Sir Mike Tomlinson lecture

22 October 2008

Sir Mike Tomlinson, chair of the working group on 14-19 reform that led to the 2003 Tomlinson Report, came to NTU today to give the RSA Shipley Lecture. This year the lecture was also a memorial to former NTU and RSA stalwart Anne Bloomfield. The subject, dear to her heart and to Sir Mike’s, was “Vocational education should be a rounded education“.

With the backdrop of the history of attempted introductions of vocational education (the 1944 Butler Education Act with its tripartite system, TVEI, GNVQs, Curriculum 2000 and Diplomas), Tomlinson argued for the move away from debates about ‘parity of esteem’ towards a view of the ‘credibility and value’ of qualifications. Echoes here of the value and validity arguments of Monday’s seminar at Cambridge.

It was also notable that the lecture included issues of how ‘true’ vocational education must have

  • relevance to 16-year olds (face validity),
  • a knowledge base that is used in, and applied to, occupational areas – however broadly drawn (validty determined by use, not by the test itself)
  • a theoretical content balanced with sector-based skills (content validity)

Again this echoes with Monday. Another thread running through was the role of assessment (systems) in undermining the vocational educational initiatives – TVEI assessment becoming ‘traditional’, GNVQ assessment being changed to equate to GCSE/A level, key skills being decoupled from GNVQs, Curriculum 2000’s insistence on equal numbers of units per qualification with a convergence of assessment types.

Also mentioned, although not in the same sense of ‘undermining’ was the persistence of the BTEC model and the way that NVQs were never envisaged to be other than accreditation mechanisms for on the job training.

The BTEC model of occupational credibility and general education was the model that was paramount in the description of vocational education with the caveat ‘what is general education’?

Throughout I was wondering where ICT fits into all this. Never mentioned as a ‘subject’ nor even as a ‘skill’ it was conspicuous by its absence. It is, of course, present in the specialised diplomas and as a functional skill although the former may be bedevilled by the wide diversity of the sector it is serving, I fear.

Tomlinson was upbeat about the Diplomas but focused especially on the need to get a true progression from level 1 through to 3. The custom of level 1 being what you get if you fail level 2 (GCSE grades D-G rather than A*-C) must not be repeated he urged. Also the need to get level 2 threshold systems so that learners who do not reach that threshold at , I would say the magical (and arbitrary, age of 16 could do so by subsequent credit points accumulation – rather than ‘repeating GCSEs’, a model that doesn’t serve well, he argued.

Another hour of useful insights.

Tutorial part 2

16 October 2008

I had a tutorial (by telephone) today with the other part of my supervisory team. An interesting model emerges that develops the earlier one:

What emerged was a clarity of vision: I am looking at

A how year 11 students perceive ICT capability and
B how the assessment system (at 16) perceives it.

My project is to define the difference between A and B and to suggest ways in which the two may be aligned.

What now emerges is the more sophisticated notion of a number of views of what ICT capability is, with some sort of Heideggeran absolute at the intersection. Thus there may be four views of what ICT capability is:

  • the view of the awarding bodies
  • the view of the students
  • the view of the education system (policy)
  • the observed view from research

Is there also then a Heideggeran absolute, autonomous view somewhere in the intersection of all these?

We also talked about the notions of perception and interpretation of the students view and came down to the question: How authentic and relevant does assessment feel to students? This, of course, has limitations as due to precisely because of the hermeneutical considerations of it the students’ view.

Building on the notion of the abstract view that would define assessment of ICT in absolute terms (and my stance which rejects this in favour of the diversity of views listed above), we then talked about the importance of the social cultural view in which students’ interpretations are coloured by their class, peer groups, families etc.

One final concept is the emergence of literature on assessment as learning and how the ‘teaching to the tests’ means that students are spoon fed and do not learn beyond the framework of assessment.

Activity theory and ICT

2 October 2008

Now that the new academic year is under way, and I am in a new job (again) I hope to be able to crack on with this project. If not.. well I need to decide one way or the other.

Anyway, I am in the middle of three days study leave and ma busily writing up what I have so far. In doing so I have also come across some useful things which I will include here.

