Make #GCSEgate a turning point . . .

November 5, 2012 — 3 Comments


There is, at this moment, a sense that the English education system is at a tipping point, in a state of turmoil, and even perhaps on the edge of a crisis.  This is most clearly illustrated by the fallout from the GCSE English débâcle (GCSEgate).  It reveals a system in serious difficulties.  My view is that GCSEgate was predictable, is symptomatic of much wider structural problems and raises fundamental questions about the whole trajectory of current education reform (both its nature and implementation). It is important therefore to not only offer some analysis of the situation and locate this particular incident within a much broader context, but also to explore how this defining moment might be used to interrupt the trajectory of current policy.

I offer these comments in the spirit of someone keen to contribute to a debate.  It is some years since I was involved in these issues as a teacher (and A level assistant examiner) and while I have not been involved in researching GCSE English associated issues, my work now involves me working with teachers, and researching a number of issues relating to the wider questions raised by this case. That said I make no claim this is a traditional research based paper. I offer these thoughts with those caveats.

This blog discusses a number of issues that arise from the recent publication of the Ofqual Report into the conduct of the 2012 English GCSE. It then seeks to locate these issues in a wider debate about accountability in the English school system.  My argument is that the market-driven and managerialist forms of accountability that now dominate the English school system have a distorting and negative effect on the system itself. GCSEgate is one symptom of these wider systemic issues.  The blog concludes by making the case for teachers to develop an ‘activist professionalism’ (Sachs, 2003) capable of mobilising in support of a more optimistic and hopeful vision of state education.

Three things we learned from the Ofqual Report

A reading of the Ofqual Report highlights a number of issues relating to the GCSE assessment system, but the Report also raises questions about Ofqual’s own role and wider issues of education policy. I want to highlight three issues:

1. We don’t do change very well . . .

One of the obvious outcomes to emerge from the Ofqual Report is that the pace and scale of the change in GCSE English was clearly excessive.  The new GCSE English qualification appeared to be particularly complicated as a piece of examination reform and was introduced too fast.  As a consequence there were problems, which have now become all too clear (and, for some young people, all too costly).  The reform was not sufficiently developed, researched or piloted – or so it would seem.  If this was an isolated example of this type of change it would rightly be a source of concern, but perhaps no more than that – ‘Learn lessons and move on…’.  However, I would argue that this is not an isolated example, but rather it is quite typical of how education reform is implemented, and has been over very many years.

Teachers can be forgiven for thinking there is a permanent revolution in which nothing ever stays the same for very long.  Change is generally imposed, seldom seeks to engage them and is given nowhere near enough time to be implemented, embedded and evaluated.  Part of this problem emerges from a macho approach to politics (the need to be seen to do something decisive and radical), but it also highlights a wider set of problems.

First is the view promoted by politicians and the media that the school system is ‘failing’, ‘broken’, in ‘crisis’ etc (it is what Stephen Ball brilliantly referred to as the ‘discourse of derision’ – the drip, drip, drip condemnation of state education for failure – rarely supported by evidence).  Of course, if this is the case then state education must be fixed. Only radical surgery will achieve this.  Hence the permanent revolution. It is a narrative that has been continuous over many years, and varies little between political parties. [see slide 32 in the presentation here]

Second is the view that teachers are not part of the solution, that actually they are part of the problem – caricatured by politicians as ‘enemies of promise’. Their views are generally dismissed as the voice of ‘vested interests’.  Hence the pattern of decades of change that has been imposed on teachers (at least back to 1988, but in my view as far back as Callaghan’s 1976 Great Debate), with the principal aim of controlling rather than liberating teachers’ creative potential and professional expertise.  It is not change that ever attempted to engage with teachers, or genuinely sought their professional opinions.

It is worth noting this is not an approach generally shared by high performing systems elsewhere, with which England might otherwise want to make international comparison. For example, see Sahlberg, 2011.

2. The regulatory framework is inadequate

There is some irony in a regulatory body berating failure in a system it was intended to regulate.  What is clear is that regulation failed, and that was part of the wider failure associated with GCSEgate.  It is not my intention here to focus on the details of Ofqual’s role in the situation, and how it appeared unable to prevent GCSEgate unfolding in the way that it did.  Others much closer and more knowledgeable of the system have discussed this more eloquently than I (see, for example, headteacher Geoff Barton’s blog here).

