It’s that time of year again. A couple of months to go to GCSE exams, the last round of data collection is in, and Senior Leaders are in full panic mode. 4Matrix has well and truly pulverised the figures and a list of students and teachers has popped out of the end. SIMs has generated data cards on every Year 11 student, cross-referenced against pupil premium, target grades and subgroup and the War room wall display is dutifully constructed, so that everyone, can see the current state of play. The more gung-ho schools and the most desperate schools will run at least one other data trawl and one more set of mock exams to generate maximum panic as they reveal you are miles away from your targets. As the weeks roll by, the pressure ratchets up and further strategies, each one more extreme, more perverse, more hyperventilating than the last, are rolled onto the battlefield, the modern educational equivalent of the Trebuchet or the Battering Ram.
That’s what it is in London and the North East. I believe there was a Pixl toehold developing Bristol way a few years ago, but that might have changed now. It’s been some time since I was involved in the exam frenzy that is Pixl, but the techniques they pioneered, the general approach they represented is widespread now, regardless of whether your school is a member of the organisation or not. And it really is time for a rethink.
I first got involved with Pixl as a Deputy Head of a school in challenging circumstances with several years of GCSE results that were unremittingly crap, over ten years ago now. I know that data gurus will wince at the imprecision of the descriptor “Crap”, but as a “words not numbers” kind of guy, I feel it’s more accurate than a spreadsheet in giving you a full picture of the situation. Crap from top to bottom. I had just joined and like many schools they had had some kind of woolly mentoring scheme for Year 11 that had failed dismally despite an enormous amount of hard work from many people at the school. Except the Year 11s, obviously. No-one knew why it had failed so comprehensively, so Pixl’s arrival on the scene, (or London Challenge as it was known then), came just at the right time because it was providing much needed answers
We met with the Pixl head honcho and signed up on the back of his assurance that paying £3K a year was chicken feed because it guaranteed that your headline 5 A*-C figures would go up by at least 10%. It was a no-brainer. We had been on the verge of following some scheme called “Assertive Mentoring”, but went for London Challenge instead because there were several other local schools that had done so successfully, and because there was a network of support, an infrastructure to help each school through.
It was a stunning success.
Our results went up by 20%. Simply by doing our job properly, in a coordinated way, joining the dots and going the extra mile. The next couple of years confirmed it. This was an approach that worked. And it turned me into a much better Senior Leader and a much better classroom teacher. It showed me what was possible. It reminded me who were the adults in the room. It taught me to think out of the box and not to just accept how things had been done in the past. To analyse a problem and arrive at solutions, regardless of structural or institutional barriers.
Every London Challenge meeting (or PIXL meeting after the Government disbanded London Challenge) was productive. There were always new ideas, and intensely practical suggestions about strategies and approaches. Back at school, staff were receptive and eager to try these new ways of doing things because they were passionate about serving their community and their students, who frankly, had been given a raw deal by society. All was well.
As the government began to move the goal posts, PIXL responded. Each change designed to make some of the strategies unfeasible was met with ingenious new ways of delivering results. And then there would be another change and so on. Until the King was backed into a corner of the board, one move closer to checkmate. Gaming the system became the new Government catchphrase. We all thought we were just doing our jobs properly, trying to deliver for our students, but apparently not.
But even from the beginning, there were doubts. Remember the ALAN tests? Numeracy and Literacy tests that were worth half a GCCSE each, they were a useful qualification for a small cohort of Year 11 and they had the added bonus of getting them over the line of the magic five. I remember being at one meeting and some new convert to Pixl stood up and proudly told everyone how the entire year11 cohort had been got through both ALAN tests, adding x percent to their results. He received rapturous applause. What a guy!
But, what about the kids? Did they all need it? Of course not. But they were dragged through it, sacrificial victims to the headline figures. Aren’t they under enough pressure as it is? And what about the staff who had to haul them through? I doubt they had much say in the matter.
And then there was the consultant who told us that it was imperative that our GCSE English key marginals had to achieve at least two grades above their target grade for the written coursework to maximise their chances of getting a C or above. As someone who had done coursework for the previous twenty years, working for the exam board as a senior moderator, I knew that there was only one way to achieve that, and it wasn’t by inspiring the students. It was to cheat.