Firstly a paper from the School of Education conference at Leeds University by Aisha Walker. This makes some interesting links between activity theory and attainment in ICT and provides a model that may be useful when I come to look at the data colleection and analysis. 

The title “What does it mean to be good at ICT” really caught my eye. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?

Heppell on ICT, creativity and the need for systemic change

22 July 2007

In a discussion in the Naace online community (1), Stephen Heppell comments on the ever-changing nature of tools and the permanence of ICT as a force for creativity. His comments resonate with the ‘practice’ side of my model in the previous post and how it can be counter to the theory/system side.

Heppell reflects on young people’s changing usage of tools – MySpace is so yesterday, Facebook today, something else tomorrow. Further, he points out that young people never e-mail now. My step daughter added a different lens to this – they do e-mail but only when communicating with adults or when they are passing on links, files etc.

Some selected quotes from Heppell’s comments are posted here (reproduced from the posting to the Naace mailing list by permission of Stephen Heppell, they should not be reproduced without citing this context)

“Most efforts that I can remember to establish standards in educational ICT have failed. And that is no loss. They hold everything back … The whole world of ICT is so organic and changes so rapidly – one minute MySpace is cool, the next it’s where your grandad goes. Just as adults get their blackberries finally emailing to each other, so children have stopped emailing altogether (“it’s what your dad does..”). And so on.”

And then, on the need for systems and policy to match students’ ambitions:

“Systems are never ambitious for children. Children are, so are their teachers, parents and others are too, but without a shared vision of just how good all this can be, it all founders into a generation of coasting kids delivering on dull targets. If you word search the “Higher Standards, Better Schools For All” white paper for example you will find the word “creativity” is entirely absent, as indeed is the word “ingenuity”.

“[I , and others,] constantly see, and are delighted by, just how ambitious children can be for their learning – especially where it is mixed age, project based, over a decent length of time, shared and not capped in any way. We need to lock that ambition into policy.”

On students a leaders of learning

“Last week I was in a school working with a group of young secondary children who were busy designing a CPD workshop to bring their teachers up to speed with the cool things they might do on Facebook, with why poking isn’t rude any more, with Bebo and myArtSpace and YouTube Comments and so on. They were very sanguine about what their teachers needed to know and were in turn interested as to the ideas their teachers might have about using these new places and spaces in learning. There is a rich irony in imagining that down the corridor their teachers might have been busy parsing a policy document to plan the ICT curriculum for those same children!”

On the need for assessment ot be relevant to this debate:

“I think if Hollywood can measure satisfaction as people leave the rough cut of a movie (and then fund the re-shoot of an ending as with Pride and Prejudice in the US version) then we can measure creative esteem, ingenuity, delight, satisfaction and so on. All or any would be more helpful measures than cohort aggregate exam passes.”

On his related projects:

“Have a look at or indeed at if you want to see where I imagine all this will be going. The learnometer project is already under way.”

(1) Naace is the association for the advancement of ICT in education. Its community has a private mailing list from which these comments are drawn (they should not be reproduced without citing this context)

Futurelab (2006) Social software and learning

20 July 2007

I hadn’t come across this paper until today…

To quote from the executive summary…

“This paper is focused on exploring the inter-relationship between two key trends in the field of educational technologies. In the educational arena, we are increasingly witnessing a change in the view of what education is for, with a growing emphasis on the need to support young people not only to acquire knowledge and information, but to develop the resources and skills necessary to engage with social and technical change, and to continue learning throughout the rest of their lives. In the technological arena, we are witnessing the rapid proliferation of technologies which are less about ‘narrowcasting’ to individuals, than the creation of communities and resources in which individuals come together to learn, collaborate and build knowledge (social software). It is the intersection of these two trends which, we believe, offers significant potential for the development of new approaches to education. ”

These new approaches include those encapsulated in these quotes

“Today, the use of social software in education is still in its infancy and many actions will be required across policy, practice and developer communities before it becomes widespread and effective. From a policy perspective, we need to encourage the evolution of the National Curriculum to one which takes account of new relationships with knowledge, and we need to develop assessment practices which respond to new approaches to learning and new competencies we expect learners to develop.


