ATQ? Very Unwise!

There will always be some poor questions and some poor marking of GCSEs and A levels. That is unavoidable if unfortunate for the students involved. However, some problems are avoidable and it is not excusable when the same issues crop up year after year. Bear with me while I explain with a specific example.

Do you know anything about essay writing? Do you teach students how to deconstruct questions? If so what do you make of this A2 politics question?

“To what extent have socialists disagreed over the means of achieving socialism?”

What material might be central to the answer?

1. Probably at least some detail on the differing views of socialists on how they would go about achieving socialism.
2. Some active comparison of those differing ‘means’ might be good.
3. That trigger phrase ‘to what extent’ surely can’t be ignored? This essay is inviting some discussion of degree of disagreement.

You’d think that anyway but that is not the focus of the board mark scheme ‘threshold guidance’.

To get into level 3 (approx. A* grade) requires, clear and accurate understanding of WHY some socialists support a revolutionary road or support an evolutionary road, to achieve socialism. To get level 2 (approx. E) requires limited understanding of the same.

Nothing else is specifically mentioned as important. (As well as that brief summarised guide there is a full description of a possible answer provided by the board which, in case you’re curious is at the bottom of this post.)

So no focus on EXTENT is even mentioned as necessary in a question that asks ‘to what extent’. In fact you need to focus on WHY socialists differ. Nothing much else matters. Luckily the board set this question previously and we have a previously issued mark scheme. Naturally we photocopy all previous board mark schemes and advise our students to learn them. After all that is what a good teacher does – isn’t it?

Actually I’m sick to death of this nonsense. Teachers forced to pore over board mark schemes and drill students to respond like automatons repeating back to the Principal Examiner the ‘true answer’. We teachers looked on bemused as the ‘scandal’ broke of exam board meetings where examiners, horror of horrors, told us what the students should write. After it all blew over we shrugged, we’d just have to find other ways to second guess the examiner’s whims.

Often all the questions on a paper are fine but every year in A level politics students get stung because they sincerely answer the question set rather than putting down what the examiner suggests in the mark scheme. This summer some of my students aced that essay above, one got full uniform marks. It seems I do know how to get my students to jump through the hoops… However, some of my brightest students couldn’t help themselves and just had to address the question set. True, they did discuss the WHY aspect but in one or two paragraphs, choosing to major on an intelligent analysis of EXTENT. They were rewarded with D grades for top notch essays (I’ve now seen photocopies of their scripts). We had the farcical situation where a girl with 298/300 on the other three papers got a C grade on that paper and lost out on her A*.

You might wonder why the ordinary examiners don’t use their own judgement to reward good answers or why Principal Examiners aren’t challenged when mark schemes are dodgy. Well there are a range of factors that stop that happening in A level politics. Together I think they create a ‘perfect storm’.

• For A2 politics our examiners have sometimes never taught the course. They may have an apparently relevant qualification but have barely studied political ideologies. A colleague with a history degree was offered marking in this area. When I complained to the board they told me it was the responsibility of the prospective marker to decide if they had adequate experience.
• Markers also have to stick to the mark scheme set anyway even if they have sufficient knowledge. Examiners no longer all meet face to face and without the easy ability to discuss other possible answers they have to play it safe or they won’t pass as markers for that session.
• Principal examiners are often not really challenged over their mark schemes by their team leaders. It used to be the case that the Principal Examiner had to explain his or her mark scheme to a room of assistant examiners, ordinary teachers, free to say what they felt. Whimsical or unreasonable mark schemes got challenged and they were higher quality because of it.
• Some essay mark schemes require up to four separate judgements, with four different marks awarded. Therefore markers cannot think about the overall quality of an answer and one flaw is often penalised four times leading to steep drops in marks for essays that don’t fulfil all mark scheme criteria.

I know that Ofqual are trying to ensure that for new A levels the mark schemes are higher quality and I am thrilled that for new A levels only one mark will be required per essay. However the politics A level won’t be reformed until 2017 and anyway my current problems with A level politics are not solved by these measures. Boards need to go back to the previous system of face to face meetings. With the loss of those meetings I have seen Principal Examiners pushed to introduce ever more specific mark schemes to get ‘reliable’ marking. They cannot see examiners face to face and chew over the subtleties so resort to ‘threshold guidance’ as outlined above. Despite this there is no effective control over mark scheme quality. In practice the whole systems depends on the judgement of one person. Marking will never be perfect but it could be better.

I write more about the problems created by the loss of face to face standardisation here:


The board’s detailed description of ‘possible’ essay content:
Major divisions have long existed within socialism over the means through which it can, and should, be achieved. In simple terms, this relates to rival revolutionary and reformist ‘roads to socialism’.

The revolutionary road to socialism envisages an abrupt and complete break with established, usually brought about through a mass uprising and the exercise of political violence. Socialists opted for revolution on a variety of grounds, including the following:

•Before political democracy had arrived, revolution was the only practicable way of bringing about political change.
•Because it was believed that the state responds only to the interests of the economically dominant class, a peaceful and constitutional transition to socialism through reform is impossible.
•Revolution allowed all vestiges of the capitalist system, and its supporters, to be removed.