However, it is important to look beyond the narrow question of whether or not Ofqual could have prevented this particular situation and look at the wider questions it raises about Ofqual’s role.  In particular I think there are two issues that emerge:

First the situation highlights once again the inadequacy of a regulatory model in which those involved in regulating have no wider responsibility for securing improvement. It is a model developed by pro-market academics who wrestle with questions about how to make ‘markets’ in the public sector function like markets in the private sector. Their answer is that there must be regulatory bodies that are completely detached from direct provision. Their role is purely to maintain basic standards (Ofqual) or provide consumers with information to make choices (Ofsted).  Such bodies must be ‘independent’ because if they take a more active role (or responsibility) for system improvement then they are no longer seen as part of the solution – but rather they become implicated as part of the problem.

Whilst there may be some justification for some of these arguments in some cases, there is a much wider question to be posed as to whether it is helpful to have regulatory bodies that have no clear collective responsibility for securing system improvement.  Rather this model perpetuates, quite intentionally, a divide within the education system, the consequences of which are playing out over GCSEgate.  Teachers, once again, are being presented as the problem . . .

The second issue relates to whether a regulatory framework, including bodies such as Ofqual and Ofsted (and whatever Of…..’s will need to be created in the future) can ever effectively discharge the roles expected of them. Regulatory bodies such as these are required because there is a recognition that in a market, there can be market failures, and so some level of regulation is necessary.  The GCSE débâcle raises not only a question as to whether regulatory bodies can ever regulate adequately in such cases (and GCSEgate does not inspire confidence), but the wider question as to whether regulatory bodies are an effective allocation of scarce resources. Might it not be better to allocate these resources to those who directly deliver improvement and ensure there is a system that does not have to pre-occupy itself with correcting market failure?

3. The system generates ‘perverse incentives’

The third and final point we learn from the Ofqual Report is the most significant, and the most contentious.  It is contentious because the points in the Report that relate to this issue have been widely reported as teachers ‘cheating’. The Report claims that teachers engaged in a wide range of practices to maximise student achievement, some of which ‘bent out of shape’ the qualification itself (specific allegations are provided in the Report and others are reported on the internet). The Report’s reference to ‘perverse incentives’ links to a phenomenon whereby the imposition of specific policies or targets may encourage behaviour quite different to what was apparently intended.

It is perhaps predictable that media interest has focused on the role of teachers’ and that debate has polarised as a result (both within the teaching profession and beyond it). Some claim that manipulating results is commonplace, and others reject the Report as a slur and a distraction.  I have no clear evidence to offer an opinion on this specific issue – I have little knowledge, and no direct experience, of controlled assessments and know little about the precise ways they are managed in schools.

However, what is interesting about the Report is the extent to which it accepts that the ‘forces of accountability’ (p16) place considerable pressure on teachers, and that these pressures can compromise teachers’ professional judgements and values. I am not sure I have ever seen this argument presented in an ‘establishment’ publication with such clarity.

My overview of teachers’ responses to this argument (which I accept is based on no more than an analysis of assorted websites, blogs and twitter feeds) is that many have been defensive and sought to deny the claim.  This is understandable, not least because in very many cases it is manifestly not the reality.  However, the danger is that a total rejection of this argument also effectively dismisses the most fundamental, although probably not intended, point in the Report –that the ‘forces of accountability’, as presently configured, have a distorting effect on the school system.  It may not be the headline in the Report that the authors wanted, but my view is that the real lesson from GCSEgate is not that teachers are bending a qualification out of shape, but that there exist structural problems in the current accountability framework that are responsible for bending a whole education system out of shape.

Let me explain . . .

The Ofqual Report provides the most powerful criticism from within (there has been plenty from outside, but rarely heeded) of an education system that is being distorted by what I shorthand for the moment as ‘league table culture’.  As I indicated earlier I have no specific knowledge of what went on in relation to controlled assessments in English GCSE because I have no direct experience of them.  However, some of the issues raised by the Ofqual Report resonate with my experiences (professional, research and anecdotal) over many years that teachers constantly find that their professional judgements are challenged, compromised, and some have said corrupted, by the pressures of ‘league table culture’.