“A rigid curriculum inhibits the development of the knowledge and skills that may be useful in the 21st century. If we are to promote the benefits of problem solving and collaboration then they need to be validated and legitimated by the assessment system. This is the greatest challenge for education policy.

There is some sort of mapping in my mind between the two trends identified in the first paragraph and the two aspects of my research.

The report has a change in the purpose of education and its interface with the change in technologies. I have the two views of ICT/assessment of ICT, (and maybe also views of the purpose of ICT in education). Putting these four onto a diagram I see that two are to do with system, theories etc and two are to do with learners, users, practice.


QCA annual report on ICT for 2005/06

25 March 2007

QCA  have published their annual report on ICT (and other subjects) as part of their “monitoring the curriculum” exercise. The outputs from this report will (or at least should) influence their review of the secondary curriculum. The report formed part of the basis of this BBC article

Some key points in my reading of the report:

The aims of the national curriculum:

  • There is a clear recognition (by schools) of the potential of ICT to help develop pupils’ enjoyment of, and commitment to, learning.
  • Almost half of year 8 said that they enjoyed ICT compared with only 14 per cent who said that they disliked it.
  • More than a quarter of teacher disagree that the PoS ‘helps give pupils the opportunity to be creative, innovative and enterprising’ supporting previous findings that a significant amount of ICT learning and teaching continues to focus on elementary application of basic skills.
  • QCA believes that there are enormous possibilities in ICT for creativity, enquiry and innovation and the secondary curriculum review has enabled us to bring this to the forefront in the ICT programme of study (PoS). However, there may be additional barriers to using ICT in this way in schools and this needs further investigation.


  • There is work still to be done to assist teachers with assessing ICT. Schools  say they need teacher assessment guidelines/materials for assessing pupils’ progress and continued professional development.
  • QCA has recommended that the on-screen key stage 3 test should be rolled out on a non-statutory basis, but will work to develop the test as a formative assessment tool to support teaching and learning.
  • In the survey of year 8 pupils, nearly a third of pupils felt that the level of ICT work they were being given was too easy.

Questions particular to ICT

  • There remains a lack of consistency and coherence in the ICT qualifications currently on offer, which is unhelpful for users and employers.
  • Although uptake of ICT qualifications continues to rise, enquiries to QCA indicate that for some schools the choice of qualification is made on the basis of points for league tables rather than on the appropriateness of the qualification to the learner.
  • QCA has commissioned an in-depth research probe into the qualifications offered in schools and the progression routes offered post-16. For example, if, at A level, more than 45 per cent of pupils are deciding not to continue with ICT at A2 because of their poor results at AS, it would be useful to find out the prior qualifications of those pupils who decide not to continue or whether there are other factors involved.

DfES “Making Good Progress” report

25 March 2007

This is the report that the previous post refers to… and here is an apposite quote…

A key part of the pilot is to try new approaches to
assessing when pupils are ready for moving ahead.
That judgement will of course come initially from the
teacher, but pilot schools will use external tests to
validate teacher assessments, and provide a clearer
benchmark by which parents and pupils can
measure progress. The pilot schools will identify
pupils in the relevant key stage whom they believe
are at or close to achieving a full level of progress,
who would be likely to pass a “test for progress” in
December 2007 (and at six-monthly intervals
thereafter). That decision would be discussed and
agreed with pupils, and involving parents to the
fullest possible extent.

If this is the policy for pre-14 what is the concomitant for 14-19? How does this square with the threat to the Diplomas (which seem to provide much of this flexibility – albeit with ’employers’ added into the last sentence).

Are school tests on their way out?

25 March 2007

BBC NEWS | Education | Are school tests on their way out?
Something extraordinary seems to be happening to school tests in England.

It could be the most radical change since the tests began in the early 1990s, when they were still called Sats.

Yet this is a “softly, softly” revolution. The tests appear to be on their way out, at least in the form we know them today. But ministers do not want to give the impression they are easing up on accountability.

Meanwhile others keep letting the cat out of the bag. This week it was the turn of the head of the examinations watchdog, Ken Boston.