The alternative ‘democratic’ road to socialism has been supported by socialists for a variety of reasons. These include the following:

•The arrival of political democracy led to the certain victory of social democracy, because the working class constituted the majority in society.
•The working class would vote for socialist parties because socialism is in their interests.

  • Once elected, socialist parties would bring about a gradual, peaceful and perhaps inevitable transition from capitalism to socialism.

 However, socialist disagreements about the means of achieving socialism have largely been abandoned. Revolution has had declining significance within socialism since the late nineteenth century, particularly in more developed capitalist societies. After 1945, the revolutionary road was widely considered to be unviable, which led Marxist parties towards Eurocommunism. The collapse of communism in the revolutions of 1989-91 effectively led to the demise of revolutionary communism, meaning that socialists have largely ceased to disagree about the issue of means.


Schools shouldn’t be relying on parents to teach reading.

Most schools rely on parents to teach children to read.
No! I can already anticipate the angry response as teachers explain that they run weekly or bi-weekly group reading sessions and daily discrete phonics sessions…
It will make me horribly unpopular to say it but still I stand by my original claim.

I have spent too many hours on the TES early years and primary forums where teachers discuss their practice to be entirely ignorant. I’ve also read the interminable Mumsnet discussions in which mums compare notes on how much their children read at school. Mums with kids at all sorts of schools join in. There are voices from urban and rural schools. Some of their kids go to schools with mainly middle class intake others underprivileged. Ofsted outstanding and special measures are both frequently discussed. The standard system for reading instruction reflects my own knowledge of schools local to me. In most schools (there are exceptions) all sustained reading practice is done at home.

The middle of the road average model is a Reception or Yr1 child doing two group reading sessions a week and then reading alone with the teacher maybe once a month. In group reading sessions the children take turns to read a few sentences and follow on as others in the group read. Lots of the time is taken discussing the meaning of the text (which is great) but it means a child may only read a handful of sentences a week in this way.

What about the discrete phonics sessions? I am all for teaching reading through synthetic phonics but the vast majority of schools use ‘mixed methods’ which marginalises the use of phonic decoding when reading. This means that phonics sessions are tacked on top of contradictory ‘mixed methods’ instruction that is used when actually reading books. Phonics decoding requires scanning words left to right without guessing before you reach the end of the word. However, when given reading books the child is taught to let their eyes dart about looking for cues from context, picture, word shape or initial letter. This means they don’t tend get sustained practice applying their phonic knowledge to sound out words especially as the most popular reading books are written to encourage guessing rather than being written to allow practice of incrementally more difficult phonics knowledge. Add to this that if schools follow the good practice videos for phonics instruction issued by Ofsted, most phonics sessions will involve delightful games that may be engaging but contain little sustained practice.

I have asked myself what a child can most afford to miss, a handful of sentences and words a week at school or the sustained practice a majority get at home? The answer is clear but uncomfortable. In fact it is line with what the teachers are telling us parents themselves. At my son’s yrR curriculum meeting the teacher showed us a chart of the progress of last year’s class in reading. This was plotted against how frequently their parents had listened to them reading at home in the evening. As she pointed out to us all the conclusion is inescapable. If you want to get your child reading you’ve got to do the reading books at home.

The system is wrong and makes me very cross. I am told in every school newsletter about the delightful, engaging activities my kid is getting up to at school. There is almost a profligacy in the use of time. A numeracy session in which each child gets to throw a dice twice so manages only two calculations in half an hour. An hour of forest school a week. Phonics through parachute games. There is a cost to this indulgence but it is played out behind closed doors. In the family home the experience is a tad less joyful as the parent returns, often dog tired, from a day at work or is wrung out from a day with a fractious toddler. They prepare the meal for the children and then with determination that can only be summoned because they know their child’s future depends on it (they’ve been shown the chart) they coax, bribe and sometimes (to their own shame) threaten the tired child to read. Sure, often it is fun, sometimes delightful but often it is a struggle and that is normal. You are a lucky parent if necessary daily routines always match the child’s inclination.

Before you presume this is a gripe by a lazy mum, I taught my son to read before he even went to school and I would read with him whatever happened at school. I am actually more cross because there is a greater cost to relying on parents to teach reading. There will always be parents that don’t read with their child. It is wrong that schools farm out their core purpose to parents and then wring their hands when children don’t learn to read, blaming their home environment or the child themselves. Learning to read needs lots and lots of practice as my son’s yrR teacher knew full well. It is the job of schools to teach reading. If there is not enough time then teaching approaches and curriculum priorities have to change to make more time. I absolutely don’t blame individual teachers, they are trained in and required to follow standard practices. It is those practices I question. My children aren’t going to suffer. In fact they benefit because of the advantage I can give them and that is wrong – plain wrong. Children should be able to learn to read at school. It is a minimum entitlement and a top priority.