Dear madam: letters to the editor 26/11/20

In this week's postbag of letters to the editor, Tes readers discuss Direct Instruction, assessment and grade inflation

Tes Reporter

Tes letters to the editor 26/11/20: Direct Instruction, grade inflation and GCSE teacher assessment

Direct Instruction isn't just about teaching basic skills

Tes should be commended for the recent magazine article on Project Follow Through ("The battle over Direct Instruction," 30 October, article free for subscribers). The article represents the first time that a major publication has provided a quote of the letter written by Ernest Boyer, US commissioner of education, in 1978, in which he stated that his office did not disseminate the results of Project Follow Through because only one instructional model, Direct Instruction, “was found to produce positive results more consistently than any of the others”.  (The full letter is available at  The commissioner blatantly ignored the provision of the legislation authorising Project Follow Through that required the dissemination of the study’s findings. 

However, the article does not fully explain why the commissioner decided not to disseminate the results of Follow Through. Although Direct Instruction was classified as a “basic skills” model by the US Office of Education for the purpose of the study, students at the sites implementing Direct Instruction scored highest in cognitive and affective (self-concept) measures in Follow Through, as well as basic skills. This is mentioned briefly in the article, but the characterisation of Direct Instruction as a “basic skills” method persists throughout the article, which may give readers the impression that the Direct Instruction programmes do not prepare students for higher-order reasoning. 

In fact, Direct Instruction programmes incorporate advanced thinking skills from the earliest grade level. The beginning language programme teaches children the basic paradigm for scientific thinking – how to rule out different alternatives based on evidence. In the upper elementary writing programmes, students create counter-arguments in response to different types of logical fallacies. At the secondary level, students learn to create a variety of compositions in different genres in the Essentials for Writing programme, and they learn to apply a unique rate equation strategy that reduces the computation load for solving algebra problems in the Essentials for Algebra programme. In all Direct Instruction programmes, students master basic skills in order to provide a firm foundation for understanding higher-order concepts.

Kurt Engelmann
President, The National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI)

GCSEs were supposed to include teacher assessment

There has been much traffic to the Tes News website since the summer's chaos, in the main lamenting the possible demise of school exams (principally GCSEs and A levels) at the expense of a reliance on teacher assessment.

I am of a generation that can recall that Lord Baker (as education secretary during the legislation process that introduced the national curriculum and its assessment) signed off the Task Group on Assessment and Testing [1988] report that was seminal in introducing the assessment protocols still the basis for today's system. Except, significantly, that the TGAT report proposed a balance between formative (teacher) assessment and summative (testing and examinations) for those protocols. Political intervention by the Right-wingers in the Thatcher government ensured that the “formative/teacher assessment” aspect was never implemented and summative testing ruled supreme – leading to the “coaching for grades” teaching system that has blighted our schooling system ever since.

If that crucial “teacher assessment” vis a vis “summative testing” proposal had been initiated, 30 years of implementation would have produced, over time and trial and error, an acceptable system of balanced modes and prevented the “teacher assessment as doom” syndrome that seemingly dominates politicians' future decisions on this issue, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Bill Boyle
Professor of education; chair of educational assessment; director, Centre for Formative Assessment Studies, University of Manchester [1989-2014]; and education analyst/adviser, The World Bank

Talk of grade inflation harms student wellbeing

The debate over grade inflation is back in the news again, with extensive media coverage of the latest report from the Office for Students, which reveals that the proportion of university students gaining first-class degrees has nearly doubled in the past eight years.

Meanwhile, this summer saw further criticism, as record numbers of the “Class of Covid” achieved high A-level and GCSE grades.

Month after month, it seems, the row rages on. But the debate has, to date, overlooked a key voice – the students themselves.

I have been a headteacher for almost 12 years and in education for rising 30 years. Year after year, there is talk about grade inflation, particularly at the top end. Such talk more often than not assumes that examinations are becoming too easy. I am not a statistician, nor am I as well versed in national distribution curves and trends as some.  My expertise and the expertise of my staff lie in teaching, assessing and supporting young people. In the past decade, I have witnessed much educational reform and change. GCSE and A levels have been transformed, the mode of assessment has changed from modular to linear, content has changed, coursework has been removed and league tables have been adapted. Ofsted frameworks have also changed with an increased focus on pedagogical research as a driver for improving schools, including a renewed emphasis on decreasing the amount of assessment in schools.

