Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The cost of success? Vocational Qualifications and their flaws.

A song about work. It's sort of vocational.

Let me get something very, very straight before we begin. I am a huge fan of vocational education. I'm an even bigger fan of any sort of qualification which allows learners the opportunity to express the thoughts outside the straight jacket of the exam system. In no way shape or form am I seeking to denigrate the potential of 'non traditional' options - in fact, just the opposite. I believe at their best, these qualifications are more exciting to teach and produce work of greater value and depth than their academic equivalents.

Lets be clear on that.

A colleague of mine (a fabulous, committed teacher with lots of integrity) expressed a view today that because of the x number of learners they taught last year two of them failed to achieve the top grade (we're talking maybe 5%-ish) the 'value added' score would be unsatisfactory.

This is a story I've heard before. Many times. I've watched teachers of vocational qualifications attempt to apply rigorous and realistic standards but end the year demotivated, having given everything, having taught with vigour and vim, with creativity and sensitivity, with innovation and intelligence.


Because their work in gaining learners qualifications is deemed 'not good enough' when even what seem on paper to be the outstanding pass rates and high levels of achievement, are placed in a national context.

Lets think about why this happens. Lets do a little thought experiment about what happens when people under intense pressure to improve constantly are give qualifications where more or less, the outcomes are up to them. Lets call it 'subtle, creeping grade inflation' for want of a better name. The temptation is obvious. Each institution thinks 'we can do a little bit better' - each institution thinks 'we must do a little bit better' - each institution looks along the line and sees their neighbours, their peer referenced colleagues 'doing a little bit better' and they encourage staff to do what it takes to eradicate 'pass' grades.

Teachers feel as if those grades are not available to them, as if giving a learner those grades will create scrutiny, will create negative feedback so they avoid at all costs those grades. The best teachers achieve it by teaching brilliantly, by reviewing content, reviewing assessment, motivating learners, finding interventions that work and so on. The worst simply don't give out 'pass' grades and carry on pretty much as before.

A few years pass and it's the middle grades under pressure. 'Lets minimise the number of merits' suggests an ambitious manager. It seems the best way for a school or college to climb the league tables.

See the above process but now it's harder. The best teachers still battle and try and reinvent the wheel, looking for less drag, less resistance, better grip or whatever else suits this wheel based educational analogy.

Soon teachers find they are under pressure to give only the highest grades. This comes at a terrific cost for those teachers as the qualifications aren't designed for everyone to achieve at the highest level. If they were, why do the pass and merit grades even exist?

They discuss this. They think 'it's my school! - they put terrible pressure on me...' but when they look at the VA scores it suggests that it isn't. The senior managers say 'well, our expectations are in line with national trends' and who can blame them for that? What senior manager is going to ask their staff not to work to national baselines? What senior manager is going to last long if they do?

In a purely hypothetical world entirely unrelated to this blogging teacher's reality someone who is a union rep might ring their union to discuss this, to attempt to get this on the agenda at a national level, to get the topic of grade inflation in this area seriously explored and challenged. They would be surprised to be met by obfuscation and 'confusion' about the issue from their union.

They might then discover that the previous week their teaching union doing a conference seemingly sponsored by the large and powerful body which provides many of the vocational qualifications which seem to have caused the issue. They might wonder cynically if the lack of interest from the teaching union might be connected to their seemingly cosy relationship with the exam board. They might wonder why a body whose sole purpose is to represent the interests of their members isn't interested in this issue despite being provided with an explanation that the pressure on staff teaching these qualifications is the single biggest workplace issue and despite the clear explanation that "if you stop pretending not to understand and actually think about the fact that this set of results only yields a VA score of 4, it can't be a question of malpractice from one particular institution can it?" and that either the union doesn't understand VA or aren't interested and either outcome isn't especially satisfactory.

Long sentences can result from frustrating situations. It's a little known rule of grammar.

So where do we go from here? 

We start demanding the right to use a range of grades which reflect learner outcomes. We demand it of ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions. It takes every single teacher to take this deadly seriously. Let's not even consider the madness of performance related pay in this context. The sheer insanity of making pay judgements related to to grades which in some cases the teacher is almost entirely responsible for giving. 

Why do we care?

- Because if we don't it means these qualifications get a bad name. The learners who genuinely apply themselves to the challenges and come out with fabulous work which puts your average GCSE or A-level work to shame are prejudiced against by universities and employers.

- Because if we don't this sort of schools based vocational education will go the way of coursework. I remember coursework being a brilliant thing. I was good at it. I still remember doing it and what I learnt. I can't really remember sitting any of my exams. What does that tell you? Coursework became synonymous with 'maximising grades' or 'making the most of the coursework' - a thinly veiled reference to practices of dubious educational merit or value. Where is coursework now? I don't agree with Gove on much, but I do agree that in some ways coursework was becoming a joke, a cut and paste exercise in learners slugging through draft after draft after draft, with little room for expression or actual enquiry. In short, the opposite of what it should be if you believe in the power of independent enquiry and innate curiosity and so on.

- Because if we don't grade learners accurately they soon become demotivated. They stop learning as what's the point?

- If we never allow failure (in a relative sense) we never allow risk, creativity, innovation. These qualifications rely on this.

- Because it's a betrayal of the importance of vocational qualifications. We actually need, as a society, to know who excels at Health and Social care or Engineering or Arts or whatever. These things matter as much as who gets to rub shoulders with the Bullingdon boys at Oxbridge.  We need to treat this branch of education with the same attention and care we do 'academic' qualifications. We need a rigorous system of external examiners which should include schools and colleges quality controlling each others assessments in the spirit of critical friendship instead of competing to out do each other. The awarding bodies need to actually provide some support here, instead of sitting back and raking in the cash. The application of GCSE/A level style exams within vocational qualifications is a start, but it does rather beg the question - how are these actually distinct from their 'academic' equivalents. If they can't afford to properly moderate coursework, then they need to be funded equitably so they can provide the same level of support as exam boards do.

So. What do we do?

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