Chris Blockhead Take 2

It’s Mr Woodhead again! The former chief inspector of schools has provided yet another source of wrongness in his answers to questions sent to him. This week (by now, last week actually – since this blog has sat for ages in my drafts box), he at least manages to say something logical, but he can’t quite keep it up for long, swerving into rubbish-talk within a paragraph.

That’s in his second answer. His first answer relates to someone asking whether it’s fair for Ofqual to write to examining boards setting targets for the number of candidates who should be awarded the new A* grade at A Level. Woodhead agrees that this is inconsistent with Ofqual’s usual approach of ‘criterion-referenced’ answers, where students are judged on the merits of their answers.

However, given a choice between them, Woodhead opts for the determined approach because he is concerned about the difficulty universities have in choosing who to admit. In his ideal world, ‘if every year the top 5% of students were to be awarded an A* and the next 10%, say, an A, and so on through the grades, the problem would be solved.’ Woodhead is right in saying that this would enable admissions tutors to differentiate students more easily, but he doesn’t seem to have given much thought to the students. What about the bottom 35%? Under Woodhead’s system, this proportion of students would fail their A Levels, no matter how good they were. Why? Because others in their year did better in the test. In other words, it doesn’t matter how good you are objectively, because relatively you are in the bottom 35%. This is an incredibly unfair system, and misleading, because it would be impossible to tell what level of ability students actually have. It would simply compare them to their classmates. The point of a criterion-referenced system is to say that a student has reached a certain level of ability.

Perhaps Woodhead would like such a system to be introduced for doctors as well – it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re the top 10% of applicants, you qualify. You might be incompetent – your whole group may lack the skills needed, but since you did the best, you qualify! Or perhaps electricians, or pilots or … Etc. The point of having a qualification is to say that you have a certain level of ability, not to say you were better than your peers.

There is no need for such a system to be introduced to solve the university admissions problem. The first step is to provide provide funding for more university places – the top universities shouldn’t have to turn people away that they think are good enough. Of course, this is to some extent inevitable, but the more places available, the easier. Instead of trying to squeeze the candidates, allow for more of them to study. Unfortunately, the coalition government is not helping here by scrapping ten thousand student places which Labour was going to fund. This might have been done in order to save money, but this makes little sense as if these potential students can’t get a job either, they’ll be costing the state in benefits, and will be costing the state their potential economic contributions in the future.

The second is to see how the A* grade beds in – Woodhead writes that he cannot understand why all Vice-Chancellors aren’t leaping on it – ‘it is ridiculous,’ he says. However, there is a very real concern, legitimated by this year’s results, that this grade will benefit private school students who can get the extra tuition to push them upwards whether within the school or externally, to make sure they get the new grade. We need to see how it does over a few years before transforming entry requirements across universities. Once we’ve seen what kind of impact it is having, we can start to work out the next step, whereas Woodhead’s impatience to start ranking students could be damaging to the chances of state school students who would do just as well if they had that extra teaching boost. If A* turns out to unfairly benefit private students, then another approach will be needed. If given free rein, I’d probably take much more drastic action on A Levels, probably in a direction which would leave Woodhead’s mouth agape …

So that’s the first question. The second question he is asked is whether for a head teacher to rename themselves the ‘head learner’ is correct. Woodhead here manages to say something with some sense in it, pointing out that it is the learners who learn, not the teachers. A head learner would be the most important student in the class, if there were to be one. Out come the grammar guns – since head teacher is an active role, it is a transitive verb, whereas the verb to learn is intransitive. You can’t learn your students some knowledge, but you can teach them it.

Anyway, this is largely a grammatical point, and Woodhead then uses this as an excuse to say that ‘We are not, of course, meant to call children children any more, or, for that matter, students or pupils: they are all “learners” now. Who dreamt up this awful usage? They should be taken ink the playground and shot.’ Leaving aside the violent imagery, it’s only a couple of weeks ago that Woodhead was saying that children are at schools to learn, not to think. Would this not make them learners? What’s so wrong about calling them learners instead of pupils?

He also complains that ‘Nobody talks of teachers these days. They have ‘morphed’ into “mentors” and “facilitators” and, yes, “learners”, who are encouraged to sit with the children, “co-constructing” the curriculum.’ The only answer to this is ‘Really?’ NObody talks about teachers these days? Is Woodhead sure? I think there might be one or two schools that still DARE to use the word if it’s muttered quietly … As for his criticism of the notion of teachers as ‘facilitators’, that’s for another rant.

For now, I hope I’ve demonstrated Woodhead’s wrongness adequately for a second time. I think I’ll make this a regular feature actually!