My argument is that we should not be surprised at the findings presented in the Ofqual Report – but rather we should see it as evidence of  how ‘league table culture’ can, and does, distort professional judgements.  This is nothing new – we know it has been happening for years, and might be considered entirely predictable – because in a market it is rational behaviour.  Success in a league table environment is likely to generate some quite obvious, and ‘rational’ strategies, which may conflict with wider educational objectives (certainly those relating to equity). Some examples: I can clearly recall as a teacher representative on my LEA’s Education Committee receiving a paper graphically illustrating the spike in pupil exclusions that followed the implementation of the 1988 Act (that effectively introduced league tables). An early portent of things to come . . .

I later recall interviewing a fantastic headteacher for an NCSL funded research project in which she articulated with great clarity how difficult it was for her to maintain her passionate commitment to inclusion, whilst ensuring her school’s survival in a local market context characterised by spare capacity and a neighbour school that was quick to exclude its ‘problem pupils’.  On a daily basis she felt her values challenged – what was in the best interests of an individual child was not necessarily in the best interests of ‘school survival’. In another project (not openly published), researching an Education Action Zone, I recall a headteacher (of a primary school) informing me that the local City Technology College (one that claimed a comprehensive intake) ‘has never taken an SEN pupil of mine with behavioural problems’.

In my classes with teachers I have heard countless stories of how teaching is relentlessly focused on student attainment in standardised tests, and how teaching schedules are organised to this end (booster classes for students on the borderlines of key league table thresholds, after school coursework sessions etc etc). Anecdotal accounts of dubious admissions practices have always been common (but are also notoriously difficult to research, for obvious reasons).

Rather than being exceptional examples, my argument is that these individual cases are striking precisely because they are ordinary.  They reflect the routine and everyday lives of headteachers and teachers living and working in a world that has been almost completely consumed by numbers. It is to headteachers’ and teachers’ great credit that they overwhelmingly retain their professionalism in such circumstances and that the vast majority continue to assert professional values that value every child.

However, it is important to recognise that such an approach is often contrary to what is encouraged by league table culture. The pressures of league table culture are enormously powerful and therefore we should not be surprised when teachers feel they have to compromise their professional judgements to reconcile these with the demands of personal and institutional survival.  Booster classes focused on students on the borderline of an arbitrary grade threshold may not make obvious educational sense, but they are a perfectly rational response in a market where parents make choices based on league tables.

The great value, and opportunity, provided by the Ofqual Report is that it exposes this problem very clearly.  It is, at the end of the day, a government report, and as such it inevitably downplays any significant political issues.  But the inescapable logic of the Ofqual Report is that it is time to reappraise how the ‘forces of accountability’ are driving the school system. As I hope to point out, this should really mean a fundamental reappraisal of the role of the market in education.

Before making some suggestions about how this might be achieved, I wish to elaborate in some more detail how the accountability pressures identified by Ofqual are contributing to systemic problems. In order to do this it is necessary to unpack exactly what is meant by ‘accountability’ in the current school system, and how this drives educational outcomes.

School accountability in England – markets and managerialism

Any discussion of accountability is inevitably complex and in this blog my aim is to deal with some very big issues, very briefly (and with apologies for any loss of detail in the process). At the core of my argument is an assertion that accountability in the school system was characterised by a professional/political model, and this has now been largely replaced by a managerialist/market model. This shift has had many consequences in shaping educational outcomes, of which GCSEgate is one example.

The professional/political model was one in which ‘professional issues’ (what to teach, how to teach it . . .) were largely determined by teachers (as ‘the professionals’), and with wider questions (system organisation and structure, funding) determined by politicians (in the case of schools, at a local authority level).  I don’t intend to debate this approach here, other than to offer the comment that it was an approach that had both strengths and weaknesses!  Perhaps the most important point to note is that it depended to a significant level on a relationship of trust between the provider and user.  Put simply, parents and students placed trust in teachers to do a good job, to do their best and to act in the best interests of users (howsoever defined). This is inevitably a very simple explanation, but for the purpose of the argument here I hope it will suffice for now  . . .

