Bernard's pieces for the Tes

Teachers will always work overtime. Now pay them more

10 November 2019

Caring teachers will always work beyond their contracted hours, says Bernard Trafford. In return, the government must stop controlling and exploiting them.

Guy Doza wrote eloquently last week about teachers working overtime. It’s nothing to be proud of, he tells teachers, and it leads to a “culture of unmanageable expectations”. 

Teachers are overworked, he says, and underpaid (both true). They’re expected to work long hours, to such an extent that failure to “go above and beyond” brings their work ethic into question.

But he’s critical of those who succumb to the pressure or willingly give up time to market their school through open evenings, or catch up on work at weekends, because of the impact it has on the people around them. 


Such pieces inevitably stimulate some soul-searching. Did I ask too much of my colleagues in 28 years of headship? I ran highly pupil-centred schools, with busy extracurricular programmes and very dedicated teachers (I can sense Mr Doza grinding his teeth), who worked hard. I don’t think I demanded too much of them – though, for an objective view, you’d have to ask them. 

Did I say objective? That’s tricky. Mr Doza deplores teachers doing anything outside contracted hours. But what constitutes a reasonable, even a contractual, teacher workload? 

When I was a young teacher (I started in 1978), teacher workload was an ill-defined thing, though teacher unions repeatedly initiated work-to-rule campaigns for better pay. (We really were badly paid back then.)

In the late 1980s, Kenneth (now Lord) Baker decided to end the argument, asserting that teachers must work 1,265 hours in a year. This created immense ill-feeling. I knew fantastic teachers, who had long exceeded that figure, who responded by ceasing to run school sports teams, choirs or play productions. “If that’s what he thinks of us,” one told me, “he can stuff it.”

Removing professional trust 

It was the first miserable – but significant – step in the Thatcher and Major governments’ process of removing professional trust from public services and introducing micromanagement, enforced by an oppressive accountability regime. 

Thirty years on and, regardless of who’s in power, it seems impossible to row back from it. Actually, I’m amazed that any goodwill remains in the profession. Astonishingly, it does, even if it attracts Mr Doza’s ire. 

He insists a coffee-shop barista wouldn’t say, “I don’t mind staying late to share the drink that I love.” But what about a crisis? Wouldn’t a committed employee stay on when the espresso machine blows up five minutes before the end of their shift? Maybe the employer would find some overtime pay, maybe not. But isn’t staying to help the natural, human thing to do, expressing both loyalty to customers and pride in the job?

That’s a trivial example. Commentators on the Tes webpage cited health workers who go the extra mile to save lives. The remarkable numbers of off-duty doctors and nurses who reported unbidden to London hospitals after the Westminster and London Bridge terrorist attacks didn’t ask about overtime before getting down to work. 

Similarly, I suspect safety and repair workers up and down the country turn out to keep road and rail networks open when emergencies strike. And they keep at it till it’s done because, well, it matters.

Openness, flexibility and humanity

As a head, I tried to protect my staff from outside pressures. I sought change and improvement, naturally, but on a basis of reasonableness, openness, flexibility and humanity. (Nor did I expect teachers to read or send evening or weekend emails.) True, the greater freedoms and resources of the independent sector made this easier. But don’t underestimate how demanding private-school parents can be.

I cling stubbornly to a vision of teaching as a caring and people-focused profession: one which accepts that those whom it serves are unpredictable and demanding and will, at times, desperately need it go the extra mile. 

But, if such generous professionalism is desirable, as I passionately believe it is, government must in return treat teachers as professionals: pay them better; stop micromanaging, controlling, exploiting, bullying and overworking them; give them time and trust; genuinely value them. 

Until it does that, ministers’ claims to be “tackling workload” will remain mere empty rhetoric. 


Without LAs, how can we open schools where most needed?

03 November 2019 

Free schools should open where the need is greatest, says Bernard Trafford. But remote multi-academy trusts won’t do this 

In The Times’ Thunderer column on 17 October, former minister of state for education David Laws wrote about a detailed analysis of official data for free schools by the Education Policy Institute, which he chairs. The headline, “New free schools cannot neglect left-behind areas”, summarises his and the EPI’s concern.

