Monday, 4 August 2014

Rigour, grades, and the righteous indignation of Twitter

Yesterday the Sunday Times ran a piece which has been picked up by a number of outraged voices on Twitter, including Daniel Muijs, whom I respect enormously, essentially asking, if the grade boundaries were going to be lowered because of the requirement for (overall) comparable pass rates year on year, what were the point of all those reforms to GCSE designed to implement more rigour? Or ‘RIGOUR’! as it is more commonly seen. The article is here, although it’s behind a paywall, so I haven’t read more than the opener.

This blog post is not a detailed demolition of a specific article, but more some general musings on the subject, such as you can have when you’re not limited to 140 characters and righteous indignation.

 Comparability or ‘fixing the grades by lowering the grade boundaries’

The main use of GCSEs or other qualifications is for selection. Outside the education sector, it’s selection for jobs. The way we use them is by comparing the qualifications of all the candidates who’ve applied for a job, or a course, inside education. Now while inside education you’re mostly  (but not always!) comparing candidates who took their exams in the same year, so you can happily compare them with each other and know nothing else matters, outside education you are frequently comparing people who took their exams at very different times. So if you’re the lucky kid who got lower GCSE grades because your year was the year of the exam reform, and the greater rigour? Oh, what do you know, you also get less of a chance at a job, not because you’re less good at maths/ English/ whatever than the other candidate, but because your grade looks like you are. Of course, over time, all the candidates will have the lower grades, so it becomes the new norm (and to a certain extent this is what will happen when the numbered grades come in). However, in the short term, it’s very unfair on the kids who already had all the upheaval of being taught a brand new course.

Which is another point about comparability. Every time a new specification for any qualification comes in, even very minor changes, (pre-awarding) results dip because teachers haven’t had time to adjust to the new requirements and find the best way to teach their students. (Frankly, whatever your comment was going to be on this, particularly anything that goes after teachers, I’m just going to point out that it’s the natural result of league tables and the immense overweighting placed on exam results in education QR, so until you fix that, don’t come crying to me about the rest.) Allowing those dips to stand does not in fact tell you anything about those candidates being worse that year than the year before: letting the grades dip would in fact mean that the information employers and schools had about children was less rather than more accurate.

Thinking rigour is all about results is missing the point

I refer you to my earlier point about league tables – we’re all obsessed with results in this country. But the truth remains that because about 99% of the incentives in the education system in England related to exam results, the exam itself remains the best way of effecting any kind of change on the curriculum, pedagogy etc. Large numbers of schools (independent, free school, academy) are not bound by the national curriculum (and I’m aware of at least some of the new breed of academy whose teachers breathed a massive sigh of relief that their change in status negated the need for massive overhaul of all teaching topics at KS3); all these schools do still sit the GCSEs and A levels. Changing the exam changes the teaching. It’s an effect called backwash.

Increasing ‘rigour’ doesn’t mean just making it harder to pass – if that were the case they could just raise the grade boundaries and forget the rest of the reforms. It means making the exam require the kind of skills which are the most important, and which are the hardest to fake. It means making students able to analyse texts, not just regurgitate learned facts about a poem, for example. Then EVEN IF the same numbers of students are getting the grades, they are ALL more able to do the worthwhile things.
N.B. I’m not commenting on whether the ‘rigour’ which is being imposed is the right sort. I’m just saying that the principle is not negated by keeping the pass rates the same between the two systems.

A specifically English point about S&L

I am firmly in the camp that says Speaking and Listening is one of the most important elements of English. It is truly an essential life skill. However, it has been removed from contributing to the GCSE grade, and I also support this, in its current form. The truth is that most candidates were doing very well on S&L – it bore no relation to their other marks. The A*-C pass rate for the S&L component was about three times that for the written component. And while yes, this might be reflective of true ability (or it might be teachers increasingly under pressure to get their classes  to the magic C finish-line), it is also axiomatic in assessment that a test which does not discriminate across a wide range of candidates, giving them a wide range of outcomes, is not a test which is fit for purpose. Because it’s just not giving you any information about them. And in this case, it was obstructing the amount of information you could get from the GCSE grade as a whole.

