disruption.

Had they sat the exams, they would have been moderated by the exam boards so that the pass rate and A* rate was broadly in line with previous years, and then the spread of results would have probably also been broadly similar.

What’s happened instead this year is that we now have results based on teacher predictions, rather than ‘pure moderation’ by the exam boards, which broadly keeps things in line year on year.

In case you don’t know, what the exam moderating authorities do with actual exam results, is they look at the raw marks, and then tweak the fail/ pass and A* raw mark boundaries so that there’s a similar percentage passing and achieving high grades every year, but now they’ve had that power stripped from them.

Now the grades are based purely on teacher predictions and teachers always over-predict, it doesn’t take much explaining to figure out why – because of the competitive education system, and it’s one of the few rules you can bend as a teacher, so nearly every teacher does it, because they know every other teacher does it!

TBH I don’t think either system is that valid. You’ve seen the results year on year, it’s highly unlikely that there’s going to be a gradual trend upwards, without there ever being a single ‘spike year’ – but that’s what you get when exam moderating authorities ‘control’ the grades every year – a gradual increase gives the impression of credibility.

Teacher predictions might well have more credibility, because they actually know the students, but there is a problem of reliability when, for just one year, this year, 2020, you allow exam results to be determined by teachers, and then you get a massive spike compared to previous years.

Students who sat exams in 2017 to 2019 should be complaining

Students from the last three years are the one’s who are being harmed by this unjust political interference – not only do they now have a worse track record of exam results compared to this year’s students, these are the students who are now graduating into a world of contracted employment, so they’re going to have ‘worse’ results, and a longer period of unemployment on their CVs.

This year’s students by contrast, if they’re going on to 2-5 years of FE/ HE, the chances are the economy will be recovering by the time they graduate, so they’ll have a better education record and less of a track history of unemployment.

Glasgow Live: Exam Results Glasgow 2020

The Guardian

The BBC