Secondary free schools achieve the best learning progress of any school type, he says, but free primaries don’t. Free primaries tend to be located where the need for additional school places is greatest, but not secondaries. 

Mr Laws’ worry is focused less on the siting of free schools than on the nature of the children who attend them. To be sure, the poorest children are as likely as any others to attend free schools.

But he fears they tend to come from poor but aspiring, high-achieving ethnic and immigrant groups, who do very well in school. Those from “challenged white” and “hampered” communities (his quotes) are seriously underrepresented. 

Model and challenge

His conclusion? Secondary free schools do well because they’re mostly in areas where all the schools do well: there aren’t enough free schools in “left behind” white working-class areas. His demand of government is to tackle the latter problem.

I don’t have access to official data, but I know one primary free school very well, because I helped to found it. It offers both a model and a challenge for the future development of the free-schools programme.

West Newcastle Academy (WNA), founded seven years ago in Benwell, one of the poorest wards in Newcastle upon Tyne, is a thriving one-form-entry free primary, now housed in a fine new building high above the Tyne river. An innovative curriculum, outstanding outreach and pastoral care and a child-centred, positive can-do attitude have rendered this recent arrival a prized choice of school for parents, which could provide a model for others. 

Even when shipbuilding, engineering, coal and steel were booming on the Tyne, West Newcastle was always the poor end of the Toon. Nowadays, Benwell provides homes for refugees and for a significant immigrant community, but remains significantly both “left-behind” and “challenged white”, in EPI’s terms. 

Supporting disengaged children

Nowadays I live five hours’ drive from WNA, but still visit when I can. Last week I watched children leaving at the end of the day, and would say at a glance that they reflected the school’s setting.

Moreover, from my experience of working with the headteacher, I know that WNA’s admissions policy answers David Laws’ concern. The policy prioritises need and proximity; the school is popular in its community and is full every year. Together, these two points ensure that it really does reach out to the educationally – not merely economically – disadvantaged.

So how did this particular free school come into being? The inspiration came from a charity, Kids and Us, long-established and deeply embedded in Benwell, with the aim of supporting disengaged children and their families. Kids and Us saw the free-schools programme as an opportunity to create a school that would connect and support these families. 

WNA is thus both the charity’s creation and its legacy. It shrewdly recruited local expertise: then running a large independent school in the city, I was brought on board, along with two other experienced heads, and the project became a reality. 

It’s hard to see how a group of parents, working on their own in a disadvantaged community, could achieve that aim. It’s almost as hard to picture a remote MAT having the reach and local knowledge to do so.

Where they are most needed

Local authorities might usefully replicate the local focus that Kids and Us provided in the creation of WNA. Sadly, they are no longer permitted to create new schools, and must instead ask MATs and federations to do it for them. 

David Laws rightly urges the government to site future free schools in areas where they are most needed, not only “where education reformers decide to pitch their tent”. 

But, by squeezing local authorities out of its educational vision, government is excluding the one structure best placed to deliver on his challenge.


Telling pupils they can fly will lead to crash landings

27 October 2019

Urged to set their sights high, pupils feel the need to achieve excellent grades. No wonder they feel stressed, says Bernard Trafford

More than 80 per cent of teachers reckon that focus on exams has become so “disproportionate” that exams are now valued more than wellbeing. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of pupils claim that exam pressure is adversely impacting on their mental health. 

Two major findings from research by the Health Foundation link concentration on academic outcomes to inadequate mental health support for pupils in schools.

The Health Foundation, The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and the Centre for Mental Health are calling for a review of the impact of the UK’s exam systems on young people’s wellbeing and mental health. They also want the inspectorates, Ofsted included, to look beyond attainment and assess schools on their efforts to promote a “whole-school approach”. 