S&L is still being awarded separately – and this is not for the first time – and I don’t have a problem with that. Maybe one day we’ll be in the Utopia of the post-league-table era, and we can bring it back to having a material contribution, if we can make a way for it to discriminate accurately between candidates.

So anyway, that’s my two penn’orth. We are obsessed with grades, but perhaps we need to all remember that not all reform is aimed at changing grades, and that it might be effective even if on the surface things look the same. Also think if it were your kid in the year where the reforms hit. Would you be happy to sacrifice their personal results on the altar of rigour? Why everyone else’s kids then?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

100 books by women in 2014

In 2013 I read 169 books. I can tell you this because it's the chief reason I use Goodreads. Of these books approximately 100 of them were by men and 70 of them were by women.

I found this interesting. I'm a woman. I occasionally write fiction. I know that the book buying public mostly consists of women. I like to think that there is a market for books by women. I try to read in roughly equal quantities books by men and books by women. But even I was clearly subject to the same phenomenon which leads to fewer books by women being reviewed, and fewer reviewers being women, as so amply demonstrated by the VIDA Count.

The feminist in me was roused, and I decided that if I was going to read roughly the same number of books in 2014 as I did in 2013, then I was going to make certain that at least 100 of those books would be by women, to balance out 2013. And to do that I was going to read those 100 books first.

Before anyone gets on their high horse, or starts making positive discrimination comments, 1) it's my life, and I can if I want and 2) there are many more good books out there than I will ever have time to read, so it's not a matter of men writing better books. You have to make your own selection somehow and this is a way I chose to do it.

I read my 100th book of the year on July 24th. In restricting myself to books by women, I found I made some interesting choices. I'm going to put my hands up and admit about four of the last ten were by Georgette Heyer. I'm fond of Heyer, her crime novels as well as her Regency romances, and frankly I was having problems with go-to re-read comfort books. Heyer is on my normal list, as is Diana Wynne Jones, and I revisited both of them, but I am also prone to marathon re-readings of Dick Francis (don't judge me!) and P.G. Wodehouse. Agatha Christie got more of a look in in my reading life this year than she does normally, too.

I also put off reading some books which I'd been looking forward to. Doug Durst and J J Abram's S was a birthday present I'd asked for last year, but I didn't get a chance to do it justice before the New Year. It's been tempting me ever since and I was so excited to finally get my teeth into. Similarly finding Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow in Waterstones was a find I had to wait for. New Brandon Sandersons have had to wait, and I gritted my teeth against the Rogues anthology and the Neil Gaiman story featuring (my favourite!) the Marquis de Carabas.

But I certainly read some books I probably wouldn't have otherwise. Read them and enjoyed them. I bought a stack of books off The Book People in their bundles of fiction, and read novels by women I wouldn't usually have looked at. I'm not saying I'll be chasing after Pamela Hartshorne in future, but I did enjoy Time's Echo, a historical and present day novel set in York, where I currently live. That route also led me to Jackie Kay's memoir Red Dust Road, which I heartily recommend.

At one point, starved of the kind of SF and fantasy which usually sustains me, I went into Waterstones and bought every minimally acceptable SF/ F book by a woman they had on their shelves. I hated one and didn't finish it, but Connie Willis's duology Black Out /  All Clear were great fun and something I would never normally have read, because of their WWII setting. I read Rachel Bach's Paradox trilogy and by read I mean devoured.  I discovered Sarah J Maas and will be a devoted follower from now on. Later I bought Ann Leckie's prizewinning Ancillary Justice, which I thought was terrific (and played havoc with gender pronouns), although it was eerily reminiscent of Iain M. Banks for me.

I got round to reading things I'd meant to for ages too: The Casual Vacancy is actually one of the most powerful books I've read this year. I bought it in hardback and it would probably have been sitting on my shelves still unread because I'd found it a little challenging to get into. I tracked down more books by one of my favourite authors, Carol Goodman, which was also interesting: they're better off consumed with gaps between because they can be a bit samey if you don't. I was pleased to remember Marisha Pessl's new book Night Film was out in paperback as I'd been denying myself the hardback. I loved it so much I wish I hadn't. Scary, suitably meta. Just what I like. I read a novel by one of York's Bright Young Things, Sophie Colombeau, which won Route Publishing's 'Next Big Thing' a couple of years ago, Rites, and it was excellent.

