'Ofqual wants us to whistle-blow over "unfair practice". We owe it to our students to do so.'

6th June 2014 at 11:30

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Suffolk, writes: 

In early 1937, three clever young men began a remarkable social experiment.

As Britain slipped unknowingly towards war, the aim of Charles Madge, Tom Harrisson and Humphry Jennings was to shine a spotlight on the everyday habits of ordinary people.

They were driven by a fascination with the anthropology of a nation no longer fully at ease with itself, and uncertain about its future. These early social scientists wanted to see what people around them were getting up to.Thus Britain became a social laboratory.

It was the beginning of a movement called “mass-observation” and by the end of the year more than 500 volunteers were keeping detailed diaries of everything including: “the behaviour of people at war memorials; beards, armpits, eyebrows; female taboos about eating; and the private lives of midwives.”(1)

So it was that people like us recorded the behaviour of people like us.

I was reminded of mass-observation yesterday on, of all places, the Ofqual website.

Because it seems that despite the GCSE English legal case, the introduction of “comparable outcomes”, the banishing of early entry “gaming” by schools, the removal of spoken English from the overall English aggregation – despite all of these, someone somewhere is up to no good.

At least, that is what we must infer.

In a speech at the Westminster Education Forum, chief regulator Glenys Stacey was due to say: “We hear increasingly from a range of sources across the school system that certain approaches are used which create unfair advantages for some students. These sources are diverse – online forums, head teacher panels and the like.”

Ofqual is inviting teachers to report examples, and to do so in confidence.

ASCL’s Brian Lightman was quick to issue an outraged response: “Hearsay and rumour have no place in evidence informed policy. Explicit procedures to report malpractice are already in place and should be used where there is cause for concern.”

That too was my initial feeling. What could Ofqual be alluding to? What were these mysterious “head teacher panels” they were referring to? There seemed something darkly masonic about at all.

But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that Ofqual is hearing what many of us occasionally hear – that in classrooms where controlled assessment is taking place, some teachers are, shall we say, not abiding entirely by the spirit of the regulations.

And I’m guessing that Ofqual’s cautiousness in alluding to what they deem unfair practice may be deliberately cautious.

Just as in schools we would probably want to avoid putting up signs saying “Please report any vandalism in these toilets” in case it encourages a spree of vandalism in the toilets, Ofqual may well be being wary not to inadvertently spread the word about whatever the dark arts are that they wish to see ended.

After all, there are still a few areas where less than scrupulous approaches might be used, for example in the less policeable area of controlled assessment – one of the few remaining areas of teacher autonomy that can affect student outcomes.

Here is an example of Ofqual’s instructions to awarding bodies about the guidance that must be issued to schools about controlled assessment in English:

“Specifications must state that learners are not allowed access to dictionaries and thesauri and to grammar and spell check programs. Copies of the text used during the assessment period must be unannotated.”

Occasionally we hear whispers of schools where key words or sentence starters or spellings are written up for students to refer to, where the teacher has given more spoken or written advice than we would think reasonable, where annotations are rubbed out rather than non-existent, where the overall spirit of teacher impartiality has been crossed by a mile.

We hear this occasional rumour and hearsay, and we dismiss it as spitefulness or competitive point-scoring.

But if Ofqual sense similar rumblings, it has a duty to investigate. It is, after all, the regulator of the examination system.

The more rumours swirl around that students in classroom A or school A are achieving higher grades than those in classroom B or school B because of dubious practices, then the more the credibility of the system begins to crumble.

Recent experience tells us that those of us who played completely by the rules with regard to the speaking and listening assessments in English two years ago ended up being penalised with significant grade boundary adjustments because some schools pushed teacher assessments beyond an acceptable limit.

I didn’t believe it at the time. I do now.

So while I’m happy to lampoon the euphemistic style of the Ofqual press release, I won’t condemn the intention to root out questionable practices where they are happening. Brian Lightman rightly points out that whistle-blowing procedures already exist via the awarding bodies. But the fact that this issue has surfaced at all suggests that these procedures, in themselves, are insufficient.

I don’t think we’re being turned into a nation of mass-observation-style snoopers. I think instead we’re being reminded that – whatever the pressures of our burdensome accountability system – we owe it to our students, our parents and the wider to public visibly to demonstrate that professional standards prevail.

Ofqual’s findings may therefore help to make much more explicit what those professional standards do, and do not, deem professional. It’s an indictment of our high-stakes assessment culture that such an investigation is needed, but in my book fairness trumps ruffled feathers. 

(1) My source for all this is a book I bought remaindered in 1988: Angus Calder and Dorothy Sheridan, Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937-49, Jonathan Cape 1984.

Related stories:

Ofqual calls on teachers to disclose 'unfair' tactics used to boost results - 5 April 2014


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