It would be easy to blame it all on government pressure and lack of funding. They are certainly a significant part of the problem. I’ve discussed on innumerable occasions how schools feeling the squeeze of government and inspectoral pressure to get top results will inevitably transmit anxiety to pupils

And there’s no money for mental-health support. Thus the accountability and funding regimes need a review as much as the exam structure does 

Exams are doing harm 

Nonetheless, children are pretty resilient: note how readily most adapt to the whims and vagaries of individual teachers (to the despair of schools that demand teacher conformity). 

Yet four out of five pupils say they’re stressed. The sheer size of that proportion suggests that the effect is not felt by any single social, ethnic or ability group. It must be, one concludes, right across the board.

So, rather than lambast government yet again, on this occasion I’ll explore another – less structural, more cerebral and emotional – reason why exams are doing harm to young people’s wellbeing.

Here’s my question, then: a theory untested and maybe a little weird. Could a major culprit be a tendency to promote excessive aspiration?

For decades we (and I include myself) have rightly been battling to raise pupils’ aspiration. “Just good enough” is no longer good enough: students must “be the best they can be”. Aspirational epigrams adorn school walls, urging kids to remember that, if they believe in themselves, they can fly – almost literally, although such overweening self-confidence ended badly for Icarus, I recall.

Outside rigid hierarchies

I’m not having a go: inculcating aspiration and ambition is an essential part of education. Gone (and not before time) are the days when children were expected to know their place: one allotted to them by birth and a rigid social hierarchy. Nonetheless, I sometimes fear that assuring kids they can “be anything or anyone they want” is a step too far.

Thirty years ago, we worried that teenagers were abandoning Stem subjects in order to follow “easier” courses en route to highly paid jobs in finance and a yuppy lifestyle. Nowadays we’ve become so messianic about Stem (coining the term rather successfully in that quest, not least when you see how girls are finally turning to physics) that languages and the arts are now in near-meltdown.

I don’t believe anyone’s actually saying: “If you’re ambitious, you mustdo maths and other (allegedly) hard subjects,” yet that’s the message aspirational young people seem to receive. The creation of subject hierarchies by silly ideas, like the Russell Group universities’ list of “facilitating subjects” and Michael Gove’s painfully arbitrary and utilitarian EBacc, haven’t helped.

But the rush away from “creative” (forgive the over-simple label) subjects to Stem, and the continuing failure of vocational pathways to win widespread esteem, appear to be fuelled by something unspoken and indefinable, yet omnipresent in education’s bloodstream.

A perfect storm of pressure

Constantly urged to set their sights high, ambitious students need excellent GCSEs so that they can go on to tackle those tough A levels and be in contention for university offers, which will in turn demand stratospheric grades. Result: a perfect storm of pressure – even before taking into account the ways in which the government leans on schools.

Now four-fifths of teachers and pupils alike believe that an overemphasis on exams is putting wellbeing at risk. If that isn’t a wake-up call and a demand for serious review and change, I don’t know what is.


Why education is in a (very English) spot of bother

20 October 2019

Understatement is typically British. But describing school funding as 'a bit tight'? It's not on, says Bernard Trafford

Understatement is an endearingly British trait. Battle of Britain heroes, for example, would routinely talk self-deprecatingly about participating in “a bit of a scrap” or being in “a tight spot”, when in fact they’d been fighting for their lives and country against enormous odds.

The tradition of describing life-and-death moments in the manner of episodes from Winnie the Pooh continues to this day. When a colleague is late for a meeting, murmuring, “Sorry, bit of a difficult morning,” we know that description could signify anything from the car refusing to start to a major gas explosion demolishing their house at the same time as a web-scammer empties out their bank account.

Colourful colloquialism is arguably more attractive than the routinely robotic utterances from government spokespeople, such as those at the Department for Education, who repeat with monotonous regularity the mantra that government is pouring record funding into schools.

You’ll see where I’m going. There’s charming understatement – and there’s plain crass insensitivity.

School funding: 'A bit tight'?

This is an inappropriate time for Gavin Williamson, questioned about the schools funding crisis, to emulate a latter-day Biggles, downplaying the moment when the balloon went up. 

