Fisking the Mail on Sunday's "Gove-Levels" story

Adam Creen uncovers the inaccuracies in the paper's big education scoop.

Inaccuracies in the Mail On Sunday's story from 16th September 2012:
 
The new exams, dubbed "Gove-levels", follow claims that GCSEs, which replaced O-levels in 1986, are too easy. Under Mr Gove’s shake-up, the current system whereby nearly three in ten pupils get A or A* grades will go. Instead as few as one in ten will get the top mark, Grade 1.
 
They replaced O-levels in 1988, when they were first examined. Inaccurate grading comparison - at present as few as 1 in 12 get the top grade A* in some subjects. And you cannot compare the new "Grade 1" with the top two grades under the old system.
 
Marks will depend on a traditional ‘all or nothing’ three-hour exam at the end of the two-year course, rather than the current system in which up to half the grading is based on modules and continual assessment, followed by a 90-minute exam at the end.
 
Currently the final grading must be a minimum of 40 per cent, not 50 per cent. It's called controlled assessment, and the exams may be two lots of 1h45m, as they are in Maths, so three and a half hours not 90 minutes. Anyway, in Maths this would have to be split in two to have calculator and non-calculator, as present. 
 
Pupils will no longer be able to bump up their grades with endless re-sits of each exam module. In future they will have to re-sit the entire exam, which is expected to deter most.
 
In two years there have been at most three resit opportunities, and the vast majority of students would do no resits, or one retake of an early module. What will the new re-sit rules deter most students from? Not doing any work? This sentence makes no sense.
 
There will be more complex algebra questions in maths exams and a return to essays in English literature exams instead of trendy GCSE ‘bite sized’ answers.
 
Newsflash: current Higher Maths papers contain 40 per cent algebra questions, including complex questions. So more than 40 per cent algebra? Something's gotta give - students' skills in data handling are already being knocked by the lack of coverage in the iGCSE, leading to problems in the A Level statistics modules.
 
Catch up: The new exams are more rigorous and top grades will only go to the brightest children in an attempt to help English schools catch up with other countries as we trail in school standards
 
Top grades currently only go to the "brightest children". We do not trail in school standards. See Warwick Mansell's article about PISA and TIMSS and how students are not doing as badly as Gove would suggest.
 
And in a controversial move designed to counter claims that GCSEs are far too easy for bright pupils, questions in the new exam will be graded, starting with easy questions and building up to difficult questions which will stretch the cleverest pupils. It means that less able pupils may be unable to complete the paper. But Mr Gove will argue it is vital to boost standards.
 
This is already the case, particularly in Mathematics GCSEs, both Higher and Foundation. Is this a serious case for a single exam covering seven levels of ability at once?
 
In addition, the new exams will be run by a single exam board following complaints that competition between rival boards is driving down standards.
 
This makes no difference as the government has always forced exam boards to offer papers covering exactly the same syllabus, and only approving papers that meet standards. No "driving down" has occurred. Competition is lauded in many other areas of government.
 
Board officials have been accused of boasting how easy their exams are, and giving tips to teachers on the content of papers. Ministers said the current rules had created a ‘race to the bottom’ in standards.
 
Some board officials made inexcusable comments. In Maths no one has ever been given "tips" because we know the whole syllabus is covered by the papers anyway. Everything is taught, everything is tested.
 
According to a 2010 OECD study of 15-year-olds, the UK fell from 17th to 25th for reading, 24th to 28th for maths and 14th to 16th in science over a three-year period.
 
And in the TIMSS, referred to in Warwick Mansell's article:
 
TIMSS tests are given in maths and science, to 10- and 14-year-olds. Between 1995 and the last tests in 2007, England’s primary maths performance improved by a greater margin than that of any of the other 15 nations which had pupils taking tests in the two years, including Singapore, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

Its score went from below the international average to comfortably above it in that time, while its ranking improved from 12th out of 16 countries in 1995 to 7th out of 36 in 2007.

The other tests in the last round of TIMSS also brought good news. In secondary maths, England was the joint third most improved of 20 countries over the 1995-2007 period, rising from 11th out of 20 to 7th out of 49 in the rankings.
 

In science – which is traditionally England’s strongest subject in international tests – the country was seventh most improved out of 16 in primary (its ranking moving from 6th out of 20 countries in 1995 to 7th out of 36 in 2007) and fifth most improved out of 19 in secondary (its ranking improving from seventh to fifth between these two years, even though the number of countries taking part increased from 19 to 49). In these science tests in 2007, English pupils finished ahead of, in primary, countries including the United States, Germany, Australia and Sweden; and in secondary, ahead of these countries plus Russia, Hong Kong and Norway.
 

HOW THE NEW EXAM WILL WORK [Daily Mail "fact" box]

 
NOW Tens of thousands of pupils can bump up grades by re-sitting parts of the GCSE exams until they get a pass.
IN FUTURE Partial resits will end. Pupils will be forced to resit the entire exam.                                              
Already the case.

NOW Final exam can be as short as 90 minutes.                                            
IN FUTURE Three-hour exams.                                                        

Already the case.
 

NOW Maths exams have little algebra, English exams include ‘bite sized’ replies and rigorous English-to-foreign-language translations are rare.

IN FUTURE More algebra in maths exams, more full length essays in English and a return to full English-to-foreign-language translation tests.
Not true. Already the case.

NOW Up to 50 per cent of exams are studied via modules and continual assessment.
IN FUTURE Replaced by one exam at end of two-year course.
 
Already the case. EDIT: Apologies, I had got in a bit of a rut by this stage. This is of course a major change for many subjects, but not Maths.
NOW Technically, everyone who gets a grade from A to G grade is deemed to have achieved  a ‘pass’.
IN FUTURE New 1 to 6 pass grade, 7 onwards will be fail.
1 to 6 would be equivalent to A* A B C D E. So only F or G would be a fail.
NOW 22 per cent get A or A* grade. Around seven per cent of all candidates gain an A*.
IN FUTURE As few as five per cent may get Grade 1.
At the top of the article, it said 1 in 10 get the top grade, not 5 per cent. Basic maths. So may be easier to get a top grade than at present.
 
This post first appeared on Adam Creen's blog here, and is reproduced here with his permission. You can find him on Twitter as @adamcreen
Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.