At the same time the London meetings took on the air of an evangelical religious meeting. Fervour was in the air. People speaking in tongues. Tambourines banged. Individuals singled out by the saintly head of the organisation to stand and bask in the frenzied approbation of the congregation. Dissent was out of the question. It was simply not possible to question anything suggested from the front of the auditorium.
Very early on, it had been suggested that D grade (back in the day, younger readers, a C was the magic bench mark and anything below that was worthless in terms of league tables) was just not good enough and that to accept that was to fail one’s students. The suggestion that, for some students, a D grade represented a real achievement, massive progress after much hard work, was treated with disdain. You were either laughed at for your naivety, or castigated for your lack of “moral purpose”.
Ah yes, moral purpose. Smug, sanctimonious PIXL apparatchiks used this vile phrase to make it clear that anyone in the Pixl universe who did not sign up to every last madcap scheme the organisation sponsored, was in some way, a lesser human being. You were letting down your students. You were being selfish. On judgement day, there would be no way you would pass through into the promised land, because you had comprehensively demonstrated that you were not worthy.
And so, towards the end of my time under the PIXL jackboot, we had moved on from Twilight training sessions, after 6pm, walking talking mocks, constantly using the PIXL library of mock exams to drill our year 11s endlessly after school. The latest thing was to do a last -minute revision session at about 7am the morning of the real exam. The idea was that you could somehow subliminally plant key information in the minds of the students, sitting in their proper exam seats in the proper exam hall, in the last few hours before the exam was due to start. It was a brave Head of Department or Senior Leader who stuck their head above the parapet to venture the opinion that this was just voodoo exam prep, a busy activity to be done for the sake of doing something, anything, without any evidence that it worked. And heaven protect the teacher who suggested that staff had already done more than enough to support their Year 11 students and that to ask more was to risk burn out.
It got to the point where these additional activities were expected, not just by Senior Leaders, but by parents and students. Complaints were made by parents about a Department that were not willing to lay on a pre -exam session at 7 am, or an Easter revision session, or a twilight slot. You were accused directly of letting down little Johnny. A culture developed amongst students that said that attendance at extra sessions should be enough to guarantee success, even for those students who messed around with their friends when they did attend and who didn’t show up for mainstream lessons, or did show up and were involved in constant low -level disruption.
And what, ultimately, was the result of all of this “support”?
A generation of kids who developed the attitude that it did not matter what they did, in terms of class work or homework, there would always be some mug teacher who would give yet more time to them, even when they had thrown it back in their face during normal lessons. Because the kids, being very wise, had clocked that the whole thing mattered much more to their teachers than it did to them. The ultimate in spoon feeding. This, of course, was going on at the same time as Senior Leaders were launching yet another initiative to encourage independent learning, when the whole structure of Year 11 GCSE preparation rested upon an enormous, tottering edifice of dependency.
If I were the Secretary of State for Education, I would bring the whole tottering edifice crashing down. I would ban after school lessons, holiday revision schemes, the whole works. Teachers would deliver high quality lessons. Students who did not get the grades they needed would resit the year. This would incentivise students to take responsibility for their own learning. Over time there would be a revolution of attitude and students would inevitably, become independent learners, doing what they needed to do to get the grades they needed to enter the next chapter of their lives. And it would only work with an accompanying revolution in school accountability measures, which have so blighted and distorted the educational process.
Or, as has been recently suggested, get rid of GCSEs altogether, and get back to Teaching and Learning.
I hope that Year 11 teachers everywhere, and Senior Leaders and even senior members of PIXL don’t take too much offence at this. I know it’s not as simple as bad guys and good guys, bullies and victims. I know that the overwhelming majority of people involved with PIXL are well-meaning, good people who want the best for the students. And if some of them are building careers, as are some of the Year 11 teachers who are burning themselves out delivering all of this stuff, as well as trying to give their students a leg up, well there are worst things to be guilty of than that. I just wish we questioned it more and campaigned for alternative approaches. Because if there is one thing I’m sure of it’s this. The annual, exhausting scramble for GCSE results that are good enough to placate OFSTED and Performance Managers is inevitably self-defeating. And it’s not education. That is something much bigger, finer, more valuable, more important, more precious. Something, in short, worth fighting for.