But he did. The education secretary told the BBC that, having a wife and brother who are teachers, he does “occasionally get it in the ear… that things have been a bit tight in schools and they’ve needed a little bit of extra money”.

bit tight? Even Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson, played by the gloriously laconic John Le Mesurier, would have balked at describing a £14 billion shortfall as needing “a little bit of extra money”. 

Sadly, Mr Williamson is not alone in displaying out-of-touch political blindness. As Amy Gibbons reminded us in Teslast year former Chancellor Philip Hammond found schools an additional £400 million for “the little extras they need”. 

So what are those “little extras”, and why does it feel “a bit tight” in schools? I’ll highlight some recent examples. Just this week The Timesreported that councils were “siphoning off” (I quote the term pejoratively while acknowledging that it’s done in desperation) £400 million of precious money from schools in order to fund special-needs support

No money in the system

Some 354,000 children have bespoke education and health care plans (EHCPs), the successor to statements of special educational needs. These require schools and local authorities to provide individually tailored support: for example, 15 hours per week of one-to-one, in-class support from a teaching assistant. All in the system would agree that such targeted aid is essential, if the child is to be able to gain access to the curriculum and thrive in mainstream school.

Schools don’t always cover themselves in glory in this area. SEN training for teachers remains insufficient, to be sure. But, above all, there isn’t the money in the system. There’s growing evidence that even those legally required hours of support frequently aren’t provided. 

Attempting miracles with inadequate resources, headteachers are understandably resentful. The description by one of EHCPs as a “golden ticket” made me uncomfortable. Yet it was logical in context, since the concentration on ECHP funding (insufficient in itself) has left schools shorter than ever of cash, making impossible a range of earlier interventions that might render an EHCP unnecessary in the long term.

Bad show

In desperation, and sometimes because (unworthily) schools lean on the parents of children likely to pull down their vital exam or progress scores, increasing numbers are opting to home-educate. This is not done out of a philosophical search for an alternative, but out of sheer weariness at battling a mean and inflexible system.

Meanwhile, we learn that 70 per cent of teachers are working way beyond their contracted hours. No wonder unsustainable numbers are still leaving the profession: too much is being asked of teachers and TAs alike.

These are just recent snapshots of what’s regularly termed a serious situation, even a crisis. But the one thing it shouldn’t be called, in gung-ho understatement worthy of the myopic Captain Mainwaring, is “a bit tight”. 

All I can say to the education secretary, in similar style, is, “Bad show! Bad egg!” Or, in old school-report terminology, “Must do better."


Why am I so negative about Ofsted? I can do no other

12 October 2019

Unlike Labour, Bernard Trafford does not want to see Ofsted abolished. But he feels compelled to criticise the effect it has on schools and teachers

When, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle church, he set himself on a collision course with the might of the Roman Catholic church. Tradition, now disputed by scholars, has it that he declared: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The rest is history – and the Reformation.

Luther was brave: he was taking on a potent and ruthless opponent, a fact undiminished by the old schoolboy howler that mistakes the word “theses” 

Less formidable than the power of 16th-century Rome, though nonetheless vocal, is reaction to the Labour Party’s conference (that’s Lib Dem policy, too).

Why so negative? 

Tes deputy editor Ed Dorrell shrewdly points out that the proposal could render education an election battleground (arguably no bad thing). But it will cost Labour votes, since parents like inspection reports when choosing schools for their children. 

I don’t blame parents for valuing Ofsted. Nor do I take issue with the decision to end the exemption of schools previously rated "outstanding" from further inspection. So why, as I was asked rather sharply the other day, is everything I write about Ofsted so negative?

It’s true that I tend not to shower the inspectorate with praise: I’m swifter to criticise its effects on schools and teachers

In my defence, I don’t do hatchet jobs on its people or their professional work. Ofsted’s senior executives without exception impress me, and the inspectors I’ve met (particularly HMI) have invariably been outstanding educationalists, generally with distinguished experience in school leadership.