I didn't read some of the things I meant to, though. I was going to use this as a way to force myself to read Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho which I have taught about in relation to Gothic for many years. I have read a couple of chapters. Knowing the way I read, I probably will manage to read the rest of it some time now I've started. I've read half of Silas Marner as a preparation for going back to teacher training in September - it's one of the 19th century novels newly on the English Literature GCSE circuit. I'm finding it hard going.

What I have found is that I have read quite a lot less serious literary fiction this year than I normally would, and a correspondingly higher amount of genre fiction. I don't think this is because women don't write the kind of literary fiction I like - in fact I suspect they do, but it is often packaged in a way which doesn't appeal to me, as 'women's lit'. I think it's more to do with the constraint I have felt in my reading. I've felt the target, and the need to keep to authors who are the 'right' gender, and it's been a little irritating when I've picked up books. It's made me slightly less discriminating in what I've bought - with the result that I have a larger 'to read' pile than ever, especially now that I am picking up all the books by men I've known about but avoided to date. It was a successful experiment, for me, and I'm glad I did it. I'm more aware of gender of author right now, and I wonder how long that will continue.

I've read a lot this year about representation in SF/F fiction, of both women and people of colour. I'm thinking my next move might be to target a certain number of international authors, authors of different ethnicities to mine, or LGBT books (all of which have featured more on my women-only reading list than on my normal one). But in the meantime, the Guardian has announced its Not the Booker longlist and there are a hundred books on it. Doesn't that sound like a nice round target?

Saturday, 21 June 2014

What, this old thing?

I'm finding myself increasingly in search of a place to pontificate about English and Education again, so am resurrecting my quite elderly blog.

Last night I went to see The Provoked Wife at the University of York's Theatre, Film and Television (TFTV) department. It was excellent, and is directed by Michael Cordner, who's made somewhat of a tradition of staging Early Modern plays, particularly Restoration Comedies, as the end of year play in the department.

Before the play last night, there was an additional treat: Michael Billington (Guardian theatre critic - well, probably uber-theatre critic of all Britain, really) in conversation with Cordner, as part of the University's Festival of Ideas, which puts on fascinating free events for local residents, on a range of topics. The topic last night was 'Restoration Comedy on the Modern Stage'. The central point of both the eminent conversers was that Restoration Comedy is pretty much not on the Modern Stage. The last professional production of Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife in the UK was in 1980, before I was born, at The National Theatre in London. Billington went one step further and lamented the fact that, Shakespeare aside, the classical canon of British drama is pretty much not performed at all.

I started off bristling at this assertion - after all, I manage to see quite a few Early Modern plays, and I love a good Restoration Comedy. But actually, after some reflection, it's not that many, and there are plenty of duplicates. Northern Broadsides are doing She Stoops to Conquer this autumn, and I'll definitely go see it. But there was a local production of it a few years ago. Marlowe's Faustus gets revived on a fairly regular basis - I've only seen it once, with some slight adaptations in a joint production between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, but the year before there were two productions of it I could have seen.

The RSC have made a new commitment to staging more Early Modern plays which aren't Shakespeare under their new artistic director, and I'm definitely enjoying that - Roaring Girl last weekend was just plain fun. But I used to see Restoration Comedies at Southwark Playhouse on a fairly regular basis, and not always the same old Way of the World either. Sadly that seems to have slipped off their radar in the last couple of years. I think they're still out of their exciting space under the railway arches, but I hope that when they return, they'll bring back the obscure late 17th century comedies.

So this is really just a cry in the dark, a single vote for a few more Early Modern plays. We sort of managed a Restoration Comedy at our English in Education Playreadings this term - School for Scandal is a little bit later - a whole century in fact - but still in a similar vein. I'm hatching plots for how I can continue playreading in my new post at Oxford next year. I'm quite inspired by 'The Paper Stage' project at the University of Kent. Although what I really want is more productions in theatres, maybe persuading a few undergraduates to read the plays might lead to the directors and actors of the future being that little bit more inclined to restore the Restoration Comedy to its place on the Modern Stage.