Trust and Candour – tools of the educational trade

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” Stephen R. Covey “The contractual Duty of Candour will be an enforceable duty on providers to ensure they are open and honest with patients or their families and provide them with information on any investigations and lessons learned.” Department of Health consultation following review of Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust  public inquiry.

Today is A level results day, and some 110 or so Year 13 and Year 12s came into school to collect their results, celebrate and/or share concerns, depending on how they had done. The current UCAS system and University early response mechanism is reducing the stress considerably on results day. Many of the Year 13s had already heard from their Universities that they had gained their places early this morning, so their visit to school to discover results is somewhat less stressful as a result. I’ll update the figures as we sort out some of our wrinkles, but on the face of it we have replicated many previous years by 40+% gaining A*-B, 75%+ gaining A* to C, with something like 88% gaining their first or back-up degree option. A couple of students are upgrading because they have better results than predicted, and we are having to look really hard at a couple of subject modules involving coursework, where moderation of our marks has seen some candidates results regressed from 100% to 65%, shifting outcome grades for the paper concerned from A* to C.

In subjects such as Art, Drama, Music, Photography and Textiles, clearly the whole point is to create something, not just write an essay, and such is the talent of our young creatives that 100% is really on the cards for some.  Once our teachers have marked the work, the exam board scrutinises our marking and the artifacts/performances through a visiting mdoerator, who either agrees with our marking or disagrees. If the latter, then our candidates marks are reduced accordingly as a raw score.  Now here’s the nasty bit. Whether our marks are found accurate or reduced, that’s not the actual mark that turns up on the exam slip. The exam board  statistically adjust the scores given so that they fit the normal distribution they are looking for, and this year for A grade it seems to be 25%.  Clearly far too many candidates are gaining a 100% mark for their coursework, hence the need to regress the marks so the percentage of As is reduced. This conversion of raw marks to an Exam board mark is called the Uniform mark scale. “UMS is a way of turning the raw marks achieved in a unit in a particular sitting into a mark that can be used to compare with those achieved in other series.  The UMS balances out differences between exams and is a way of making sure people get the correct grade, no matter when they took a particular unit. UMS marks from all the units are then added together to give you an overall mark for your qualification.” AQA website.

Frankly it is smoke and mirrors of the worst kind and for practical subjects causes extraordinary injustice to the hardworking students, who have through their own efforts met the exam board criteria with great precision. The exam boards of course get found out, because their moderators have to write reports on what they have seen at the centre.  In our problem areas today, the moderator has commended our staff for the quality of their marking in one module, as well as the quality of work on show and the accuracy of the teachers’ grading. Then in an allied module, our staff appear to be no more familiar with the marking criteria than rank novices, and marks are overturned.  Now with experienced colleagues that simply can’t happen, and in the visual arts the modules are actually marked in identical ways. Although in many ways we are content with the current A level programme and award assessment, it is in this area of coursework that trust with the boards has been broken for some time, and this year there is no sign of that breach being repaired. You can’t appeal on individual candidate results where moderation has adjusted marks downwards, only on the whole cohort’s results in the subject. In recent years I have never seen marks moderated up, only down, so raw marks moving to the UMS mean the students score lower than their intuition might inform them on leaving the exam room.

If you make such an appeal, it suspends A level grades in the subject concerned, and in doing that prevents students confirming with their Universities their arrangements for joining them later next month. None of our candidates affected this year have been denied the place at their first choice Uni, but that’s not the point. If a candidate gets a B overall rather than an A or A*, that has significant impact on their own feelings of self-worth, and the school ‘appears’ to be less effective than actually we are. Listening to the Universities Minister David Willetts today, it made my blood boil when he suggested that such jiggery pokery enhances the nation’s confidence in the exam system. I’d much rather know that coursework was going to become a capped grade component (lets say at no more than 70%), putting greater emphasis on the written and test components of the A level, than have to listen to the distinctly less than candid gloating of Mr Willets, who for some reason thinks that when grades decline ‘that’s a good thing’.

The papers have not got harder and tested the children more thoroughly. What’s happened is as criminal as ‘clocking a motor’ to reduce the mileage showing on the dashboard indicating how many miles a car has traveled. As a school that welcomes a broad ability range and where students can choose to take A level subjects even if they only have a C grade at GCSE,  I am really proud of our students this summer who have gained places across the country in a wide and diverse range of disciplines. I welcome the fact that we have subjects such as Spanish with both candidates gaining A grades. What I fundamentally oppose is the squeezing of practical disciplines to lower the top grade stats to make them seem ‘harder’. A third of our economy is founded on the creative arts, with many leaving university straight into jobs because their skills are highly sought after. So I’d like to see Exam boards have to live by a similar duty of candour; if it is right that Ofqual need to squeeze the results, then teachers and children need to know, and the exam boards have a duty to tell us the truth.


About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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2 Responses to Trust and Candour – tools of the educational trade

  1. Phil says:

    There is so much that renders students and their teachers at the mercy of the type of ‘jiggery pokery’ that you describe that there is always a sense of shifting sand around results time. I have taken the same approach to a coursework unit with students every year for five years. For four years, moderators were complimentary about this approach and the work they produced. Then, this year, the same approach, but a fairly scathing criticism. However, the marks I awarded showed signs of leniency!? Given the success rate of exam paper re-marks, which we roughly estimate at 25% of papers showing mark increases after re-marking, I just don’t believe moderators, like examiners, are consistently authoritative enough to make judgements which then, in practical terms, can’t be challenged.

    I feel the re-mark fiasco is a public scandal that needs to be exposed. Last year, I had 9 candidates in one subject, four of whose exams were re-marked. All marks were increased and all four candidates were upgraded overall. What sticks in the throat is the fact that exam boards are not required to apologise for such errors and continue to claim that there is every reason to put full trust in the system. It is very easy to dismiss such experiences as ‘not representative’ etc. Not enough pressure is brought to bear for exam boards to be held accountable for their own performance in assessing students’ work accurately.

    • jameswilding says:

      Just girding my own thoughts again after yet another summer of travesty and outrage. The volume of students affected my be small, but a little of me dies every time a student does not get their just rewards.

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