Month: April 2014

Are we focusing too much on examining practical science?

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Science evokes images of Bunsen burners, coloured liquids, vapours rising from flasks, white coats and safety goggles. But are we making too much of the rigid assessment of the practical parts of science in our school curriculum?

Ofqual, the examination regulatory body, has announced that practical work will no longer count towards the final examination grade in A levels. This has happened despite intense opposition from science teachers and learned scientific bodies, represented by SCORE. How can we say that a student has achieved any level of competence in a subject if a key skill is not being assessed, they argue?

The reason for the removal of the practical work from the final grade is based mainly on two issues. First, what was examined at GCSE and A level had become a joke. The set list of practical activities that constituted independent skills assessments and controlled assessments at A level were as relevant to real science as a banana is to a fish.

They were regularly abused and students routinely scored high marks as the system was exploited to bump up grades. As yet, no decision has been made on how, or even if, practical skills will be a part of the overall GCSE grade.

Second, setting practical examinations that are a real test of skill, problem solving and aptitude may just be too difficult. Ofqual feels the current assessments are too predictable, they don’t reflect students’ overall ability (as most students get high results) and they are open to malpractice. Rather than tackle these difficulties, its alternative is a list of 12 practical experiments that students must complete with the award of a pass/fail certificate to accompany the A level grade.

The practicalities

In my early days as a teacher we ran practical examinations, set by the exam boards. They were difficult to organise and set up – it invariably meant that laboratories were taken out of action for a period of time, along with laboratory technicians, so that the equipment could be set up.

It involved high levels of security to ensure the details of the experiments were not leaked to the students and it incurred costs – the purchase of certain equipment, chemicals or specimens that matched the exam board requirements. The examination then had to be invigilated, like any other. All the time the rest of the pupils needed their fair share of work and practical investigations.

So, was it worth it? Yes. Sometimes the practical examination utilised experiments that pupils had done before or variations on an experiment that tested their ability to apply their knowledge and skills to new problems. But ultimately the students understood that associated with the knowledge and theoretical elements of science were skills and procedures which informed that theory.

What are the inherent dangers with the new proposals? The first is the downgrading of experimental work to a minimum list of 12 – there is a danger that this becomes the norm. Schools looking to cut costs may take a reductionist view of science, reducing budgets, laboratory technical support, perhaps even the requirement for laboratories.

Much of what needs to be taught could arguably be taught in general classrooms – as a science teacher I don’t object to this for some lessons. But laboratories could be seen to be unnecessary for most science teaching and learning.

Associated experimental work may be reduced to YouTube video clips, watch-and-learn type activities such as demonstrations by the teacher, or reliance on experimental simulations on interactive white boards. Could this become the norm for practical science – no actual hands-on simply simulations?

Universities already decry the skills of A level students and their inability to carry out what were once standard procedures. This move will not improve matters.

The opportunities

But of course there is always a flip side to any change. Could this move actually be better for practical science?

The current system with its woefully inadequate controlled assessments of practical skills serves little to no purpose at GCSE and needs to change. At A level, again there are limited assessments and this leads to some schools only teaching a limited set of skills – those needed to pass the assessments.

If I were a head of science now, I would be looking to secure some assurances for my students from the school’s senior management team that laboratory space and budgets will not be cut. My next move would be to look at what, ideally, we would like our practical/theoretical integration at A level to look like. What can we do now that previously we couldn’t due to time constraints, that would help consolidate our students’ understanding of the theory through innovative use of the practical?

Such a move would be designed to boost performance and improve grades – so justifying the maintenance of the budget. Could we also, in our departments, look to undertake some longer-term experiments of the kind that just had no space in a rushed, assessment driven curriculum that focused on a small set of unrelated skills?

The notion is creative compliance. Rather than go down the path of least resistance and seek to deliver just the minimum, use the freedom to create a curriculum that not only delivers a wider range of skills, but also seeks to underpin the theoretical input required in the A level specification.

This Article was first published on The Conversation, UK on 25th April 2014


Time to change from QTS to LTS?

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It’s about time we cleared up a few misconceptions about teacher qualifications and the need to be a ‘qualified teacher’. The first confusion, one that is deliberately and mischievously stated, is that a graduate with a first class degree in a subject is qualified. They may have an excellent degree from an excellent university and to call them ‘unqualified’ is an insult. This is mischievous misdirection. Those who make such a claim know full well that the ‘qualification’ being referred to is not in the subject matter, but linked to the skills, knowledge and understanding of teaching, child development and learning. They deliberately misuse the term qualified. As they seem to have difficulty separating professional qualifications from academic ones, perhaps we should change from Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) to Licenced Teacher Status (LTS)

Some argue that there is no need for a standard teacher qualification in order to be a good teacher. Reading the polemic arguments of those brave enough to venture into print on this matter I see many misconceptions about the nature of the ‘qualifications’ necessary to be a good teacher.