He suggested that national tests for all pupils could be phased out within three years and replaced by a test taken by just a small sample of pupils, sufficient to give a national picture of education standards.

Also reported in the Guardian and elsewhere … including this with some “firefighting” comment by the DfES

Diplomas may go horribly wrong

20 March 2007

The BBC report Alan Johnson’s message to the Association of School and College Leaders with the headline  “Diplomas may go horribly wrong“. If horribly wrong means that  they won’t bring parity of opportunity and esteem then I guess he’s right. The Telegraph report has it that they are being scrapped post-16. So just as we prepare for another attempt to make the curriculum relevant then the goalposts are moved…

QCA review of the National Curriculum

6 February 2007

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) have published the draft of the new National Curriculum (NC) for secondary schools in England. This contains slimmed down programmes of study for all subjects (although ICT was always fairly slim). It also contains a section on the way in which ICT as a functional skill across the curriculum might be specified – and maps this to the subject ICT. This seems an odd mapping in many ways, as both sides of the reationship could be interchanged.

Also of note is the section on assessment strategies. These include some clear guidance on not just relying  the test at the end. I wonder how this will actually pan out at Key Stage 4 (14-16 year olds). Will schools stop entering all and sundry for a full blown level 2 qualification in ICT? Will the functional skills and some assesement of ICT use against KS4 criteria be enough? Or is this too obscure to be bothered with. What will the reporting requirements be for ICT at KS4? It is one of few subjects left in the NC at this level.

There is abother aspect of assesment that caught my eye on first read (and how much harder is a website than a set of printed documents to read!?!) . This was to do with taking a range of evidence

It does mean that more of what learners ordinarily do and know in the classroom is taken into account when teachers come to make a periodic assessment of learners’ progress at the end of term or half-year. For example, all teachers are continually making small-scale judgements about learners’ progress, achievements or the support they require when, over a number of lessons, they are reading or writing a lengthy text, planning and revising a design brief, or researching a historical figure in books or online. Such knowledge tends to be overlooked when only the final outcome, artefact or test is assessed, but it can make a vital contribution to periodic assessment.

What about what learners “ordinarily do” outside the classroom?

Openquals is now NDAQ

24 January 2007

QCA’s website of accredited qualifications, Openquals, is now known as the National Database of Approved Qualifications (NDAQ). It carries the logos of three of the UK’s qualifications’ authorities – QCA (England), CEA (Northern Ireland) and ACAC (Wales/Cymru). The SQA in Scotland is notable by its absence.

NDAQ is easier to ‘pronounce’, harder to find on Google and is easier on the eye – slightly. The myriad options available at school levels in ICT * are still bewildering. Maybe they will help with ‘personalisation’ but will they help to more validly represent learner’s abilities, achievements, capabilities?

* NDAQ has ICT, Openquals had IT… the nomenclature confusion continues…

BBC: Testing times for school assessment

24 January 2007

The BBC’s Education correspondent Mike Baker gives a very readable account of the changes ahead in the assessment system in his report of 6 January 2007 – Testing times for school assessment.

His main thrust is that changes to the system are coming in. Some of these are reflected in subsequent events that I have written about like the revamping of league tables and possible scrapping of the online ICT test… although the latter of these presumably would have helped personalisation if it was an on-demand test.

The changes, concludes Baker, are due to the growing clamour for that most voguish of educational shibboleths – personalisation.

In the article, he reflects on the Gilbert report from the HM Chief Inspector into personalisation and on how the recommendations of the report might necessarily lead to a greater role for teacher assessment. He ties this in with an IPPR study into the tensions between the dimensions of validity and accountability of assessment. Again teacher assessment is recommended by the authors as a way of enhancing both dimensions. Finally he cites Dylan Wiliam’s research into the ‘shockingly’ (Baker’s word) inaccurate methods of formal assessment.

A very useful summary.

Miles Berry also summarises the Gilbert Report in his blog, again very useful.

Revamped school league tables published

13 January 2007

The DfES have published the 2005/06 school league tables.

