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School head Phil Karnavas takes final swipe at exams system

By KentOnline reporter

Canterbury High principal Phil Karnavas has never been shy in expressing his views on the school exams system.

Today, on his final results day before retiring, he takes a final swipe at those who he says treat education like a "political football"....

GCSE results day is when the nation ‘celebrates’ that its children who have gifts that are academic ‘do better’ than its children whose gifts are not.

In Kent this means that grammar schools who select students who will do well in academic exams will record higher attainment than non-selective schools who do not.

The Canterbury High School has done well this year and reinforces this simple point.

Five years ago Canterbury High partnered with Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys and so can produce data for Canterbury High’s grammar school stream.

Canterbury High principal Phil Karnavas
Canterbury High principal Phil Karnavas

Those students in its grammar stream have attained more highly than those who are not.

Insofar as comparisons can be made with previous years, 100% attained the old benchmark measure with some attaining the highest grades and the highest levels.

So, students do not need to go to grammar schools to get the highest grades.

For as long as I can remember schools have been expected to drive up examination results. If they did not then they were in some way failing but if they did it was argued to be a result of examinations becoming too easy.

Mr Gove led the charge to increase academic rigour, bring simplicity and create transparency.

So as well as celebrating the successes of all students this year we should probably have some sympathy for them.

This is the most tested generation of children in history and it is getting worse.

"Schools have been driven back to a rigid, overly academic ‘one size fits all’ curriculum with traditional examinations that are, in many cases, little more than glorified memory tests"

Schools have been driven back to a rigid, overly academic ‘one size fits all’ curriculum with traditional examinations that are, in many cases, little more than glorified memory tests.

If schools do not deliver their ‘required’ eight GCSEs then their points score and league table position are detrimentally affected.

As a consequence, vulnerable learners have been marginalised and out-of-hours activities reduced in favour of ‘cramming’.

Moreover, the practical, creative, artistic, aesthetic, musical, vocational, entrepreneurial and imaginative subjects are undervalued and have progressively disappeared.

‘Increased academic rigour’ meant changing courses half way through, forbidding certain combinations of courses, removing coursework, introducing a ridiculous amount of traditional testing, rushing changes through, increasing the content in the new GCSEs and

A-levels, declaring that they were to be made more difficult and changing not just the way schools were held to account but also how GCSEs were scored.

The imperfect and simple system ( five A*-Cs including maths and English) which most people did understand was replaced by an imperfect and complex system (basics, EBacc,

Attainment 8, Progress 8 and destinations) which most people don’t. This, too, appears compromised as the implications of the change to GCSE grading are realised.

Students will still receive GCSE grades on an eight-point alphabetical scale, A* through to G.

A Grade C was deemed a good pass and so by implication anything above it was a better pass and anything below it wasn’t. However, this year maths, English and English literature will be graded numerically on a nine-point scale, 9-1.

Pupils collecting their GCSE results
Pupils collecting their GCSE results

So students will get envelopes which tell them what numerical level they have reached in maths and English (without being clear what this actually means) and what alphabetical grade they have got in other GCSEs. Confusingly, level 4 is regarded as a ‘standard’ pass and level 5 is deemed a ‘strong’ pass.

Therefore, by implication grades 3-1 are ‘substandard’ and anything above a 5 is, presumably, ‘stronger’, ‘very strong’, ‘astonishingly strong’ and ‘positively Herculean’. It is further confused as level 5 is sort of equivalent to the old ‘top’ C and ‘bottom’ B with level 4 probably being the ‘bottom’ of an old C.

Even more perplexing are the reports that grade boundaries have been altered to ensure students are not unfairly penalised by these changes or, more cynically, to avoid headlines reporting a catastrophic drop in ‘standards’.

So, schools can now ‘spin’ various figures based upon ‘basics’, EBacc, attainment 8 and Progress 8 using ‘good’, ‘standard’ and ‘strong’ passes’ to achieve the most favourable comment in the press.

It is unclear what children and parents will make of all this. It is unclear what these levels will mean with regard to Progress 8. It is unclear what they will mean with regard to progressing into the sixth form.

It is unclear what Ofsted will make of any of it. It is unclear what it means in terms of university applications. It is unclear what it means with regard to apprenticeships and employment.

I hope that all students were pleased with what they achieved this summer. I also hope that they realise that their achievements, and the achievements of others, can come in many, many forms.

Examinations are part of what schools do but they should not be all that schools focus upon.

Results are what students get but they do not define who students are. Education should value each individual and not degenerate into statistical simplicity and dubious comparisons to national averages.

Mr Gove once famously opined that the nation had ‘had enough of experts’. Perhaps, the nation can agree that it has had enough of politicians constantly changing the education system based upon their own experiences in an attempt to recreate that which suited them when they were at school.

In fact, education would benefit from not being a political football, as that way it could better serve all of our children with all of their skills, talents, aptitudes and abilities.

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