OFQUAL: Inter-Subject Comparability Conference

After all the school interactions I’ve had lately, the OFQUAL conference on subject equity was particularly appealing to me. Over the passed few months, I’ve been at schools with incredible science departments, out-of-this-world technicians and some of the most exciting classrooms in the UK. But I’ve also been at schools where the teachers don’t care: they don’t have time to care. Non-scientists have to frog-march their disinterested class through a stiff curriculum and have no space for creativity- they’ve got to get this kids through, so they’ve lost the only parts of themselves who wanted to teach in the first place. There is no flexibility around a mark scheme, so why change the lesson plan? When I left a classroom the other day a student said how nice it was to meet such a polite adult. The teachers aren’t even treating the student’s as people anymore. At the other end of the spectrum- I’ve been in changing rooms where private school girls discuss essentially ‘paying their teachers salaries, so they can talk to them however they want‘. So what’s going wrong in these places? And what do the legislators say about how preconceptions about subjects are affecting student’s lives? Schools often don’t have scientists or mathematicians teaching maths, and the students can see through the song-and-dance the temporary appointments- they don’t choose to study those subjects. So what can exam boards do? How can we make subjects fair?

Over the years, OFQUAL’s activity has largely been reactive, as opposed to proactive. They’ve been fighting against scandals in grade boundaries, errors in exam marking and intense media scrutiny. This year, they’re addressing how different subjects compare. We hear from two members of OFQUAL, who- through a series of racing related metaphors- take us from F1 to media studies and their current ‘working papers‘. What comes out of the opus of research is that whilst it’s relatively easy to put subjects on a sliding scale from English, Art, Chemistry and Physics and finally Latin, it’s largely meaningless- on the whole, it’s easier to ‘do well’ in English than History, but it’s much harder to get an A* than in History. Subjects that come out ‘really hard’ include things like an ICT short course, general studies and critical thinking- because they’re largely ignored when it comes to revision, not taken seriously then badly performed in. What’s evident from the extremely knowledgeable audience is that they want it to be fair to the students, who should be fairly rewarded for whatever subject combination they take. No student should be put off studying something for fear of failure, whether that’s just missing an A* or actual failure, and the associated decrease in your teacher’s reputation.

My favourite part of the whole day was hearing from Charles Tracy at the IOP. He’s a former physics teacher and leads the IOP’s education team. Of all the A-Levels, physics and further maths have a bit of a ‘rep’ as being ‘hard’. Severe grading is really affecting the uptake of some subjects. It’s leaving teachers of these subjects feeling demoralised and deflated and pupils with restricted choices.

“This is about children’s futures. It’s effecting social mobility and diversity”.

It’s also distorting the grading system- there are more A*s and As at physics A-level because taking physics A-level currently self-selects the high achievers. We’ve arrived at a situation where physics isn’t the ‘work-a-day’ subject that it should be, enabling the 5 % of the UK population who use a technical level of physics in their day-jobs to study actually useful A-levels. Very few people get Cs/Ds. Instead physics is a ‘gateway’ subject for the scientific elite, who end up going to study physics at university. Tracy harks the F1 comparison of OFQUAL and compares reading physics at Oxford to becoming a professional footballer: equally as unlikely, but no one goes around and says playing amateur football is hard. We’ve got to be super sensitive here, because the opposite of hard is ‘soft’- and that’s gendering severely graded subjects too. After the first release of the IOP’s Closing Doors study, a female head at a mixed state school said “girls don’t want to study physics because they want to develop their soft skills”. This leaves girls going through life thinking they achieve not because they’re brilliant but because they’re lucky: which even effects physics professors and industry experts. Schools have huge say in their student’s A-levels, and use them to climb up league tables. When one of the first schools was offered to take part in the IOP’s improving gender balance project, the head of science asked “why would they want more people to take physics? We’d lose our average UCAS points”. Tracy is convinced we need to introduce some kind of parity measure to best protect young people’s interests, to promote engagement and to best protect the future scientists and engineers of our generation. He compares the Music exam system- no one compares a grade 8 in violin to an A* in physics, and nor should they.

We hear from subject experts in Modern Languages and English, where the situation isn’t much better. Jenny Stevens, the only speaker to brave the stage without a PowerPoint, said she was skimming through the student room the other day only to find the following discussion:

“Medical student application: nominate an easy A-level”

“Mate, you could do Maths C1-4, M1 and S1 in less than a month!”

I had to nip back to Imperial for the lunchtime sessions, but caught the brief panel and discussion at the end. It seems for most A-level subjects, the input of students into the subject is directly determining the output and perceived hardness. I’m really glad that they’re are people talking about this, but I’m not sure it will ever be more than just talking.

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