Teachers and pupils have shown great resilience in the face of this change and responded with equal rigour. Capable and driven students take on board, like sponges, the content they are being taught, they practise the skills needed, they have become more self-reflective, applying well-honed metacognitive strategies to move their learning onwards and upwards. They have a thirst for learning and are driven to excel, often because of the high entry criteria for their chosen higher education courses and careers. They are acutely aware of the competitive student market place; they know they competing not just with UK students but international ones. They are aware of the stakes and are driven to do well. This is particularly true for able students. Year on year, caps on top grades are arguably unfairly disadvantaging them, particularly as more and more schools and colleges are getting better at teaching and supporting their students. 

Of course, not every 16- to 18-year-old is suited to A levels; not every 15- or 16-year-old is suited to GCSEs. This brings grade variability, particularly at the pass grade level. That technical education and training is not yet where it needs to be in this country is perhaps the bigger issue; equal value for academic and technical education is a cultural shift that needs to happen. A national league table approach may have resulted in improving academic standards; it has also driven changes in behaviours across parents, students and schools, not all of which are healthy.

So, to all those debating grade inflation, please be careful that you are not missing the more important matters that need to be debated; not least the wellbeing of our young people. A relentless focus on grades, an increasingly competitive university entry system and ongoing talk of grade inflation is affecting their wellbeing. Add Covid-19 into the mix, including the cancelling of examinations or not, are we surprised to learn that our young people's mental wellbeing is being even more adversely impacted?

Let's hear what some current Year 13 students have to say:

  • Zara: “I am completely heartbroken, hurt and frankly frustrated by the media and an older generation’s assertion that our generation is receiving inflated grades, and the idea that we have not worked incredibly hard for the grades we have received. I have worked insanely hard for the grades I have, sacrificing family events, turning down invitations to parties and dinners to fully focus on my studies. I have had to give up so much to ensure that I am in the place I need to be, with the grades I want and know I deserve in order to progress in the future. My parents, teachers and friends have to tell me to stop working and put my books down as I have such a drive to succeed that I simply do not know when to stop. I feel the challenges our generation faces are not acknowledged nor understood properly by other generations. Of course, other generations faced struggles, too, but simply because we have more technology, better healthcare and all these other amazing opportunities and developments which we should be grateful for, it does not mean our generation, like all the others before us, do not also face our own, unique struggles. We are a generation that, in spite of the numerous challenges caused by the pandemic (and with the help and support of our peers and teachers) has remained resilient and continued to maintain a work ethic of iron in the past eight months. One must ask oneself, where do you draw the line between wanting to be successful and prioritising your mental health?”
  • Rebecca: “From my experience, my fellow students around me at school are all dedicated to their work. This is no exaggeration, as the pressure of achieving is certainly paramount and in today’s society, where the job market is more competitive than ever, young people are the most aware they have ever been about how difficult life will be after school. This hard work and dedication deserves recognition and good grades, hence why the media’s suggestions that students are undeserving or have not worked as hard as they should have for the grades, feels like yet another attack on young people. I feel lucky that my school assists in many areas and has supported me mentally and academically through my exam years so far. In this respect, school has come a long way since my parents' day, when mental health support was nearly non-existent. But this does not take away from the fact that exams push students hard and create a lot of stress, which is why I think most other students would appreciate support from adults in these strange new times, rather than subtle messages about how young people are not working hard enough for their grades.”
  • Stella: “Talk of grade inflation does not eliminate the fact that a lot of work still needs to be completed to achieve high grades. I study using a variety of methods as my subjects are all quite different. For mathematics, I study by completing a variety of practice questions, which test how well I understand fundamental principles and how I can apply my skills. For Spanish, I study for exams by revising vocabulary via websites that test my spelling, as well as exposing myself to as much Spanish material as possible from YouTube videos to articles to books. I also try to practise speaking wherever possible, being in class or with a friend. For product design, I study theory knowledge by completing quizzes I make for myself on each chapter. My practical skills are constantly improving each time I get hands-on in the workshop for my non-examined assessment. I would say studying takes a lot of self-discipline, which can be hard to muster at times…and an awful lot of organisation.”

Sharon Cromie
Headteacher, Wycombe High School, Buckinghamshire



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