I’ve given Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s chief inspector, credit for: speaking out about physical education being squeezed out of the curriculum; for confirming to a House of Commons select committee that, although she had no firm proof (yet), funding cuts were likely to wreak demonstrable damage over time; for expecting inspectors presented with reams of data to question whether their creation was a worthwhile use of teacher time; and for urging schools not to respond to Ofsted’s new focus on curriculum by producing endless paper policies, concentrating instead on useful discussion with inspectors about what their curriculum offers pupils.

Neither have I denied the importance of having an inspectorate that can enter unlicensed schools, and prosecute if necessary. Similarly, I welcome the prohibition on admitting pupils recently issued to several dodgy private schools, none of them members of the recognised associations that would provide a level of monitoring. 

We need mechanisms both to investigate causes for concern and to tell government candidly how its education policies are working out.

Arbitrary measures

Alas, it’s not the information gleaned that’s the problem, however professionally it’s collected. The problem is the way it’s then used to create arbitrary measures. Ofsted inspections form part of an accountability regime so burdensome and so high-stakes that its very existence – let alone the impending arrival of a team of inspectors – cranks up the stress. It’s an inevitable consequence.

Inevitable, too, is the intensification of pressure that stems from policymakers’ insistence that the infinitely complex mechanisms and interactions of a school should be reduced to a single adjectival grade. Meanwhile, the encouragement of competition, notwithstanding contradictory pleas for collaboration, renders even the fine difference between "good" and "outstanding" judgements crucial for schools: witness the banners hung on school gates.

As additional targets and benchmarks are constantly imposed by government, every new tweak of the inspection frameworksimultaneously increases workload, as schools identify new hoops through which they feel they must jump.

Over my long career, I learned what motivates teachers and gets the best out of them, for the benefit of their pupils – and what doesn’t. 

So I’m not lining up to endorse the Labour or Lib Dem plans to axe Ofsted, because more is required. The entire accountability system, of which Ofsted is but a part, is at fault. Root and branch revision is needed to remove intolerable pressure and return joy and satisfaction to the job – to the vocation – of teaching.

So, sorry Ofsted, but I have to keep writing in this vein. Like Martin Luther (if less grandly, and with infinitely less personal risk), I can do no other.


How pupil banter becomes the toxic maleness of politics

06 October 2019

Tackling classroom banter will not only stop bullying – it will also prevent the racist and sexist trolling of public figures, says Bernard Trafford

Three cheers for Duncan Byrne, head of the independent Loughborough Grammar School, who declared last week that he was banning classroom banter in his all-boys’ school. 

He claims that this isn’t mere do-gooding in the age of snowflakes, but part of a coherent strategy to counter what Mr Byrne terms “toxic masculinity”. His Great Men programme aims to encourage boys to open up more readily, to express their feelings, to know and accept that it’s OK to cry.

Some might argue that there’s little that’s novel here. In education, as in most things, there’s arguably nothing new under the sun

The scourge of toxic masculinity

But this initiative, whether innovative or not, is nonetheless important and deserving of wider discussion. For toxic masculinity remains a scourge in our schools and in our society, and so-called banter – which may start harmlessly enough, but too easily becomes cranked up into something destructive – provides a conduit by which it spreads.

Looking back to my early years as a teacher, 40 years ago, I still shudder when I recall allowing banter to run on. Young, probably wanting to be popular but, above all, ignorant (or at least naive) about how mild leg-pulling concealed or developed into bullying, I know there were too many occasions when I failed to step in and put a stop to it.

Schools and teachers are very much wiser and better-prepared nowadays. Far more aware, and hopefully trained to spot it, they will tend to take action, and perhaps even initiate discussion about why such behaviour is wrong

On the other hand, teachers are busy. They have lessons to teach and, besides, if verbal bullying has reduced in the classroom, its digital equivalent has multiplied exponentially through social media.

Eager to be in the online chat group or active on the latest trending platform, children reveal too much of themselves (both physically and emotionally, alas) and are hurt and bewildered when those revelations are turned back on them with intent to hurt. We adults struggle to keep up: witness the latest bizarre craze of “sadfishing”, where kids (perhaps self-indulgently) share online descriptions of how low they’re feeling today. Why do they do it? People of my generation are generally baffled by what appears a wilful courting of harm.