Making is debut is the new measure of ‘threshold performance’ – out with 5 A*-C GCSEs or equivalent, in with a level 2 threshold that must include English and mathematics. The threshold is reached when a student has sufficient level 2 passes. This sufficiency is still achieved by 5 GCSEs, and level 2 when the GCSEs are A*-C. In this respect the only change is the mandatory need to pass Enlish and mathematics. It had been feared that making these two subjects a necessary factor in including student ‘success’ in a school’s figures would mean a drastic reduction in average levels of success. The percentage of students reaching threshold fell to 46% – down from 59% under the old measure of 5 A*-C GCSEs. Whilst a significant drop it may not be as bad as some feared.

For my own part, and for ICT, I was interested to see how the change had affected the pioneer of GNVQ IT for all (or at least the majority). Thomas Telford School was lauded a few years ago because of its dramatic increase in 5 A*-C percentage. I had always suspected that this was because of the GNVQ counting for four of them. It is interesting to note therefore that the school registered 95% in the new measure where English and mattics have become compulsory. So maybe 80% (or 4 GCSE-equivalent) qualifications didn’t distort the tables as much as seemed likely. This despite the headlines and horror stories as in this from the BBC:

A few canny pioneers realised that there was a vocational qualification, the GNVQ, which was worth four GCSEs at grade C or above. Add one more GCSE, in any subject, and, hey presto, you meet the target. To be fair, many of the original followers of the GNVQ route felt it offered the best educational option for their pupils. Others, though, realised it was an effective way of avoiding the consequences of falling below government targets. Eventually the government realised that large numbers of schools were achieving the threshold without their pupils achieving GCSE passes in maths and English.

Hence this year’s new requirement that the five GCSE passes must include maths and English. The effects on some schools have been dramatic. One school went from a score of 82% passing the equivalent of five A*-Cs to just 16% when maths and English were included. Many other schools, which had been climbing up the tables in recent years, found themselves slithering back down again. Presumably they will now find new ways of targeting performance in maths and English, no doubt at the cost of something else.

The more significant change though may be use of the phrase ‘ level 2 threshold’. GCSEs are no longer explicitly mentioned in the language of the threshold (even thought the DfES’s own link still says GCSE tables). A GCSE at A*-C is now just a 20% contribution to threshold. Many other qualifications can also contribute, as they could before. But now DIDA, for example, is not described as equivalent to 4 GCSEs but a level 2 DIDA pass is described instead as 80% of threshold.

The list of accredited qualifications, their level, and contribution to threshold is maintained by QCA at the Openquals website (soon to be renamed NDAQ: National Database of Accredited Qualifications). For level 2 ICT/IT, Openquals lists 71 qualifications across the awarding bodies. The market is wide open. The gold standard at 16 has changed.

Also this year saw a change in the value added measure include other factors other than just improvement on performance compared to level 3. Now the profile of the school’s students is taken into account and a figure based on a notional national baseline of 1000 is reported in the Contextual Value Added measure (CVA). Schools such as Greenwood Dale in Nottingham are lauded, quite rightly, for reasons of value-added and not just level 2 performance. This contextual value added doesn’t tell the whole story though, and Leicestershire’s relatively poor performance might have something to do structure in the county. The 14-19 colleges certainly seem poor relations to Nottinghamshire’s comprehensives in respect of CVA even though,  in my opinion, 14-19 is a much more coherent age range. Maybe it is not measuring like with like when there is a change at 14? A classic case of measuring soemthing other than what is puported to be measured?

Another policy change?

5 January 2007

One chapter of my thesis will almost certainly deal with the policy on assessment of ICT in England… (it would make a boring Mastermind subject though). Today the BBC report yet another possible change. Although it is to do with the possible scrapping of proposed introduction of compulsory on-screen testing at KS3, some of the sentiments expressed might be equally applicable to other assessment regimes. One ICT subject leader Roger Distill is quoted by the BBC:

“One does not need to be a computer geek to realise that the technologies in the real world will have moved on amazingly in that time, while education, as usual, gets left behind as we continue to train our students in the old and limited techniques required to succeed in the test.”

The question here is what is “the real world” of the 14- or 16-year old?