Exams - 'A movement finds its way around the system'

29th November 2013 at 00:00
School leaders' group is defiant in the face of 'cheating' claims

The meeting had an almost religious feel. The setting helped (Methodist Central Hall in London), as did the sound of a church organ. But most of all, it was the reassurance and certainty that hundreds of school leaders from across England seemed to gain from coming together to hear the latest ways to squeeze the best possible exam results out of their students.

"There is a clarity that is beneficial in a time when there is so much change," said Simon Barber, head of Carshalton Boys Sports College in Surrey. "We are able to say 'don't panic and keep calm'. This is what we should be concentrating on."

As education the world over becomes ever more closely monitored, benchmarked and data driven, school leaders everywhere are having to work out how to adapt.

In England - a pioneer in measuring education performance - a group of state school leaders known as the PiXL (Partners in Excellence) Club are on the frontline.

The club, which today has more than 800 school members, including around 700 secondaries, was formed seven years ago. But it took a TES article last November to bring it to public prominence.

The story revealed that the club had been promoting a strategy that led to hundreds of schools entering students for two English qualifications at the same time in a bid to secure good grades and boost their league table positions.

Such tactics do seem to work: last year, PiXL schools had an average 4.6 percentage point increase in the proportion of students meeting the main GCSE benchmark, compared with a national decline of 0.4 points. And the resulting publicity did PiXL no harm, according to club chair Sir John Rowling, who said that scores more schools joined as a result.

But the Department for Education was not happy, condemning double exam entries as "cynical". If cynicism was present at the club's London meeting this month then it was well hidden beneath the waves of positivity, enthusiasm and "shared moral purpose" emanating from its "energised" members.

"What people get from these meetings is inspiration, the sense that there is a way forward no matter what is placed in front of us," said David Evans, a former headteacher who now works for PiXL.

Some have tended to view PiXL as school leaders' dirty little secret, a sly tactical way of climbing the all-important league tables without giving students the proper rounded education that they really need. But for the club's members it is any- thing but. They are proud of what they do and eager to open their doors to TES to reveal what goes on. In the words of Mr Evans: "What PiXL is about above all is a better future for young people."

The elephant in the room at this month's meeting was the government's sudden decision to clamp down on multiple GCSE entries for the same student in the same subject. Future school league tables will include only a student's first attempt at a GCSE, rather than their best effort. Schools will still be free to use multiple entries - a tactic promoted by PiXL - if they think it will benefit students. But doing so will no longer afford school leaders the opportunity to improve their statistical standing.

What really annoyed club members were comments from education secretary Michael Gove, who accused schools of "gaming the system", disregarding the best interests of students and "cheating".

Mr Gove fears that excessive exam tactics will deny students the excellent education that he enjoyed. But he is opposed by school leaders dealing with the daily reality of education, who equally vehemently argue that exam results are everything because without them students do not have a future.

"You do need to know the way the wind is blowing," Sir John told his members. "[The government's view] is that our job isn't actually to get people to the top of mountains (to pass their exams).

"It is that our job is actually to teach our subjects and whether the kids pass or not is quite arbitrary... and that is where I suspect that this room of 1,400 people will be at odds with that policy.

"Because our job is to inspire in our subject for sure, (but) our job is (also) to support all those people who come under our care to pass the (GCSE) threshold so they can move to the next stage of their lives, and to leave no legal, ethical, proper stone unturned that will help them to achieve for their future. That is our duty."

Stirred by an organ rendition of Chariots of Fire and Sir John's reassurance that there were plenty of different ways to "climb the Eiger", members then received some very practical advice. They were shown a glossy PiXL video that they could use to help motivate their students for exams. With every school paying an annual #163;3,200 subscription, there is plenty of money to spend.

Delegates were also told about the implications of league table reforms and offered new mock exams "on steroids" to provide students with the extra experience that they would have gained from multiple entries. Then there was some very carefully worded advice on how to deal with the clampdown on early GCSE entry.

"What is best for the child may not be best for your school, and it is for each of us in our own schools and our own contexts to make our own decisions about whether early entry is appropriate or not," a member of PiXL's English team said. "Our moral purpose is always to try to do the very best for the children, but we understand the pressures."

Members said that it was the chance to collaborate and swap ideas that drew them in their hundreds to the PiXL meetings every half-term, as much as anything else. "Years ago, when I went into teaching, everybody kept everything within their own classroom," said Jenny Gaylor, deputy headteacher of Carshalton Boys Sports College. "This is about sharing."

In some ways it is surprising that Mr Gove should find himself on the opposite side of the debate to PiXL. The club evolved out of a collaborative network of schools set up as part of the London Challenge, a school improvement initiative that the education secretary has enthusiastically praised.

Today, with an international branch and member schools in Brazil, Ghana, Kenya, Peru, Tanzania and Uganda, its influence is stretching way beyond those beginnings. And Sir John is confident that his "movement" can respond positively to any obstacles from ministers. "If there is blockage, a movement finds its way around the blockage," he told members. "It finds its way around the new system."

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