The sour maleness of present-day politics

This is not a problem confined to boys, of course. If I appear to have strayed from my opening topic, I’d merely comment that such bullying, undermining of physical and emotional confidence – those extensions of banter at its most vicious – is fed by toxic masculinity, which is in turn fuelled by the dreadful examples set by those who should know better.

The sour maleness of present-day politics becomes ever-more toxic as the Brexit row continues. I simply cannot comprehend the prime minister scribbling “girly swot” about David Cameron in a meeting note and apparently mouthing “big girl’s blouse” as a term of abuse directed at the leader of the opposition in the Commons. Worse still, the hyperbolic language of those ardent Brexiters who liken the wrangling over Brexit to a war (“which we won last time”) is, while indubitably absurd, simultaneously macho and dangerous. 

Meanwhile female public figures, from the Duchess of Sussex through MPs and MEPs to anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, routinely suffer sexist, racist, threatening and vile trolling online and, frequently, verbal abuse and threat in the street. Commentators reckon nearly all of it comes from men. 

So, yes, there’s a job to be done. Boys and men who get better at talking about and analysing their own feelings will inevitably see their levels of – and capacity for – empathy increase similarly. Programmes like Loughborough Grammar School’s Great Men won’t solve all the problems besetting us with regard to toxic masculinity, but they’ll certainly help.

There’s plenty of knowledge and experience to be shared, so let’s support such initiatives by getting the discussion going, and broadcasting it by means of the very digital technology that is causing us so many headaches. 


How a constant sense of threat feeds teacher workload

21 September 2019

The problem of teacher workload is less about hours worked, and more about excessive accountability and surveillance, says Bernard Trafford

I don’t often get cross these days: after all, I’ve been retired for over a year. Nonetheless, on Wednesday I was stirred to ire by the findings of the 15-year research project by University College London (UCL), which revealed that one in four teachers works more than 60 hours a week

Astonishingly, this is the first study to have tracked workload over such a long period of time. Full marks to UCL for doing it, and to the Nuffield Foundation for funding it. 

But no more than two cheers, please, because it (a) should have been done long before, and (b) demonstrates something the entire profession has long known, but policymakers have wilfully overlooked for 25 years, by the Department for Education’s own admission.

Lead author Professor John Jerrim was quoted as saying: “Bolder plans are needed by the government to show they are serious about reducing working hours for teachers.” 

Driving people out

The NEU teaching union's Kevin Courtney added: “Government is doing a far better job of driving people out of teaching than they are in retaining them.”

The DfE says it “will continue our work with the sector to drive down on these burdensome tasks outside the classroom so that teachers are free to do what they do best – teach”.

Sadly, as NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted describes, most “burdensome tasks” are generated by the government’s excessive accountability regime. Every new Ofsted angle on inspection spawns a fresh round of policy-writing and recording mechanisms. Teachers labour to create for their schools the evidence that assures the inspectorate they’re doing what’s required 

I know: school leaders should be more robust. But we all know the consequences to schools and heads of a poor Ofsted inspection, so forgive their human frailty. Blame the government-driven system, not the links in the middle, which sometimes crack under pressure.

'What teachers do best'

As for “what teachers do best” – teaching – what does that really mean 

To policymakers, it means merely “delivering” learning in the classroom; to pupils and parents, it means much more.

In order to change children’s lives, providing the springboard from which they may leap into challenge, personal growth and fulfilment, teachers must indeed be freed from “burdensome” tasks. But the problem won’t be solved by locking them in the classroom for a number of hours set by contract or diktat. 

Great teaching and consequent workload are about more than hours. While many great teachers establish a fantastic rapport with their pupils within the teaching timetable, more do it beyond the 21 hours’ weekly contact time cited by Mary Bousted. They do it through extra one-to-one help at lunchtime or after school. They work wonders with and for children through sportmusicdrama or outdoor education. 

Teams, concerts, plays, musicals or expeditions are created, by definition, almost entirely outside the timetable. They’re the parts of their education that former pupils generally recall most fondly: the challenges, experiences and soft skills gained prepare them for adult life rather more than most classroom learning can. 