Michael Gove supports getting the ‘best’ qualified people into teaching. Initially this was all about degree classification in a subject area. His simplistic (incorrect) assumption being the better the degree qualification, the better the teacher. Research shows this not to be true – but there is also research that shows that it may be true. We can argue all day long about this aspect of teaching, but the fact is, knowing your subject and knowing how to teach what you know are two different things. The latter requires training and experience. The government has now backtracked on graduates with a 2:2 degree or higher should train to teach allowing those with third class degrees to be eligible for government funding in maths, physics, chemistry, reversing a Conservative election pledge on standards.

Others, e.g. Toby Young – founder of the West London Free School, think that QTS is some form of union led ‘closed shop’ arrangement. Perhaps the fear is that the union ‘certified’ teacher is more likely to be a socialist indoctrinator of young people than an educator looking after the welfare, potential and interests of all their pupils. Talks of the PGCE being ‘a union approved piece of paper that makes someone a qualified teacher’ are simply wrong. The union may well (and rightly in my view) approve of the PGCE, but it is not what qualifies someone to teach. Many teachers who are qualified, but who do not hold a PGCE, are union members. QTS and the PGCE are two different things, as I will explain below.

All tax-payer funded schools are now free to hire unqualified teachers, not just academies and free schools. A change in ‘The Education (School Teachers) (Qualifications and Specified Work) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) Regulations 2012’ does ‘remove the condition that an instructor may only carry out specified work if no suitable qualified teacher or teacher on the employment based training scheme is available’. It also removes the restriction that ‘an instructor may only carry out specified work for such period of time as no suitable qualified teacher or teacher on the employment based training scheme is available.’ But the key here is that it applies to a category of employee called an ‘instructor’. An instructor, as the name implies, is not a teacher.

So let’s put right some of the misconceptions rife in these views opposing the notion of all teachers being qualified teachers.

Firstly, much is made of this government is championing ‘on the job’ training. Yet rarely is it acknowledged that, prior to Michael Gove’s reforms, two thirds of teacher training was ‘on the job’. Even under the new School Direct initiative where the training places are being allocated to schools, with a target of 50% of training places being ‘school-based’ by 2015, the proportion of time being required to be spent in schools remains the same. Only with the School Direct (salaried) route is this not the case as the trainee is an employee of the school and expected to have experience. They are expected to take on direct teaching much earlier – very similar to the old salaried Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP) route. This leaves me wondering what, if anything, has changed? Universities worked in partnership with schools, had schools sitting on advisory boards, helping them deliver the kind of teachers they wanted prior to School Direct. This is what the DfE wanted, but failed to recognise, or deliberately ignores.

Second is the confusion between the standards in training that a graduate must reach and the academic achievement in the field of education studies they may also, at the same time, attain. The PGCE and QTS.

The PGCE (either the Professional Graduate Certificate in Education or the Post Graduate Certificate in Education) is an academic award bestowed upon an individual by a University. It comes in two levels, The Professional Graduate level, which is equivalent to final year degree level and the Post Graduate level, which is equivalent to Masters level, though not a full Master’s degree. It does not, in itself, qualify a person to teach and it is not Qualified Teacher Status. I know of a number of students who have a PGCE but who are not ‘qualified teachers’ in the sense that they could not be paid as a qualified teacher in a state school, prior to the pay reforms, and they cannot have their names recorded as such on the register of qualified teachers held by the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL).

Qualified Teacher Status is not awarded by a university or a training provider. This award is what gives an individual the professional status of being a qualified teacher. Only the NCTL can award QTS to an individual and they do so on the recommendation of the university or training provider. In order to gain QTS, minimum standards of professional competence must be met. These standards were not devised by the ‘unions’ as a means to secure a closed shop and a cushy number for their members. The standards are set by the government. It was a government working party of Head teachers who revised and simplified the previous standards.

In an article defending the use of unqualified teachers Anthony Seldon says that most Head teachers ‘can tell within minutes whether someone has “got it” or not.’ I agree. I have seen many unqualified students on their initial steps towards becoming a teacher and in some there seems to be some inherent ability – they can just ‘teach’. But do we really want a profession where people are hired on the basis of a gut instinct formed after just 10 minutes? For me that instinct then needs to be confirmed over time and supplemented with training that allows the instinctive teacher to understand why they do what they do and what it is that makes them good.

Instead of a profession where we can assess potential, where we can take well qualified people and train them to achieve a standard when it is then ‘safe’ to let them loose on classes, teaching to a good standard, we are in the position of allowing anyone to apply for and become a teacher, subject to the necessary checks on their background.

Even with School Direct – the new route into teaching – schools are still getting used to assessing potential over readiness to teach. Colleagues in initial teacher education from many providers around the country tell me that often schools reject perfectly good graduates on the basis that they could not teach a demonstration lesson well – in other words they are looking only for those with an innate ability to teach rather than the well qualified graduate with the potential to become a good teacher.

