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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.