Field trips add vital additional learning, and aren’t confined to sciencesor geography. At a touring production of Macbeth in Oxford this week, two-thirds of the audience comprised school parties. I suspect those generous teachers supervising would be heartbroken if such trips (a traditional strength of UK schooling) were deemed to breach a set-hours limit. 

Constant threa 

Writing as a former teacher and head who worked, I’d say with hindsight, excessive hours for 40 years, I’ll nonetheless risk censure by suggesting that the problem of teacher workload lies less in hours (within reason) than in its nature and intensity, above all in excessive accountability and consequent record-keeping, the constant sense of threat and surveillance, inadequate resourcing and support, over-large classes, unremitting pressure to perform, and lack of appreciation. 

These truths are inconvenient for policymakers – which is why nothing has been done about them despite promises from successive secretaries of state. 

What they should do is stop controlling, measuring and threatening teachers. Trust, value, support and appreciate them, pay them better (and less grudgingly), and many of the things currently driving teachers out of the profession would start to disappear. 


The case for keeping GCSEs is dubious at best

14 September 2019

Tougher GCSEs have been devised when there’s no need for a national qualification at that age, says Bernard Trafford

The new, “tougher” GCSE is already proving insufficiently challenging for the very brightest.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, reports that leading selective independent schools are finding that students gain far more top grades than expected: he cited one where 57 per cent of grades awarded were 9. He’s not advocating it, but reckons there may soon be calls for an additional grade 10.

It’s no surprise. The same happened previously at A level and with the old GCSE, as a result of either rising achievement or grade inflation, according to your point of view. In both cases, A* was added above A, not to mention the A-double-star (A^, “A hat”) in further maths GCSE. 

GCSE is the successor of O level, CSE and, far back in time, the School Leaving Certificate. Nowadays education (not necessarily in school) theoretically continues for all young people beyond 16. So it could be argued that exams at that age provide little useful information, except for the government to compare one school with another. 

Moreover, as currently constituted, they tell the “forgotten” third of 16-year-olds – those gaining less than a grade 4 in maths and English – that what they’ve worked for is worthless.

GCSEs: Cranking up the pressure

We’re assured that GCSE helps universities to discriminate at the top end. Indeed, it may allow selector universities to identify potential in candidates from less-favourable backgrounds as they (rightly) seek to ensure that disadvantage doesn’t prevent talented students from winning places. 

I’ve never been convinced by universities’ claims that any single qualification is essential to their selection processes. When Curriculum 2000 ushered in the AS level as the halfway point to A level, universities declared that they would be of no use whatsoever for selection. 

By contrast, when AS levels were phased out recently, universities lamented the loss of a vital indicator. 

I guess they’ve now returned to looking at GCSEs, so ambitious students will continue to aim for maximum top grades at GCSE. And when someone decides that the brightest are gaining “too many” 9s, the demand will come for a 10 (or 11, or even 12), cranking up the pressure on them a full two years before they’ll progress to university.

Selector universities do need some measure of prior attainment, but only while they perpetuate our barmy system of candidates’ applying before A level and holding conditional offers – except when some institutions drive a coach and horses through their own system by making unconditional offers

Applications to university after A levels

That problem could be solved at a stroke by a system of post-qualification application – in other words, letting candidates apply for university after they’ve got their A-level results, as students do successfully in the rest of the world. 

Policymakers and admissions tutors will throw up their hands in horror: how can they possibly get it all done between exams in June and university term starting in October? They can’t, of course, which is why they need to find the collective courage and vision to stretch that period by rethinking the entire academic year. That calls for big change, not mere tinkering.

But, until that happens – and I’m not holding my breath – the race for top GCSE grades will continue. 

The problem lies in the GCSE itself. A new, tougher exam has been devised for 16-year-olds when there’s no longer any clear reason for a national qualification at that age. It’s the wrong age and the wrong purpose for that exam, and the wrong exam for that unclear purpose.

