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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

A clinically-approved birth control app is changing the way we think about contraception

The particle physicist Elina Berglund has created an app that is 99 per cent effective. 

Women around the world using the contraceptive pill have long complained to their friends about its perceived side effects – weight gain, acne, mood swings to name a few. Some more recent studies have verified that anecdotal evidence – a Danish study from 2013 confirmed that there was a 40 per cent increased risk of depression for women who were on the pill, compared to those who weren’t.

Frustration around the inadequacy or ill-suitability of certain methods of contraception is rife. One woman, Elina Berglund, decided to do something about it.

Formerly a particle physicist at CERN (and a member of the team responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle), Berglund co-founded Natural Cycles, a contraceptive app, with her husband Raoul Scherwitzl. Approved as a contraceptive app earlier this year, it is downloadable on a smartphone and relies on a relationship between body temperature and fertility to tell women when they're fertile.

But contraception campaigners have viewed the concept with caution. Widespread use of the pill, condoms, and diaphragms comes after decades of campaigns against reliance on "natural methods" – not to mention the opposition of religious organisations like the Catholic church. 

At first glance, Natural Cycles might not seem all that different from the Vatican-approved "rhythm method", which is based on observing the exact stages of a woman's fertility cycle and avoiding sex during ovulation. This can be, according to the NHS, up to 99 per cent effective – but in reality it is closer to 75 per cent, because "people can make mistakes". 

Users of Natural Cycles take their temperature daily and input it into the app (which costs £6.99 a month). The app then compares the figure to its own dataset and uses an algorithm based on Berglund's days from CERN. It also asks for other data, such as the dates of user's periods and whether they are planning for a pregnancy or not, to create a personalised calendar.

If it’s safe to have unprotected sex, then the in-app calendar will show up as green. If not, the in-app calendar will show up as red. On those red days, users should find methods of contraception if they aren’t seeking pregnancy.  

Menstrual tracking apps are all the rage (there are around 1,000 of them on the current Apple app store). But recent studies have shown that those apps are often inaccurate and lack any scientific basis. 

Natural Cycles, by contrast, carried out three clinical trials, each time expanding the dataset to reduce errors. The most recent, written up in Contraception, involved 22,785 women across 37 different countries in settings that mimicked real life. The co-authors pointed out that in instances of perfect use, one out of 100 women become pregnant accidentally. However, in instances of typical use, seven out of 100 women had the same result.

When Natural Cycles first gained publicity, Berglund pointed out to the press that “now they (women) have a new, clinically verified and regulatory approved option to choose from”. Berglund and Scherwitzl are looking into getting Natural Cycles prescribed on the NHS, like the pill.

So is Natural Cycles the future of family planning? The first thing to make clear is that the app cannot actually function as physical contraception – on “red” days, the app advises users to use a condom if they’re having sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It cannot prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases either. 

Nor is the app really marketed to those who may benefit from the most information about their sexual health – 16 to 25-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. 

A spokesperson for Marie Stopes, the reproductive health NGO, said: "Apps to track fertility are a high-tech version of what women have been doing for years with a diary and a thermometer.

"For anyone trying to get pregnant, they might well help. However, if you want to avoid pregnancy, it’s much better to choose a reliable, long-acting modern method of contraception like an IUD or implant. Traditional methods, including tracking fertility, carry a much higher risk of unintended pregnancy."

The app relies on an algorithm, meaning it is only as effective as the data that it receives from users. It is also not free, which may exclude its usage by certain sections of society. A blog written for NHS Choices emphasised that the data collected in all the trials was collected from women who were already signed up for the product, making it likely that they had an incentive to continue with this specific additional contraceptive, as opposed to looking elsewhere. Even so, a third of users who had signed up still dropped out, potentially because of the maintenance required to get results from it. 

All the same, Natural Cycles has 380,000 users and counting. It has received clinical approval to be marketed as a medical device, and it seems to be meeting a need – 70 per cent of Natural Cycle's users come from hormonal contraception, according to Berglund. In her account of Natural Cycles in the Evening Standard, Kate Wills highlighted that the Apple Watch had all sorts of health inputs, but no way to track periods.  All kinds of apps exist to make modern life easier – why has it taken so long for one that addresses a concern for so many women to make its way into the mainstream?

The history of contraception is littered with examples of women being ignored. Early birth control studies vastly underplayed the potentially debilitating side effects of hormone fluctuations on women’s mental health and physical appearance, often treating users as though they were hysterical. Add into the equation the stigma around accessing contraceptives safely and non-judgementally, and it’s easy to see why a relatively painless and private form of contraception might be appealing. 

Natural Cycles may well work for some women – those who are in stable relationships, hoping to get pregnant and fastidious enough to note their temperature every morning. But it doesn’t prevent diseases, requires a steady commitment and – here's the clincher – can't take measurements when you’re hungover as alcohol can affect your temperature. There's also a big difference between the "perfect" use of the app, and the likelihood of pregnancy when used in a "typical" fashion. So long as that's the case, old-fashioned contraception seems unlikely to be swept away by a digital revolution.