International tests show London pupils lagging behind despite the 'London Challenge'

Roger Titcombe's picture

This is pointed out in an important Guardian/Observer article.

My central argument, supported by data from real school case studies set out in my book, is that since the 1988 Education Reform Act our schools have been driven by league table competition in the opposite direction to teaching for cognitive development and this has impeded the development of cognitive powers in our pupils.

Whereas it is the least able that stand to gain the most from improvements in their cognitive ability it is these pupils that have been most likely denied such opportunity on account of suffering degraded teaching at KS1, KS2 and KS4 as teachers have been forced to pursue the SATs L4 and the GCSE ‘C’ grade results needed for the survival of their schools, above all other educational considerations.

By compelling schools to be subject to a market in school choice, exercised by parents on the basis of simplistic school performance indicators in the context of privatised examination boards competing to sell their exams, curriculum and teaching methods have become degraded resulting in a significant real decline in educational standards despite the illusion of school improvement. The irony is that the 2010 Conservative-led coalition government under Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove had, unlike his New Labour predecessors, recognised this decline but Gove and his successor have been ideologically and disastrously blind to its causes.

Much current teaching in schools that is commonly believed by the government to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ because it is ‘teaching to the test’ and does not result in cognitive growth.

Why is this? It is a consequence of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that now dominates the English Education system. GERM  drives the replacement of teaching methods that develop cognitive ability by those methods that are most effective in meeting the narrow exam performance criteria needed to drive a market in school choice. In the English system this means the high stakes SATs L4 and GCSE C grades that have been artificially and arbitrarily chosen as performance indicators for parents to choose schools. GERM favours ‘behaviourism’.

Cognitive development is secured through ‘developmentalism’. Cognitive gains are achieved through a teaching and learning culture that celebrates mistakes. This approach is maligned in the DfE promoted GERM culture as ‘progressivism’ and is being discouraged in our schools.

Not all pupils in all schools suffer from being deprived of the ‘deep learning’  opportunities offered through cognitively developmental teaching. Mossbourne Academy and other ‘fair banded’ schools have genuinely all-ability intakes. It is rare for LA schools to benefit from such admissions systems. The exception is in Hackney where there is an LA wide CATs driven admissions system that includes both LA schools and Academies within the same system administered by the LA through the ‘Hackney Learning Trust’.

The high stakes pressure on schools to meet ‘threshold standards’ in terms of GCSE ‘C’ grades including English and maths is lower in such schools (although not entirely absent) because there are sufficient cognitively able pupils admitted to justify teaching them properly.

It is schools without banded admissions systems located in areas characterised by low average cognitive ability that cannot afford the luxury of rich, cognitively challenging teaching because they are continuously threatened by the floor targets and the OfSTED judgements that are driven by GCSE ‘C’ grade performance indicators.

Such secondary schools are likely to be fed by primary schools under the same high stakes pressure to produce a sufficient proportion of L4+ SATs results. This is likely to be so pressing an issue for such primary schools that they have to prioritise SATs L4 at the expense of L5+ for the minority of their more able pupils. The SATs results distribution for such schools is likely to peak at L4a, if they are lucky, with this achieved through a strong dose of behaviourist teaching, cramming and various other incentives during Y6. Henry Stewart has shown that the secondary schools to which such pupils progress are far more likely to be accused of being subject to OfSTED criticism for ‘coasting’ purely as a result of misapplied DfE statistics. The result is that the same pupils forced to endure behaviourist cramming in their primary schools will receive the same behaviourist pedagogic diet in the classrooms of their secondary schools without ever experiencing anything better.

Such pupils, often from poor working class homes, are ‘on average’ likely to have entered primary schools with some relative cognitive development deficits. Such pupils are therefore most in need of cognitively developmental teaching methods, but will be the least likely to get them, because it will be more important to the school to subject them to the behaviourist cramming needed for the school to jump the SATs L4 hurdle needed to fend off closure or forced Academisation.

