Politi­cians, not heads, should be los­ing sleep over re­sults this year

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL -

It’s called get­ting your ex­cuses in early. And very sus­pi­cious it is, too. The school sys­tem and its po­lit­i­cal over­lords should not have too much truck with this year’s GCSES be­cause of the un­pre­dictabil­ity re­sult­ing from Michael Gove’s re­forms, Ofqual hinted last year. “There will be volatil­ity [in grades] school by school; it al­ways hap­pens when you change a qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Those changes will hap­pen at a time when ac­count­abil­ity mea­sures are chang­ing as well, so there’s a lot for schools to cope with,” Dame Glenys Stacey, then Ofqual’s chief reg­u­la­tor, said.

It would be funny if it weren’t so po­ten­tially tragic for our schools.

Put an­other way, Ofqual’s com­ments could sound a bit like this: we’ve helped in­tro­duce a se­ries of re­forms to an exam sys­tem that is cen­tral to a cliff-edge ac­count­abil­ity regime, and now – just as the en­tire sec­ondary sec­tor tum­bles over the new, even more ver­tig­i­nous, cliff edge – we’ve put up a dis­creet “Dan­ger” sign.

Let us be clear. There are some very fine school lead­ers out there for whom Ofqual’s weasel words will hold no com­fort: they ex­pect to be fired the mo­ment the re­sults are pub­lished. One cel­e­brated head re­cently told me that he had booked two hol­i­days this sum­mer be­cause he ex­pected them to be the last he would be able to af­ford. These feel­ings of deep in­se­cu­rity are rip­pling across the coun­try as GCSE re­sults day gets closer.

And this all comes at a time when Eng­land can ill af­ford to lose good, hard-work­ing heads – by some es­ti­mates Eng­land’s schools will be short 19,000 heads by 2022. This is es­pe­cially galling when it has noth­ing to do with any short­com­ings on their part but rather is due to short-ter­mist po­lit­i­cal re­forms that have been need­lessly rushed.

Ge­off Bar­ton, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the As­so­ci­a­tion of School and Col­lege Lead­ers, and Emma Knights, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Gov­er­nance As­so­ci­a­tion, are right to take Ofqual’s com­ment and add some punch (see pages 26-27). Be in no doubt that, un­der Bar­ton’s lead­er­ship, the ASCL is un­likely to take the wide­spread ax­ing of school lead­ers ly­ing down. Years of cuts and be­ing kicked around mean many sec­ondary lead­ers could well be up for a fight.

Of course, none of this may hap­pen. There is a chance that when the re­sults come out there will be fewer bumps in the data than we ex­pected, ev­ery­one will treat them with kid gloves and we’ll all be able to move on to the next story.

But ed­u­ca­tional his­tory tells us this is un­likely. If you want to see what hap­pens when the govern­ment makes a ma­jor in­ter­ven­tion in the exam sys­tem and then pushes through its re­forms with­out any stress-test­ing, look no fur­ther than New Labour’s Cur­ricu­lum 2000 changes to A lev­els. For younger or more for­get­ful read­ers, these were the re­forms that ramped up the mod­u­lar sys­tem and made the AS cen­tral to stu­dents’ fi­nal A-level scores.

There are some very fine school lead­ers out there who ex­pect to be fired the mo­ment the exam re­sults are pub­lished

The un­fore­seen con­se­quence was a grad­ing scan­dal that saw tens of thou­sands of pa­pers re­graded up­wards as na­tional news­pa­pers tore into the exam sys­tem. In the post-mortem it was widely agreed that Tony Blair’s changes had been rushed and, specif­i­cally, that the new-look regime had not been pi­loted. The par­al­lels with sum­mer 2017 and the pos­si­ble fall-out from Gove’s shock-and-awe ap­proach to exam re­form do not need to be spelled out.

The A-level scan­dal did cost one per­son her job. It played a large part in Estelle Mor­ris’ shock res­ig­na­tion as ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary in 2002. She did the right thing, even though the con­tro­versy re­ally wasn’t of her mak­ing.

If any­one finds them­selves in the dole queue be­cause the 2017 GCSE re­forms have been rushed through, it should be the politi­cians, not the head­teach­ers.

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