The professional/political model that prevailed in the poast-war years is now almost unrecognisable. What has changed and why?

I want to argue that for a variety of reasons (mostly associated with the increasing influence of comprehensive education, but other factors also) there developed a political campaign that sought to challenge teachers’ professional autonomy. The key issue is to recognise that whatever the political party, since at least the 1988 Act, education policy has been guided by a commitment to develop and extend the role of the market in state education.  Those who advocate this approach are often deeply distrustful of any conception of ‘professionalism’.  Professionalism is seen as a means to ‘protect’ producer self-interest whereby those who work in a service are deemed to prioritise their own interests over those of service users. The name given to this analysis of professionalism (and related issues) is ‘producer capture’ – a phrase that asserts that public services have been ‘captured’ by those who work in them, and run in their own interests. [see slide 13 in the presentation here]

It follows from the above that there is no place for professional trust.  On the contrary – ‘consumers’ (because that is what we all are) should positively distrust producers – who are acting (quite rationally) in their self-interest.  Trust really has no part to play in this relationship.  Rather the argument is that producers need to be compelled to act in the interests of consumers – and this is achieved through market forces and the power of competition. In this view of the world, market forces, and in particular the existence of competition, act as a ‘discipline’ to control producer interests and ensure that consumers best interests are protected.

This is an analysis that is rarely articulated explicitly other than in academic textbooks but I would argue that it can be clearly traced back to the Black Papers of the late 1960s/1970s, and is the intellectual thread that has run through much of education policy ever since. It is currently quite transparent in Coalition education policy.

Why is this relevant to GCSEgate?  My argument is that in an on-going ideological contest over the purposes and direction of the school system (that began with the fightback against comprehensivism) marketisation has been used as the principal means by which teachers’ views, and professional judgements, have been challenged.  In an effort to radically restructure the school system, and to challenge the influence of teachers’ professional voice, marketisation has been used not as a means of accountability – but as a means of control.  By dividing the system, intensifying competition and ensuring that schools’ survival depends on a form of institutional Darwinism then the teaching profession has become divided against itself – and weaker as a consequence. This in turn has been reinforced by a form of managerialism whereby targets, external inspection and league tables are used to reinforce competitive pressures.  The logic of this argument is relatively easy to challenge intellectually, but much more difficult to challenge practically. It is not easy to ‘buck the market’ when the system forces you to live and work within it. Hence the school system as a whole, and the teaching profession as part of that, has been sucked into a ‘live and let die’ world of marketisation and managerialism in which success is defined in terms of being ‘better than the rest’. At the same time the very real prospect of failure generates compliance and fear as job status and insecurity are increasingly linked to individual and institutional survival.

All of the above might be acceptable, if we could agree what ‘good performance’ looks like – but in education, there is little such consensus. The need to be  ‘better than the rest’ inevitably leads to a relentless focus on a very narrow range of performance indicators (and with the EBacc – an even narrower range of indicators) because institutional survival in a market place depends on this.  What about success in other subjects not included in the Ebacc? What about educational aspirations that aren’t ‘subjects’ at all? And what about those students who will never be a glowing statistic that the school will be able to show off in a league table? In a system focused only on numbers in a performance table these are second order questions at best.  What gets measured is what gets done.

Marketisation and managerialism have been used quite deliberately to undermine teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy and teachers’ professional judgement.  They go hand-in-hand with other policies that have sought to weaken the collective voice of teaching as a profession (examples include repeated efforts to marginalise teacher unions and more recently undermining the central importance of QTS as a guarantor of professional quality).

In my view therefore GCSEgate is not an isolated example of a technical issue gone wrong, but symptomtomatic of a much deeper and longer term set of structural problems deep within the English school system. These might be summarised as . . .

  1. Change is imposed without teacher support and adequate professional development.
  2. The dominant culture is one in which teachers feel under enormous pressure to deliver on a narrow range of targets.
  3. The teaching profession has been weakened and undermined for so long that it has lost the collective self-confidence to challenge what is wrong . . .