Nobody doubts that teachers need to be well qualified in their subject – but this is different from an ability to impart that knowledge effectively to children – this is where the academic study in education and teaching standards come into the frame. Gaining a PGCE means that you have an awareness of the theoretical basis of teaching – how children grow and develop, how they learn, the phases they pass through as they grow older and how to deal with the subtle art of questioning and dealing with misconceptions etc. QTS assesses that person’s ability to perform the job to a minimum standard, it is more akin to passing a driving test.

QTS does not mean fully qualified and experienced. Experience can make you a better teacher (as can experience in driving make you a better driver), so too can you fall into bad habits. Merely gaining QTS does not ensure that you are always going to be a good teacher – many go forward and become great teachers – some ‘crash’ or fall into bad habits and perhaps they need to have their ‘licence’ endorsed, withdrawn or even removed until they can show that they can meet that safe standard once more. But to deregulate the profession and allow parity for the qualified and the non-qualified is senseless. It does more to harm our children that it will ever do to increase their life chances or raise standards in the profession. Indeed, how can we call ourselves professionals if there is no professional requirement that we have to meet?

The solution is to remove from the hands of politicians and government bodies our professional standards. The academic standard, the PGCE or a full Master’s Degree is safe in the hands of the universities. We need an independent body, perhaps the Royal College of Teachers, to be the guardian of our professional standards, to uphold the highest standards, to revisit and look in detail at how we train our teachers and what it means to bestow the title of Teacher on those in the profession. The unions are not, and should not, be in control of our profession. The DfE should not be in control and should not run our profession – certainly they should not run it down as they do regularly. A Royal College would need to be accountable to parliament for the profession, but unless and until we reclaim the profession the real concern I have is that slowly the standards and qualifications required to be a good teacher will be eroded. That threatens the life of our profession and the life chances of our children.

Finally perhaps it’s time to change QTS to LTS – Licenced Teacher Status. That removes the issue of what ‘qualified’ means. It also allows for periodic reviews of a licence and for licences to be revoked. Excellent teachers may also move towards advanced licences (like advanced drivers) or even ‘super licences’ (such as those given to the world’s best drivers in F1).

(This blog was first published in December 2013 on the TES website)

Is the anti-Free School news all a bit too much?

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A view from a Free School Head


Along with my colleagues in education, I am enjoying a much needed break. Unlike most however, I am spared the difficult few months of marking coursework, final preparation for GCSEs and A levels and the inevitable post-mortem which will follow in the autumn. This is because I am the Headmaster of a secondary school which currently has students in just years 7 and 8.

It is a Free School (pause for indignant harrumphs from Tristram Hunt’s army of followers) and so, if I am to believe all I hear on twitter, it is a school which is either destroying education, lining the pockets of its supporters, the preserve of the middle classes or just an unwanted and unnecessary irrelevance. Not surprisingly, I do not recognise any of these descriptions in the establishment I am proud to run. In actual fact visitors to our school will find us surprisingly school-like!


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Our Day Out (at the DfE)

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Teachers and a Minister. Well done to those to met with the minister excellent points made and clearly shows that these meetings needed to take place 4 years ago before the changes. Not now, when the changes are being implemented. Such a golden opportunity missed because of the prejudices of politicians.

Love Learning....

I wasn’t quite sure why I got an invitation to consult/consort with civil servants and a minister at the DfE yesterday, but when the email came through, I booked my train tickets as fast as my fingers could type in my debit card details. It’s not a chance you get every day and I was intrigued to know whether or not these latest interactions with the teacher twitterati were PR stunts or genuine attempts to engage. I came away feeling that they were/are really genuine attempts to engage and that there is real potential for every day classroom teachers to be taking part in a process that could lead to improvements in the system. I also left feeling that I wish these conversations had taken place a few years ago and not as we face the implementation of monumental changes this September.

On arrival, we were introduced to three civil…

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Clinical Practice in Education: Panacea, Placebo or Suppository

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This is a thoughtful piece on Teacher Education and has much to commend it. Theory has always been the poor relation to teaching. For the profession to survive it must be more apparent in our teacher education in schools and teachers must have the time to engage more with research.

kevenbartle's Blog


Having written more than one blogpost criticising the use of medical language and metaphors in education, I rather find myself on the back foot with the title of this post and its content. Let me deal with that straight away.

My concerns about Big Research in the form of Randomised Control Trials (taken from the medical world, applied to the educational sphere, championed by Dr. Ben Goldacre), is that they “are used widely for showing causal relations in health and social care because their study design is the only one that is able to control for unknown or unmeasured confounders”. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but the notion of causality in education is one that I struggle with.

What, for example, causes the underachievement of a small group of students with seemingly every advantage in the world and how might we go about intervening?…

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