The sorry process is then repeated in their secondary schools. Now GCSE ‘C’ grades are all important, so cognitively developmental teaching again goes out of the window. The result is Y11 leavers that have experienced an entire statutory state education of cognitively stultifying behaviourism. They are likely to reap not just restricted opportunities for social mobility but also the general alienation and disaffection that goes with it. This is a recipe for the creation of an angry cognitive underclass of young people in the economically deprived parts of increasingly unequal country.

It follows that the greater the degree of ‘school improvement’ that these pupils have been subjected to from age 4 to 11, the greater the cognitive damage they are likely to have experienced.

What about ‘good’ school improvement such as that achieved through the much celebrated ‘London Challenge’? For me the jury is out, for the reasons set out in the Guardian article. We know the London Challenge has worked much better than Academisation in maximising GCSE ‘C’ grade outcomes. One reason is that co-operation between schools and their teachers is much better than competition. But has it also produced enthusiastic school leavers whose impressive GCSE portfolios really reflect the deep learning that drives social mobility? It seems not, because the real problem is 'school improvement' itself in the corrupted form that the education market and OFSTED impose on our schools.

What about the next version of DfE school accountability? Will the replacement of %5+A*-Cs  by ‘Best 8’ combat the ‘teaching to the test’ culture? This remains to be seen. Best 8 is still based on GCSE ‘C’ grade targets, so again, I have my doubts. At the end of Y11 these pupils may have accumulated lots of C grade GCSEs, but often only just. It is the pupils that have made sufficient cognitive progression to secure A/A* grades that are likely to take A levels in STEM subjects and progress to Russell Group Universities and Oxbridge. Such pupils are more likely to be found in the banded Academies, selective schools and comprehensive schools that serve affluent catchments, that have the freedom from OfSTED and league table threats that enables them to teach in a cognitively developmental manner

This is why our marketised education system is the true cause of declining social mobility. The unrelenting pressure for school improvement constantly inflates GCSE ‘C grade’ pass rates. The DfE claims its policies are working, but the education system becomes increasingly fragmented as the decline in social mobility accelerates. This ‘closed loop’ circularity results in the inevitable prescription from the GERM inspired government and the various hand-wringing think tanks.

There is further supporting arument and evidence here and here and here.




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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/02/2016 - 11:02

John Jerrim, author of the report, wrote: 'Reading, mathematics and science skills of the average 15-year-old in London is way below that in several other major world economies'.  

Not necessarily way below.  Once you've discounted Shanghai for its dubious results (OECD have admitted 25% of the cohort was missing from the last round of PISA), 15 year-olds in London are supposedly two years (80 PISA points) behind just two cities: Singapore and Hong Kong; and one year (roughly 40 PISA points) behind about four more. 

If you factor in that London pupils took the PISA tests at a different time to those in Singapore et al, which I estimated would have reduced London's score (and that of Wales and Northern Ireland) by 20 PISA points (half a year), then the gap's reduced even further.

And where are other major cities: New York, Paris, Berlin?  Perhaps they didn't enter as separate entities.  Maybe they will do so and in future years we can look forward to further sub-divisional data comparing Manchester with Marseilles or Liverpool with Los Angeles. Oh joy.

(This is an edited version of a comment I posted on Schools Improvement Net)


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/02/2016 - 11:06

My comment above should not be taken as denying the GERM is infecting English schools.  It is: see Matthew Bennet's critique of 'no excuses' culture  here and my 2014 article here).

But there are more cogent arguments against GERM -  a narrow curriculum;  test-based accountability (very profitable for the producers of tests); shallow learning;  reducing teaching to a set of  uniform procedures;  strict adherence to an imposed curriculum, increased influence of global edu-businesses  - than the results of PISA tests.  

And  PISA could prove a double-edged sword: if PISA test results for the UK are found to have risen when the results are published in December, the DfE et al will say this rise vindicates their reforms.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 28/02/2016 - 13:55

Indeed they will. But the reforms, like PISA, having been ongoing for a long time now and a PISA breakthrough has yet to result. I am informed that in China pupils are taught to succeed in PISA test questions. Good! It is not possible to do this successfully using market-driven behaviourist cramming enforced by abusive control and discipline. When the government starts encouraging our schools to teach for deep learning we really will have turned a corner. This will mean gains at all levels (not just hitting 'C').

So I predict little improvement in the next PISA round. 

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