. . . or has it? . . .

A turning point?

My argument is that GCSEgate has provided a defining moment for the teaching profession (and what applies in the secondary sector with GCSEgate is similarly reflected in the primary sector through, for example, the domination of SATs and more recently the imposition of phonics – whither professional judgement?).

Perhaps inadvertently, the Ofqual Report has raised fundamental issues relating to the impact on schools of marketisation (dressed up as ‘the forces of accountability’).

But what to do?  I have two suggestions . . .

  1. Think . . . It is important to recognise that there is no mandate for the huge restructuring of schooling currently underway.  Rather a Coalition government, containing a Centre party, has adopted a particularly radical right wing programme of educational reform.  There is no real evidence base, or support for these policies, but rather they appear to be part of an effort to create fundamental and irreversible change in a single term of office. Their success to date has been achieved by trading on fear and division within the school system – because that is how markets work.  In contrast to this there is a need for a ‘big debate’ about the nature and purpose of education  – one that values evidence, professional opinion, parent/student voice and seeks to secure consensus about the future trajectory of policy. In short, there is a need to reshape the discourse, drawing on the best of international evidence, and to do some serious, professional thinking.  There is a desperate need for new ideas and a new direction.  Not one imposed on teachers, but one developed by, and with, teachers.  This might be best achieved by convening a National Commission on Education, which would seek to generate open discussion about how best to progress the English education system.  A Commission, or another body performing a similar function, has the potential to articulate a much more optimistic and inclusive vision of schooling – one capable of mobilising the positive power of the teaching profession in support of it.
  2. OrganiseGCSEgate has generated a degree of challenge to government reforms that has generally not been evident in recent years.  A range of new voices have emerged, often connected by social media (including the @headsroundtable group on twitter for example).  Such groups have clearly stimulated hope and anticipation from amongst others in the profession, many of whom had become weary of relentless change and a narrow and unambitious vision of education. The challenge now is for teachers to capture this momentum and build on it.  The level of outrage generated by GCSEgate has already, and palpably, increased teachers’ collective self-confidence. There is a need to build on this and to create a unity between teachers that further enhances their sense of collective agency.  In my view this requires a new alliance of teachers – drawing on the established networks of existing organisations (such as teacher unions and subject associations) combining with the new networks that have emerged over GCSEgate and other issues – see also.  Education reforms in recent years have sought to divide teachers, as a deliberate strategy to drive through yet more radical reforms. As teachers combine they begin to re-discover their professional voice and their ability to shape change, rather than be victims of it. The challenge is to mobilise this coalition for a different type of change.

The imperative now is to link thinking and organising whereby inspirational ideas and an activist professionalism combine to make the case for an education service teachers feel proud to be part of, and inspired to work in. Ideas alone are insufficient, whilst activism without an alternative is merely opposition.  However, when combined, there exists a real prospect of challenging what Fielding and Moss (2011) describe as the ‘dictatorship of no alternative’ – as such the possibility of a more hopeful education system and a renewed teacher professionalism become real.


3 responses to Make #GCSEgate a turning point . . .


    Excellent…the systematic erosion of teacher professionalism, dismantling of state education (and now initial teacher education) reflect a sustained attack on equitable, ethical educational provision. Teachers have been forced into a mindset of ‘what else can we do?’ – helpless compliance in a system in which the emphasis on ensuring school survival diminishes the potential for agency. There is urgent need to resume professional responsibility, which includes claiming the autonomy to exercise ethical judgment.


      Thanks Joan – and I think you are absolutely right to link this to the attack on teacher education (Universities are dangerous places when it comes to ‘doing ideas’) and of course the (linked) decision to allow Academy schools to recruit without QTS – my thoughts on that here –


        Excellent. I especially like your angle on there being no one ‘right’ way – what works for me might (probably) won’t work for smooene else! I work at 5 different schools, and only have a ‘borrowed’ classroom at one of them… at my other schools I have use of undercover areas with fold up tables! So my organization strategies are pretty unique. I’m getting quite jealous reading all the blogs out at the moment that focus of preparing your classrooms for the new school year! I’ve added you to my blogroll, and would love you to visit me at dreampainters!

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