So, before we consider revising or adding to the grades awarded at GCSE, we should revisit the whole rationale for the exam’s existence at that age. It’s dubious at best. 

Designing and introducing the new GCSE before even asking whether the qualification is still needed has been a matter of putting the cart before the horse. Let’s not now further tinker with the horse’s harness, nor buff up the brasses, when we don’t even know where it’s going.


Ofsted now does more harm than good

07 September 2019

Many social campaigners see Ofsted as the government's enforcer - but this benefits no one, says Bernard Trafford

A new school year and, as night follows day, fresh announcements from Ofsted

First came the news that schools previously rated "outstanding" will lose their exemption from further inspection

Responses were generally positive. There’s the obvious equity view: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” Why should some schools, however good they were on a particular day, be treated differently from the rest? Meanwhile, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, observed that newly appointed heads find their attempts to achieve change blocked by the argument that “we’re already outstanding”.

Ofsted: Conflict and misery

Next, the inspectorate dropped all reference to homework from its new school inspection framework, on the grounds that: “It is up to schools to decide whether or not they set it for their pupils… Inspectors will assess the wide range of work provided to pupils to ensure it supports and reinforces what is taught in the classroom and the wider curriculum.”

Here responses were more varied. From the parental lobby that finds homework a source of conflict and misery at home (one led by such influential figures as Kirstie Allsopp and Romesh Ranganathan), there was joy – though I’d guess that ditching homework entirely is not what Ofsted has in mind. 

By contrast, from other, predictable, quarters emerged only fury. Chris McGovern, chair of the Campaign for Real Education (CARE) and a former Ofsted inspector to boot, told The Sunday Times: “This is a retrograde step… Many teachers will take the easy way out and not set homework from now on… This has been done to appease teachers who are complaining about their workload…”

Policy enforcers

To picture my perfect Ofsted inspector would be a bit like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen imagining five impossible things before breakfast. But I can’t imagine Mr McGovern having much in common with my ideal.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for his intemperate tirade, which, while betraying a deep distrust of teachers, also illustrates clearly what too many people – including most of the media, policymakers and thinktankers – regard as the inspectorate’s purpose: to ensure that schools do what the government (along with the media, policymakers and thinktanks) wants them to do. Because, if left to themselves, they cannot be trusted to. In other words, to enforce policy.

CARE believes it. Well-intentioned social campaigners believe it. Every call for schools to address the latest pressing social issue – knife crimeobesity, fitness, sleep, healthy eating, screen time, internet safety, tolerance, intolerance, diversity, extremism – brings a concomitant demand that Ofsted check that schools are doing it. Otherwise, it’s argued, they won’t. Trust has long been in short supply.

To be fair to Ofsted’s boss, Amanda Spielman, she and her senior staff are as powerless against those demands as the schools they inspect, though they suffer less than those on the receiving end. Whenever an element is added to the inspection framework, schools feeling themselves under the cosh (a lot of them) write policies to address it, despite Ms Spielman’s pleas not to. And, if an element is removed or downgraded…well, witness those reactions to that decision not to mention homework. 

Catastrophic damage

So what of this week’s suggestion that Ofsted inspect schools’ financial management? Perhaps Ms Spielman’s next annual report could tell the government how schools are doing the impossible with inadequate budgets? 

But she can only do so when the damage is so catastrophic as to be clearly demonstrable. Last year, she was (genuinely) unable to demonstrate scientifically to the Commons Education Select Committee that swingeing cuts were affecting levels of achievement, though she said it was likely. Effects become measurable only slowly, so in the meantime government can ignore them. And did, in this case.

As for the latest proposal that Ofsted should report on schools’ transmission of “cultural capital”, I guess we’ll rapidly see a nation’s entire artistic, literary, spiritual and social heritage reduced to policies two sides of A4 in length.

Ofsted holds schools accountable. Schools, in their turn, are able to hold neither inspectorate nor government to account for failing to support them adequately. Simultaneously a blunt instrument and a double-edged sword, Ofsted now does more harm than good. 

We must find a better way of assuring schools’ accountability – and inspection needs to go.