Reaching out: Institute of Education lecture

Claire Whitehouse reflects on her recent lecture given to MA students at the UCL Institute of Education

Walking through Russell Square last week I was worrying that my visual aids and materials for group work would not be up to the task of explaining marking, awarding and standard setting in an English awarding organisation to a group of MA students at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE). My concerns, while valuable motivators in the preparation stage, were misplaced: the group of 14 students proved to be informed, engaged and willing to grapple with some thorny issues.

Mary Richardson, an AQA alumna and the programme leader for the Educational Testing MA module at the IOE, had invited me to contribute this session to the module. My brief was to lecture for two and a half hours on marking, awarding and standard setting from the perspective of an awarding organisation officer who has presented statistical evidence to awarding committees.

Diverse audience

This was an international group of students who represent most of the sectors of education. The audience comprised teachers from primary and secondary schools - and tertiary education - whose subjects include English, maths, drama and geography. There was a strong contingent from Singapore, a location where the government is looking to advance education policy, despite its ‘high-performing jurisdiction’ label.

After a swift cup of tea in the programme leader’s office, it was time to set up in the lecture room. I needed a super-fast tutorial in educational technology: white boards; a projector system that might have successfully kept track of Beagle 2 on Mars; a document projector that was impressive in its efficiency of design; and a flip-chart with one sheet of paper.

News briefing

Following the class’s familiar pattern, we started with a discussion on ‘what’s in the education news today’. Fortuitously or not, the BBC website had the following headline: ‘GCSEs: Pass mark raised in exams shake-up’. The article stated that students will have to achieve a grade 5 to achieve a ‘good pass’ in their exams, in reference to the new 1 to 9 grade system that will start in summer 2017. This conceptualisation of a ‘pass mark’, as used in the title of the article, is almost meaningless: we know that we will be working with Ofqual’s stated equivalence of ‘broadly the same proportion of students will get 4 and above as currently get C and above’. However, this example of nudge theory - pushing schools and colleges to target grade 5 in order to promote comparability with the average PISA performance of high-performing countries - provoked discussion and concern about the transfer of accountability measure from one grade to another, especially in the zero-sum game that is the comparable outcomes approach.

Onwards and upwards

During the course of the session we looked at the examination cycle, marking and mark schemes and awarding. There was a four-minute respite while AQA’s Making the Grades. A Guide to Awarding video played. And then we were into prior attainment measures, prediction matrices and the limitations of the comparable outcomes approach. By the end of this I felt suitably grilled, but I have to say that being questioned by folk who work in a different part of the same education system is ideal for sharpening my own insight into the whys and wherefores of what we do.

Claire Whitehouse


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